AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Paxton Ouellette

Correctly Remembering History: The Monument to the People’s Heroes

As is the case throughout all of human history, the victors write the narrative.  As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, in the years following the Second World War those who held prominent political positions sought ways to display the strength of their followers while validating their message, showing the CCP as the proper heir to a long line of dynastic succession in China (Hung, 242).  In my art exhibition, I would like to explore how the Monument to the People’s Heroes successfully validated the Chinese Communist Party and sought to tell a correct version of Chinese history.  When the Monument to the People’s Heroes was proposed, there were a total of ten historical events that were suggested to be shown on the monument, as well as others that were heavily considered.  In the end, the decision was made that the Boxer Rebellion, the Battle of Pingxing, the Long March, and Mao’s Yan’an Talks would not be displayed on the monument as they were “single events… [rather than being] comprehensive in scope” (Hung, 245).  The chosen moments that would be displayed on the monument looked to unite the populace of China, reminding them of monumental moments where the people held the future of their nation in their hands.  Therefore, there is a need to focus on and examine the chosen moments which are represented in the bas-reliefs.  It was this underlying message that would validate a communist government.  

In this art exhibition, I hope to illuminate and place the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the time it was created.  As planning for the monument began during the initial years of the People’s Republic of China in 1952, there is a need to understand the social and political climate of China in the 1950s.  As the CCP looked to construct a cohesive narrative about China’s past struggles, it is certain that there is no better place to begin this task than with a public monument.  With the Monument to the People’s Heroes being a true piece of public art, with anyone who was in Tiananmen Square able to view it, a cohesive narrative could be created and delivered to the populace.  Especially as the monument influenced the further development of Tiananmen Square and was the witness to the following social events that occurred in this area, there is a need to understand the beginning of this evolution of China’s socialist architecture. 

The People Will Never Forget 1989. Photography by Liu Jian. The Wall Street Journal. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiananmens-survivors-and-the-burden-of-memory-11559295001).



Hung, Chang-tai. Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Commissioner Lin Zexhu’s Destruction of Opium

The Monument to the People’s Heroes has eight gigantic bas-reliefs on white marble.   Each relief has a different historical theme and they should be read in chronological order, beginning clockwise from the east.  The chosen moments looked to represent unity among the people of China during monumental moments of history while also validating the new government.  Each scene depicts good forces fighting against a repressive power, whether they be the Japanese, the Qing dynasty, or the Nationalist Party, to name a few.  

Before work was done on the monument itself, a sketch was produced which was then approved by the CCP’s Central Committee for endorsement.  Following this, it was then given to Mao for his approval.  Following this, the sculptors began working on the reliefs, “turning the drawings into intense facial expressions and forceful gestures, and giving the sculpted human bodies the appearance of vivid immediacy and compelling realism” (Hung 2011: 247).  

The Opium War, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Bas-Relief.

The first image depicted was the event that triggered the Opium War, and was one of six armed conflicts shown on the memorial and only one of three that occurred before 1919 (Hung 2011: 245).  The selected scene from the Opium War showed Commissioner Lin Zexhu’s destruction of opium in 1839, as this event changed the trajectory of modern China, igniting the war.  Done in a Soviet Realism style, the image focuses on revolution and the social conditions that led to change (Hung 2011: 250).  In addition to this, all the reliefs on the monument told a similar story of the Chinese people’s determination that allowed them to prevail when challenged by evil powers.  The seventeen men depicted in the scene from the Opium War image display great strength.  Some of them are bare-chested with their muscles showing, and there is an aura of the resilience of the Chinese fighting against one of the greatest powers in the world.  As the event was well known to the Chinese populace, there was an ability to easily understand who the enemy was even though they are not depicted.  Smoke clouds blew in the background, signaling the burning of opium and one man carries an ax while another has broken into a box of opium, which will later be dumped into the water.  The facial expressions of the men show that there is no question about what they must do.  Each one is shown in a firm yet calm manner, defending his nation as he is expected to do. 

Anderson, Forrest. 19th-century Opium Wars. Photograph. Hobble Creek. September 26, 2019. https://hobblecreek.us/blog/entry/tiananmen-squae-the-corridor-of-a-thousand-steps.

Hung, Chang-tai. Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.  

Monument to the People’s Heroes

History, in part, is based on the understanding of why certain events, individuals, and symbols are chosen to be memorialized.  Hua Tianyou was one of the many individuals who was involved with the creation of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which is showcased in Tiananmen Square.  Born in 1902, Tianyou taught art and music before beginning his studies in sculpting in 1930.  Three years later, as Japan began to act aggressively toward China, he moved to France where he continued his work at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Image courtesy of https://www.viator.com/Beijing-attractions/Monument-to-the-Peoples-Heroes/d321-a18684.

Monuments are where a collective memory can be formed and without references to those who have died, it is argued that their actions will be forgotten.  Following decades of civil wars, outside aggression, and the rebirth of a nation, there was a need for the CCP to showcase the revolutionary actions that individuals went through to secure then-modern China.  Therefore, possibly taking inspiration from symbols that displayed collective memories in France while understanding the importance of architecture being “socialist in content, national in form,” the Monument to the People’s Heroes showed the correct way to remember the past while providing further authenticity to the CCP.



Michael Sullivan, Modern Chinese Artists, A Biographical Dictionary, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 57.

 Chang-tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 235, 243.

 Maria Tagangaeva, “Socialist in Content, National in Form: The Making of Soviet National Art and the Case of Buryatia,” Nationalities Papers, Vol.45 (2017), 393.


My name is Paxton Ouellette and I am a current senior at Union College, with majors in both history and political science.  Although a majority of my work tends to focus on the United States, I have been able to incorporate Asian studies as well, particularly with how the American government had reacted to Communism in Asia during the twentieth century and how that influenced United States-Asia relations following the end of the Second World War (1939-1945).  My history thesis discusses the changing views of the Japanese by Americans throughout the twentieth century, which was allowed by understanding that Japan was a student of the West, requiring discipline when the nation acted in ways that were not expected (such as was the case in the 1940s and 1980s).  In order to discuss this, I will be using mass media such as political cartoons, songs, newspapers, and films to better understand these changes in opinions towards the Japanese.  Following my graduation from Union in June, I am excited to attend law school in our nation’s capital at George Washington University where I plan to study constitutional law.

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