Rare Chinese art collection rediscovered
A university coordinator stumbles upon 15 handmade propaganda pieces made decades ago.
Propaganda pieces produced in China four decades ago during the Cultural Revolution have been unearthed in a storage room at the University of Michigan — a rare find in either the U.S. or its country of origin, experts said.
The rediscovery of the 15 poster-sized papercut images illustrating the political upheaval of the era is a pleasant surprise to scholars studying a society that was largely closed off from the West. The images are cut out of red paper in the same way that artists customarily create decorations for Chinese New Year celebrations and other festivities. They include glowing portrayals of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Red Guards burning books and trampling on a Buddhist statue.
The handmade images were stored at the university’s Center for Chinese Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Carol Stepanchuk, the center’s community outreach coordinator, found them while sorting through boxes in its storage room. She said the collection of 15 framed images “stood out.” The frames weren’t in great shape, but the images were in “remarkably good condition,” she said.
Stepanchuk took them to her office and brought the find to the attention of faculty members, who marveled at the rarity and quality of an entire set that tells a coherent story.
The late scholar Michel Oksenberg, who taught at the university for two decades, collected the papercuts while doing research in Hong Kong in the early 1970s and donated them to the center when he left in 1991 to lead the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Ena Schlorff, the center’s program coordinator, remembered the donation.
“We were storing them for future consideration,” said Schlorff, who had been Oksenberg’s personal secretary. “It took the newer faculty … to realize the current importance of this collection.”
Associate history professor Wang Zheng said the collection was produced at a small, folk art institute in the southern province of Guangdong, and it most likely wasn’t commissioned by Communist Party leaders. She said it shows how young artists at the time understood and related to the decade-long Cultural Revolution, and she plans to use one of the images in a book she is writing.
“They did not have embedded interests in the establishment, and the Cultural Revolution was to smash the establishment,” Zheng said. “The young ones who didn’t have power … likely identified with it.”
Zheng said it’s rare for the English-speaking world to have access to such visual historical documents. Even in China, she said, this collection probably would not have survived because it features Mao alongside Lin Biao, who was accused of plotting a coup against Mao and deemed a traitor. He died in a plane crash while flying to the Soviet Union in 1971.
“This whole project would be politically incorrect,” she said.
Xiaobing Tang, a professor of Chinese literature and visual culture, said in a university release that the images are more valuable than others found online because of their complexity and detail. He estimated that each papercut could be worth more than $150 to a serious collector.
The university has no immediate plans for a public display of the actual papercuts but has digitized the images and posted them online.