A little over a week ago I attended my first “meetup” through meetup.com. Meetups are a great way to connect with other people who enjoy learning or doing something new. My love of all things cultural leads me to a meetup at the China Institute on the Upper East Side in Manhattan.
Although the China Institute has been around since 1926, I had never known of its existence despite living in New York for over twenty years. This discovery thanks to Meetup, reminded me that there is always a new place to explore in New York City. As I entered the red doors of the brownstone mansion, I was excited to learn about the current exhibit, “Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution.” After meeting the meetup coordinator and the other members, the group met the docent who leads our tour. The docent was a retired school teacher and principal that had visited China. First, we received an overview of the China Institute Gallery’s art education program which consisted of a brief video on the Cultural Revolution, a tour of the current exhibit and an ink led calligraphy workshop.
The Cultural Revolution
We learned about the Cultural Revolution by watching a short video narrated by Ji-Li Jang who was twelve years old in 1968 and lived through the social and political upheaval that overtook China until 1979. The Cultural Revolution, also known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was launched to rid the country of anti-communist influenced by Chairman Mao. Many citizens experienced horrific times, especially anyone that was a landlord, rich, peasants counterrevolutionaries, criminals or rightist which were also known as the “five black categories.” Unfortunately, if someone fell in the “five black categories,” they were investigated and often publicly humiliated, harassed, tortured or imprisoned. During these investigations, Mao’s loyalist like the Neighborhood Dictatorship Group and Red Guards would raid and destroy people’s homes. Loyalist believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary to prevent revisionism and capitalism from taking over China. It wasn’t until 1976 when Mao died that the people of China learned that the Cultural Revolution was part of a power struggle at the highest level of the Communist party.
The video included many pictures from Ji Li’s family that suffered tremendously during the Cultural Revolution. I was spell-bound by Ji-Li’s story and her perseverance. As the video ended, I wanted to know more about Ji-Li who now is 58 and lives in the San Francisco area. The video was an abbreviated version of her book titled the Red Scarf Girl, so I purchased it on Amazon since it was not available in the China Institute’s small gift shop. The Red Scarf Girl is a book for children, but I still found the content interesting and was happy to learn about the most comfortable direction that occurred after the Cultural Revolution for Ji-Li and her family.
Mao’s Golden Mangoes
Two years into the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao received an ambassador gift of mangos from the Pakistani foreign minister. He commemorated the gift by presenting 40 mangos to a group of capital peasant workers and them in turn sent one mango to each of Beijing’s most famous factories. Mangos became a political symbol of Chairman Mao’s love for the people. Mao’s golden mangos were propaganda, but the people were enthusiastic and looked at the mango as a holy relic. Wax mango displays became very popular considering the real mangos would rot. Images of mangos began appearing on posters, badges, paintings, and publications. Also, they were on everyday objects like plates, mirrors, and quilt covers. The exhibit displayed quilts, mango displays, pictures, posters and many different objects decorated with mangos. Also on display was the Precious Red Book, a pocket-sized edition of Selected Quotations from the Writings of Chairman Mao. Quoting the book was common in school, workplaces, and political meetings. Enthusiastic revolutionaries and Red Guards carried it everywhere.
Ink Led Calligraphy Workshop
Once our meetup group finished touring the exhibit, we participated in a workshop. Learning China’s system of writing is helpful in understanding and appreciating Chinese art, history, and culture. We practiced basic brush strokes when learning how to write spring and good fortune/luck in Chinese. The numbered brush stroke guides and instructions on how to hold the brushes upright nestled between fingers made everyone in the group a pro in ink led calligraphy. Everyone made their symbols on red diamond-shaped paper. The color red symbolizes happiness and joy. Upon returning home, I hung my Chinese symbols that said spring and fortune in my office. Believe it or not, a week and a half later the temperatures in New York City reached fifty degrees. Warmer weather makes me feel like I am the recipient
Visiting the China Institute and learning about the Cultural Revolution was fascinating. The sad takeaway lesson is that when a sound legal system is not in place, a small group of people or even one person can take control of an entire nation. Unfortunately, history seems to repeat itself, and you only have to watch the nightly news to see that it is as true today as it was during the Cultural Revolution in China.
Mao’s Golden Mangoes and the Cultural Revolution exhibit runs until April 26th. It is the last exhibition at the China Institute’s current location. The 88-year-old institution will move to a building in New York’s financial district at the corner of Washington and Rector streets.