For Mangal Pande and Lu Feng Zhe
“His name meant phoenix, a creature that would burst into flames upon its death and then rise again from the ashes. The man himself was a father, a patriot, and an artist who lived during World War II and the Japanese invasion of China. His contemporaries considered his works the epitome of Chinese traditional art. At the height of his influence, he took gold in the Paris International Art Exposition in 1931. He established and funded the Zheng Zhe Art College out of his own pocket and one of his paintings was given to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a gift from China. He died just before the rise of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He was my great-grandfather.”
This was the opening to a speech I gave for Academic Decathlon in my junior year of high school. It’s a true story. Samad Iqbal isn’t the only one with a notable great-grandfather who was wronged by the bastards who wrote the history books. In my great-grandfather’s case, he was wronged certainly (I never quite got the details of this story though, probably because of language deficiencies), but the main issue seemed to be that he was fast being forgotten. By the time I was born he had been reduced to a couple of museum exhibits and a plaque on a university wall. It’s a wonder this much survived after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution erased everything else.
What exactly was the Cultural Revolution? Factually it was an era of witch-hunting and violence incited by Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1969. As Wikipedia puts it pleasantly, “many revolutionary elders, authors, artists, and religious figures were purged and killed, millions of people were persecuted, and as many as half a million people died.” However, in China, nobody talks about it. If it is mentioned at all, usually by my grandmother, it’s askance and in a lowered voice hinting of hatred and old pain. My parents, being six years old when it began, do not remember it; it was normalcy for them. It’s remarkable how ephemeral the past is. To me, the Cultural Revolution exists as only text and the vestiges of a nightmare.
Thanks to the efforts of my grandfathers and the students of my great-grandfather, my great-grandfather’s name is gaining recognition again. Newspapers articles are rediscovering him as an artist, last summer a ceremony was held in his honor at Suzhou University, and recently a television program was produced about his life. My great-grandfather’s presence in my family had never diminished though. My grandfather and his brothers fought long and bitterly between themselves over their father’s paintings, outsiders like art collectors and museum curators and con artists and stepchildren occasionally joining the fray. The battle continues to this day. Personally, I think it was the strife that kept him alive.
– Wenting Chen