AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Luka Iwaki

Monuments of Tiananmen Square – Exhibition Theme

Communism and monuments are inseparable. The Soviet Union has over a thousand monuments, and so did the Eastern bloc and North Korea. As a new member of the communist state, China did not become an exception either. These massive monuments, some of them going over 250ft, often depicted marshals and soldiers in World War II or proletarians fighting for their cause in a socialist revolt. Otherwise, it was mainly statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin that were being erected, in a style of socialist realism. China before being swallowed up by communist ideology was foreign to these European styles, but with the help of Hua Tianyou, the Chinese art scene were able to blend it with their own traditional Chinese style. This new European influenced avant-garde style took a big role in many monuments depicting the struggles of people during the revolution that are to be created. In this exhibition, I will focus on none other than Tiananmen Square, the beating heart of modern China and dive into the shift of its political significance from both the Chinese politburo and the people. 

Consisting of Tiananmen, National Museum of China, Great Hall of the People, and Mao’s Mausoleum, the historic significance as well as political significance of the square is immense. And just like other Marxist-Leninist states, the government decorated Tiananmen Square with a number of monuments. The Monument to the People’s Heroes (Figure 1) is one of the highlights, in which is a monument to commemorate the fallen martyrs. With golden epitaph written in Mao’s calligraphy and eight different bas-reliefs portraying key events throughout the century of wars, it is a place where a person can feel history firsthand just by looking at it. Two sculptures stand in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (Figure 2), as well as Lincoln Memorial style Mao inside the mausoleum (Figure 3). The square was created to commemorate Mao’s accomplishments and became a mecca for mostly young Mao enthusiasts, but as time moved on, it slowly became a center for democratic movement, which started with the mourning of the death of Zhou Enlai, and later of Hu Yaobang. It eventually led to the student protests at the Tiananmen square in 1989. Over the course of 40 years, people on both sides believed in change for different reasons, and the monuments symbolized that in their respective ways.

Figure 1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes. Photograph by Chang-Tai Huang. Source: Mao’s New World, Figure 62

Figure 2. Statue outside Mao's Mausoleum. Photograph by Jp16103. Source: Wikipedia Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

Figure 2. Statue outside Mao’s Mausoleum. Photograph by Jp16103. Source: Wikipedia Chairman Mao Memorial Hall

Figure 3. Statue of the Seated Mao Zedong. Photograph by Ye Yushan. Source: ancientarthistory


Works Cited:

Hung, Wu. “Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments.” Representations, vol. 35, 1991, pp. 84–117, https://doi.org/10.2307/2928718.

Luka’s Interesting Link


In this link, the readers get an in-depth information on the symbolic meaning of the monuments and memorials in the Square, including the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Great Hall of the People. The author, Wu Hung,  explores how these monuments have been used by the Chinese government to legitimize its power and promote its political ideology, and how they have been reinterpreted and recontextualized by different groups over time. The book also analyzes the role of Tiananmen Square in shaping Chinese national identity and the construction of a Chinese historical narrative. Wu Hung looks at how the Square has been represented in Chinese art, literature, and media, and how it has been used as a symbol of Chinese national pride and unity.

I chose this journal article because it is well written and give an insight on the monuments at the Tiananmen Square from the artist’s perspective as well as the political point of view, and how these monuments contributed to shape modern Chinese culture.


Figure 1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes. Photograph by Chang-Tai Huang. Source: Mao’s New World, Figure 62

The Monument to the People’s Heroes and Hua Tianyou’s bas-relief

The May 4th Movement of 1919 is a bas-relief by Hua Tianyou, carved into the The Monument to the People’s Heroes, located in the Tiananmen Square. The monument is made mostly out of granite and marble, and is 124.5ft tall, which overshadows the Forbidden City when seen from the front. This monument consists of three parts, the words “Eternal Glory to the People’s Heroes” written in Mao Zedong’s characters in the front, an epitaph in the back drafted by Mao and written in Zhou Enlai’s beautiful calligraphy engraved in gold to commemorate the fallen martyrs of the revolution, and beneath it, eight huge bas-reliefs portraying eight major revolutionary episodes in chronological order. Premier Zhou Enlai took a personal interest in this project, and with his group of architects, sculptors, and historians, made this piece into a perfection. From a political standpoint, this monument is much more than a communist monument, but rather an indication of a turning point, remembering the past and moving on to a bright future that Mao has built .Later on, served as the center for large-scale mournings, such as the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, which eventually sparked the anti-communist Tiananmen Square protests, thus becoming the center of the anti-communist movements.

The bas-relief that Hua Tianyou worked on depicts the events of the May 4th movement, which was an anti-imperialist movement that students of the University of Beijing started.This eventually resulted in the abdication of the emperor, and thus the fall of the Qing dynasty. Hua’s bas-relief carving consists of 25 students in midst of the protest, with one of them wearing a gown and standing on a low stool, possibly preaching the wrongdoings of what the Qing government did in the Treaty of Versaille. Encircling him are several students calling for support and distributing leaflets and curious students avidly listening to the preacher. Female figures in this bas-relief plays a huge role in which it emphasizes the fact that women also took part in this movement, depicting that they are as enthusiastic with their male counterparts and also breaking away from their traditional roles. The entrance to the Forbidden City in the background, to make the bas-relief more lively, shows the viewers that the event took place where the viewer is standing, allowing them to feel history at first hand.



Hung, C.-tai. (2017). Chapter 10: The Monument to the People’s Heroes. In Mao’s New World Political Culture in the early people’s republic. essay, Cornell University Press. 

Monument to the peoples heroes. Architectuul. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://architectuul.com/architecture/monument-to-the-peoples-heroes

Hua Tianyou

Hua Tianyou (1901-1986) was born in Huaiyin, Jiangsu Provice into a family of carpenters. Knowing his ability in art, he taught art as well as music at a secondary school after graduating college, but it was not until 1932 when he started pursuing art for his own sake. In 1932, Hua began going to Fine Arts School of Shanghai to study his passion, drawing and sculpting. Upon entering the school, Xu Beihong quickly found this sculptor prodigy and made Hua come with him to Paris for a Chinese painting exhibition there. Hua’s life chaning experiences started when he stayed in Paris and joined the studio of famed French Sculptor Henri Bouchard. Later on Hua entered National School of Fine Arts in Paris and multiple Salons where he won multiple awards. He came back to China 15 years later where he was appointed as a professor and a director of the sculpture department in National Academy of Art in Beijing. In 1952, Hua sculputed the May-fourth movement of 1919 into People’s Heroes Monument at Tian’anmen Square, which became his most famed work.

Though Hua left many drawings and paintings of mostly nude woman and male portraits, he is mostly remembered for pioneering in sculpture, where he successfully blended western style with a traditional Chinese style.

范针. (n.d.). Fusion of western and Chinese styles on display. Fusion of Western and Chinese styles on display[1]- Chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/art/2015-04/02/content_19981769.htm

Hua Tianyou (滑间友). Chineseposters.net. (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2023, from https://chineseposters.net/artists/huatianyou

Luka Iwaki

Hi my name is Luka Iwaki and I’m a history major. I fell in love with the history of China when I read Sima Qian’s The Records of the Grand Historian in grade seven. Ever since then, the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period became my primary interest, especially the castles and its structures. Jumping about 2 millennial later in the historical timeline, I never had the chance to learn about China’s history in the 20th century, so I’m very interested to learn about it through the perspective of art. My hobby these days are reading Haruki Murakami novels while listening to Mahler and Bruckner’s symphonies.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Skip to toolbar