History Writ Large: Big-character Posters, Red Logorrhoea and the Art of Words

Geremie R. Barmé


The starting point of this paper is the 1986 artwork of the then Xiamen-based artist Wu Shanzhuan, called ‘Red Humor’, which reworked references to big-character posters (dazi bao 大字报) and other Mao-era forms of political discourse, recalling the Cultural Revolution. It explains how Wu’s installation offered a provocative microcosm of the overwhelming mood engendered by a logocentric movement to ‘paint the nation red’ with word-images during the years 1966-1967. This discussion of the hyper-real use of the dazi bao during China’s Cultural Revolution era (c.1964-1978) allows us to probe into ‘the legacies of the word made image’ in modern China. The paper argues that, since the 1980s, Wu Shanzhuan has had many emulators and ‘avant-garde successors’, since we have seen multiple examples of parodic deconstructions of the cultural authority of the Chinese character (zi) in recent decades.

Full Text:



Ambrozy, L. (ed.) 2011, Ai Weiwei's Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006â2009. MITPress, Cambridge, MA: 232â33.

Barmé, G. R. 1999, In the Red, on Contemporary Chinese Culture. Columbia University Press, New York.

Barmé, G. R. 2012a, 'New China Newspeak, ' China Heritage Quarterly, no. 29 (March). Online, available:http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/glossary.php?searchterm=029_xinhua.inc & issue=029[accessed 10 October 2012].

Barmé, G. R. 2012b, China Story Yearbook 2012: Red Rising, Red Eclipse. Australian Centre on China in theWorld, ANU, Canberra. Online, available: www.thechinastory.org [accessed 10 October 2012].

Berliner, N. 1992, 'The Eight Brokens, Chinese Trompe l'Oeil Painting, ' Orientations, February: 61â70.

Chinese Literature 1966. 'Salute to the Revolutionary Young People!, ' no. 11: 42â43.

Farrelly, E. 2011, 'When Art Had its Eyes Wide Open, ' Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct. Online, available: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/when-art-had-its-eyes-wide-open-20111026-1mjzn.html#ixzz1bx0jEhkM [accessed 10 October 2012].

Gao Minglu. 2008, '85 Meishu Yundongâ80 niandaide renwen qianwei, vol. 1. Guangxi shifan daxuechubanshe, Guilin: 224â35.

Guan Wei. 1988, images in Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, (eds) G. R. Barmé & J. G. Minford. Hill & Wang, New York: 40, 387, 392, 396, 399, & 404.

Hunwick R. F. 2012, 'Fan Jinggang -èæ¯å/' Online, available:http://www.thechinastory.org/intellectuals/fan-jinggang-èæ¯å/ [accessed 10 August 2012].

Jaivin L. 2010, 'Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung's Harmonious China, ' China Heritage Quarterly, no. 22 (June). Online, available:http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/articles.php?searchterm=022_golden.inc & issue=022[accessed 10 October 2012].

Klayman, A. (dir.) 2012, Never Sorry, United Expression Media, documentary film.

Kraus, R. 1991, Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of Calligraphy. University ofCalifornia Press, Berkeley.

Ledderose, L. 1979, Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy. Princeton UniversityPress, Princeton, NJ.

Li Rui. 1998, Mao Zedongde zaonian yu wannian. Guiyang: Guizhou chubanshe: 290.

Mao Zedong. 1967, 'Bombard the HeadquartersâMy Big-character Poster, ' Peking Review, no. 33, 11March (with modification).

Mao Zedong. 1976, 'Qilüâhe Guo Moruo tongzhi, ' translated as 'Reply to Comrade Kuo Mo-joâa lü shih, November 17, 1961, ' in Mao Tsetung, Poems. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing: 41 (spellingmodified).

Murck, A. & Wen Fong (eds) 1991, Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy and Painting. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Osnos, E. 2009, 'Letter from China: Wu Shanzhuan and Hans Ulrich Obrist, ' 11 November. Online, available: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/evanosnos/2009/12/wu-shanzhuan-and-hansulrich-obrist.html [accessed 4 May 2012].

Su Ming. 1979, 'A Possible Tragedy in the Year 2000, ' Beijing Spring, May. This translation is takenfrom 'Lingering Fear, ' in Seeds of Fire: Chinese voices of conscience, (eds) G. Barmé & J.Minford, 2nd ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1988: 137â48 (with modification).

Wu Hung. 2008, Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art, Hong Kong, Time Zone 8.

Xiao Gongqin. 2012, Chaoyue zuoyou jijinzhuyiâzouchu Zhongguo zhuanxingde kunju (Overcoming theExtremism of Left and Right). Zhejiang daxue chubanshe, Hangzhou.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/portal.v9i3.2645