Tiananmen Square

Thirty years ago today, the Chinese Communist Party massacred thousands of student protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The most iconic photograph of the event was taken by American photographer Jeff Widener the next day.

The soldiers driving the tanks were not so evil that they were prepared to run over the protestor, but the man was spirited away and has never been seen since.

For many other photographs of that fateful day follow this link from Business Insider. It deserves to be remembered, especially given how China, and its Western flunkies, have tried assiduously to throw the whole thing down the memory hole.

When they do acknowledge its existence, they will say, well, we were right to crack down. China has a history of revolutions starting from seemingly innocuous events (e.g. the Railway Rights Protection Movement), and the students of 1989 were allegedly trying to do the same thing. So by asserting its authority, the CCP maintained the regime, which could then institute reforms on its own terms and its own schedule, setting up China to be the economic juggernaut it is today. Compare this to the rest of the formerly Communist world, particularly Russia, which was looted by oligarchs (in cahoots with the Harvard Boys), and even now is in demographic free fall, with much less global influence than it once had.

There is something to be said for this critique.

But real countries don’t massacre their own citizens.

1989

First Things looks back on the year that Communism died, thirty years ago now:

It was like a graduation party. So says the historian Philipp Ther, who joined the protests in Prague’s Wenceslas Square during those momentous days of November 1989. “We had passed the test,” Ther writes. “The old authorities had no more to say; the world was our oyster. It seemed as if anything was possible.” In their memories of communism’s collapse, the revolutionaries of 1989 often describe the joy and relief, the instant brotherhood, the feeling of riding the wave of history.

Naturally, it didn’t last. In Berlin, where Ther travelled soon after, elation was followed by resentment, with West Germans muttering about the Easterners cramming the roads and emptying the supermarket shelves. Across Europe, meanwhile, the messiness of post-communist politics “engendered disenchantment and cynicism.”

Disillusionment is the usual sequel to political victory, but 1989 especially seems like a revolution with a hole in it. The evil of communism is beyond words—the mass graves it filled, the lies it spread through the world—and we ought to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its defeat. It is more difficult to say what actually did the defeating.

Read the whole thing.

Cultural Revolution

Presumably this is the “30% wrong” part of Mao’s legacy. From the National Post:

Cultural Revolution was a big mistake, official Chinese media reaffirm, as 50th anniversary passes

BEIJING — China’s official media reaffirmed on Tuesday the Communist Party’s longstanding judgment that the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophic mistake after staying silent on Monday’s 50th anniversary of the start of the decade-long upheaval.

The official party mouthpiece People’s Daily published an opinion piece on its website precisely at midnight on Tuesday unequivocally praising the 1981 party resolution that condemned the bloody political movement launched by Mao Zedong to enforce a radical egalitarianism.

“Our party has long taken a solemn attitude toward bravely admitting, correctly analyzing and firmly correcting the mistakes of our leadership figures,” the piece read.

The party has long suppressed open discussion of the tumultuous period, fearing that could undermine its legitimacy to rule and lead to direct criticism of Mao, the founder of the communist state who remains a revered figure.

So political observers have been closely observing the party leadership’s attitude toward the milestone as a bellwether of the country’s ideological direction. No official commemorations have been held, although some Mao loyalists have staged private events.

You Say You Want A Revolution…

In preparation for our discussion of Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro’s Son of the Revolution in History 306 on Tuesday, I’m pleased to discover that Stefan Landsberger’s collection of Chinese propaganda posters is still up, on a new site. Here is one from the heyday of the Mao cult:

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“The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Reproduced by permission of Marien van der Heijden of Chineseposters.net.

Another artifact from the Cultural Revolution, one that Mr. Liang himself amassed a collection of: the Chairman Mao badge. A representative sample of these may be seen at Maozhang.net. When I visited China in 2005 one could buy them here and there, although my hunch is that most of them didn’t actually date from the Cultural Revolution. Still, they made good souvenirs, and I acquired a number as gifts for people in North America. Here are a couple I kept for myself:

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And if you’re going to be buying Mao stuff, how can you not pick up a Little Red Book?

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Now, as everyone knows, China is not really Communist anymore, even though the CCP jealously retains its grip on power. Deng Xiaoping (d. 1997) was the figure largely responsible for steering the Chinese economy away from its Maoist shackles and replicating some of the success of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Mao, however, remains a revered figure; his disastrous policies (like the Cultural Revolution and especially the Great Leap Forward) are explained away with the party-line fact that “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong.” Thus, the series of currency notes released in 1999 featured a portrait of Mao on all denominations! Here is one left over from my trip:

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(One woman suggested that this was a sop to old people who felt betrayed by China’s current direction. Nineteen ninety-nine also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the declaration of the People’s Republic of China.)

Other appearances of the Great Helmsman include:

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Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate, where he proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

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A line of people waiting to be admitted to Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

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Poster of Mao (accompanied by posters of Stalin, Lenin, and Marx) in a bookstore window, Beijing.

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Statue of Mao in Kashgar, Xinjaing Province.

Wanda Ast, Artist

By special arrangement with the author, below is the full text, and some of the illustrations, of Theresa Ast’s talk today in Hill Freeman Library. Be sure to stop by the library in the next month to view more of this remarkable woman’s oeuvre.

Wanda Maria Kowalska Ast was my paternal grandmother, my BABCIA (Polish for grandmother). I will be sharing some of her artwork with you, but I also want to tell you a little bit about her life. Babcia was born in Germany in 1909 and shortly thereafter her family moved to Poland where she spent the next four decades of her life, where she married and had four children.

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The Ast Family, Wanda, her husband Edmund who was a sculptor, and their four children – Jacek, Marek, Justin, and Krystyna – survived the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland. They were Catholic, so they were not specifically targeted by the Nazis as were the Jews, Gypsies, and people on the political Left, but this is not to say that the Nazis treated anybody in Poland with respect or benevolence. Everyone was afraid of the Nazis, as they were violent, cruel, and perhaps worst of all, unpredictable.

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Whenever Nazi detachments or tanks came rolling through their small, usually quiet, town, Babcia and her children would grab the pillows and quilts off their beds and hide in a nearby forest. The quilts and pillows kept the children comfortable and just in case they were still hiding after dark they could sleep in the forest. Edmund was away serving in the Polish Air Force as an aerial photographer, but he and his fellow airmen were quickly captured and he spent the duration of the war in a German POW camp. Wanda and her children lived with her husband’s parents after Edmund was captured.

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When the first “liberating” Soviet troops marched into Poland, in the winter of 1944, the Polish people felt hopeful. They did not realize at first that the Soviet Communists would soon be an occupying army rather than a liberating army. The family did not fare well at all under the post war Soviet occupation, not because they had been Nazi sympathizers, but because they were capitalists! My great-grandfather, Wanda’s father-in-law owned a substantial business employing twenty workers and lived quite comfortably prior to the war. So to the occupying communist authorities, the Ast family was suspected of being Western-sympathizing capitalists.

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When my grandfather Edmund was liberated from the POW camp in 1945, he did not return to his hometown. He had been warned by family and friends not to come home while the Soviets soldiers still occupied the it. He made it to the American Occupation zone in Germany on foot. A year later Wanda joined him there and they worked various jobs for the American Military Government for five years, started saving money, and planned for their future and the future of their children. Meanwhile the children, who ranged in age from six to twelve remained in Poland in the care of their grandparents.

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Babcia emigrated with her husband and children, just as soon as they had saved enough money and could book passage from West Germany to America. When they left Germany, they each had one suitcase; they had to leave everything they owned and everybody they loved behind. A Catholic sponsor family was waiting for them in Maryland; they would help them adjust to their new life in America. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1951 and spent a few weeks with their sponsoring family. Fortunately, the local community had connections in Georgia and they secured Edmund a job in Marietta, Georgia.

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After they moved south, Edmund, who earned his living as a sculptor in Poland began working for a local marble and granite company that polished headstones and grave markers. They bought a house on “Marble Mill Road” in Marietta. Their three younger children started attending school and the two boys, Marek and Justyn, were in the same class together and really liked their teacher. Babcia told her sons to ask their teacher if she would be willing to tutor adults in English. Their teacher, Betty Jo Baker agreed to give Wanda and Edmund English lessons, and started visiting the family home. The oldest son, Jacek, at 17 was not in school, but worked alongside his father to help support the family. He married the school teacher in 1953 and I am the oldest of their four children.

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I did not have a typical relationship with my Polish grandparents. My father joined the Air Force and we often lived far away from Georgia. However, I did return to Georgia to attend college and got to know my grandparents quite a bit better. They were intense people: very hardworking, opinionated, creative, volatile, artistic, self-assured, demanding, loving, and challenging. Spending time with them was always a memorable, and occasionally, even a mildly disturbing experience. Wanda was extremely verbally expressive, intensely curious, a perennial student in every way possible, quite emotional, with a decided flair for the artistic and the dramatic.

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During the years when we did not live in Georgia, Babcia had kept house, raised her other three children, worked as a dietician in a local hospital, refused to learn to drive a car (I never found out why), remained a devout and practicing Catholic walking about fifteen blocks to Mass several times a week, and kept working on improving her spoken and written English (she already spoke Polish, French, and German).

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Before long she began writing stories and poetry, lots and lots of poetry, often winning awards from the Georgia Writers Association. Then, as her younger children grew up and moved out of the family home she shifted her interests to drawing and painting; she began by drawing in chalk (primarily Biblical scenes – I remember a chalk drawing of the young shepherd boy David facing the Philistine giant Goliath- unfortunately I do not have any of her chalk drawings as they do not hold up well over time. After chalks, Babcia moved on to working with watercolors in the early 1970s which is just about when I returned home to attend Kennesaw State College, as it was known as the time.

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I inherited quite a few of Babcia’s oil paintings and batiks, but I do not have any of her original watercolors. What I do have are photographs of a few of her watercolors. From 1975 on she was busy painting, taking an occasional art class, and preparing her watercolors for various exhibits and art shows. She had art shows at colleges, including Georgia State and Kennesaw State, in local churches and parishes, at art fairs on the Marietta and Roswell city squares, and at some of the larger banks.   Banks, closed on Sundays of course, often offer their lobbies and common areas as spaces for painting or sculptural exhibitions. At many of these art exhibits, someone was usually taking pictures, so a record has been preserved even though the originals are gone.

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Babcia did a few representational watercolors (in other words she did paint lifelike scenes from nature), but many of her watercolors were abstract. All of her life she experimented with different formulations and types of watercolors, as well as a variety of painting surfaces, including canvas, paper, and fabric. Her experimentation with different materials was part of her lifelong fascination with, and attempt to achieve, a variety of textural effects. In this, she was not unlike any number of impressionist painters for whom texture was as important as color palette or composition.

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During the years when I was raising my children, Babcia moved on to oil paintings. She took several classes at Georgia State University, both Art History courses and Studio Painting courses. She spent a short time experimenting with abstract paintings, where there is no clearly identifiable object or scene. However, all of the individual portraits on display here were based on models who came and sat for the classes, they are drawn in a realistic style, although Babcia always tended to utilize intense and heightened color combinations in her work.

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As far as I know she did not paint her family members or friends, or if she did, those paintings were either sold or given away before I ever saw them, and I can find no photographs. Lastly, I want to point out that you can see the influence of artists from the Modern period, roughly 1880-1940, particularly in her nudes. Many of them are impressionistic, with blurred lines and very intense color palettes, showing the influence that some modernist painters had on her. However, she never went through a Picasso Phase, for which I am grateful.

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In her seventies Babcia began experimenting with, and mastered, the physically arduous process of “batiking” – which involved applying hot wax to fabric, letting it completely dry, and then dipping the fabric into large tubs of hot dye, then pressing the fabric between layers of absorbent paper with an iron to remove the wax.

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Repeating the labor intensive process again and again would eventually produce breathtakingly beautiful and elaborate designs, some abstract and some representative. Her batiks, just like her oil paintings, were exhibited at numerous Georgia colleges, banks, and several fine art centers.

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As the base material for a batik, she experimented with many different types of fabric – linen, cotton, burlap. She used some fabrics that were smooth and some fabrics which had a great deal of texture. Babcia made quite large batiks, meant to be hung on the wall; they usually measured anywhere from three feet by three to five feet by five.

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In her eighties, no longer able to spend hours on her knees bent over a bath tub full of dye, she began to make small batiks suitable either for framing or for making personalized cards. She continued to experiment with a variety of styles, colors, and textures of paper to serve as the backdrop for her batik cards. And she seldom used repetitive patterns or motifs in her work, preferring to develop her abstracts by apply the paraffin wax mixture free hand with a paint brush.

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The word batik usually refers to cloth that was produced using manual techniques of wax and dye application. Batik or fabrics with the traditional batik patterns have historically been produced and worn by the local populations in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, India, China, Sri Lanka, and in certain regions of Africa.

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In the west batik printmaking is often used to produce works of art of great beauty and complexity. But much of the batik fabric sold in the west and used in clothing is now mechanically mass-produced. These designs involve a great deal of repetition and although they are beautiful, they do not really meet the definition of art.

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Postscript: also on display was an edition of the Reinhardt Hiltonian from the early 1970s, which head librarian Joel Langford had found and which featured an article about Wanda Ast’s visit to Reinhardt, at the invitation of long-serving art professor Curtis Chapman.

Robert Conquest, 1917-2015

Another great historian has passed. The Telegraph:

Robert Conquest, the writer on Soviet Russia who has died aged 98, was a polemicist and a serious, published poet; but above all he was an historian, one of the outstanding scholars of his time, whose books did as much as any other man’s to alter our view of the communist experience.

Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.

An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.

Of his many works on the subject, perhaps the most important was The Great Terror, published in 1968 and detailing the full enormity of what Stalin had done to the Russian people in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz paid the most succinct tribute to this book when he said in 1972 that The Great Terror had “closed the debate” about Stalinism.