Being out on the web, I get so many emails from people asking for help identifying pieces, woods, etc. I would love to be able to reply to them all, but its just not possible (hey – anyone want to pay me for this? 😉 ) But this particular one which came in a few days ago caught my eye:
“I came across your excellent website and was wondering if you’d be able to help me with a cabinet I recently purchased at auction. I would have happily said it was the usual modern copy except the hand painted panels are very unusual and too much effort has gone into them. A Chinese friend has translated them and they seem to tell the story of a girl asked to join the communist party to route out the enemy. I’ve never seen such panels on a Chinese cabinet before and guess its 1950’s just after the revolution. Given your experience in the matter I was wondering about your take on them and if you have seen similar pieces before? Is it a modern fake etc or a patriotic country piece?”
The short answer would be yes, the cabinet is old with more recent paintings likely applied in the late 1960ies on top of the original ones. But that’s the short answer. To properly answer this question, we need to rewind back to the late 1960’ies/early 1970’ies during the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or more commonly referred to as simply “the cultural revolution” For those who are unaware of this unique period in China’s recent history, then STOP HERE.
You need to first have some brief historical background on these events and so have read at the wikipedia page on the cultural revolution. We will also discuss the role of the “red guards” (紅衛兵) which you will already be familiar with (again – having already at least scanned the wikipedia page). In past posts we have also discussed the “great leap forward” and its effect on Chinese antiques, so again pause and have a quick read on this subject before moving forward. Both events are significant and had a devastating effect on Chinese antiques. I could easily sidetracked here as these are fascinating historical periods. So we will keep it simple and stick with discussing the “destruction of the four olds” campaign (破四旧立四新) and how it effected Chinese antiques.
“The Four Olds” (破四旧立四新) were essentially old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas, with the reasoning that these “four olds” were responsible for the holding back of China’s development. Of course, today now know these events were in reality essentially just an internal power struggle. Nevertheless, this was not a very good time be an antique or even an owner of antiques. While numbers have never been completely tallied or estimated, massive incalculable damage was sustained to all of China’s antiquities and cultural heritage. Antiques were destroyed and/or confiscated (and in some cases simply stolen) by the red guards (紅衛兵) who searched and ransacked homes of those considered to be bourgeois. Chinese literature, scrolls and other classics were burned, paintings torn apart, murals defaced and priceless antiquities shattered to pieces. Even families’ long-kept genealogy books and ancestor paintings were confiscated or worse, burned to ashes. Tangible history in large batches was lost forever.
Nothing was safe. In addition to attacking and destroying private property, the red guards went after (and often succeeded) public property as well. Libraries were ransacked, monuments destroyed or severely damaged and religious sites and tombs of historical figures were desecrated. In Beijing, Red guards stored the Ming Dynasty tomb of Wan Li and destroyed not only priceless artifacts but the emperor and empress’s remains were then publicly denounced and burned. According to the book “Mao’s Last Revolution” by the end of the cultural revolution, 4922 of the 6843 sites in Beijing officially designated as of “historical interest” had been destroyed. The forbidden city only barely managed to escape this mass chaos.
In one of the worst acts of vandalism towards a priceless cultural relic, over 200 students from Beijing Normal University traveled by train in 1966 to the 2000+ year old temple of Confucius in Shandong with the express aim of thoroughly demolishing it. While the temple itself survived, over 6618 cultural artifacts from paintings to scrolls to graves were destroyed. Documented in the images above and below, these photos are striking as they depict red guards vandalizing the temple. Today this very same temple is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Scrolls, religious texts or wooden figurines were typically burned, usually in public displays of fervent patriotism. Beautiful porcelain vases were smashed to the ground and completely lost forever. However, with 5000 long years of history and so many antiquities, the red guards clearly had their work cut out for them. And thus vandalism needed to be substituted for outright destruction in many cases. Damage was varied with some items completely destroyed while others merely defaced. This Qing dynasty scroll painting belongs to a user on the China History Forum. During the cultural revolution it was graffitied likely with political slogans. The writing has been partially removed leaving the remnants unreadable (additional images can be found here)
Delicate stone and wood carvings were often the target of such violence with priority given to figural scenes. Unlike flowers, animals or even mythical beasts, figural scenes typically depict specific narrative events or stories of historical figures. They became easy targets, often taking the brunt of the damage. Such damage can be still seen today if one looks around. During this period of time, these stone and wood carvings seen in a local Beijing antique market, had the heads hacked off and in some cases, the entire figures themselves. Today, its not uncommon that most antique wooden carvings will have been repaired with newly carved heads or faces. Depending of the skill of the repairer this may or may not be obvious without close inspection.
Of course with so much defacing, burning and damaging to do, one needed to start becoming really efficient. With painted pieces, eyes were often quickly scratched out or sometimes even the entire head hastily scratched away as seen in the examples below.
Each of the details in the faces on a large lacquered wardrobe were deliberately rubbed away, leaving only the white outlines of heads. For this reason, a closer look at some lacquered or painted antiques will often reveal newly filled in faces.
Additional Resources online:
The videos below are also really worth watching. There are quite a number of scenes of red guards destroying monuments and other antiquities throughout both videos. Really striking is the truck loaded with antiquities being taken away. Amazing footage…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaz8sVaK8s4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM3CiH1FE9E