Reading Revolution: Art and Literacy during China’s Cultural Revolution

September 12, 2016 by Department of Art History

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
Reading Revolution: Art and Literacy during China’s Cultural Revolution

20 June – 30 September 2016

The year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a social and political movement launched in May of 1966 by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, which lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. The Cultural Revolution sought to implement “true” Communist thought and to make dominant Maoist ideology. Taking this milestone as an occasion on which better to understand the Cultural Revolution, the Fisher Library is hosting an exhibition on the relation of this movement to visual art and literacy. Specifically, this exhibition of two hundred and seventeen objects explores the importance of reading during this period, examining how propaganda posters and other artifacts of the Cultural Revolution represented the writings of Chairman Mao, how these posters and artifacts popularized a culture of Mao’s books, and how, in turn, text-heavy propaganda posters, artifacts representing books, and the large-scale printing of books of “Mao Zedong Thought” (Mao Zedong sixiang) created a context for increased literacy.

Highlights include a selection of rare propaganda posters from the seminal phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–69). From posters illustrating quotations from Chairman Mao to those encouraging the masses to read, these works reveal a distinct aesthetic in this early phase of the Cultural Revolution. In addition, the exhibition showcases contemporaneous books such as The Selected Works of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong xuanji, 1951–60) and The Quotations of Chairman Mao (Mao Zhuxi yulu, 1964), as well as translations of Mao’s works in foreign languages. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue also feature artifacts from the Cultural Revolution related to literacy and the practice of reading, including Mao badges, paper cuts, archival photographs, pamphlets, postcards, and children’s toys.

This exhibition is curated by Jenny Purtle, Associate Professor of Chinese and East Asian Art, Department of History of Art/Graduate Department of Art, Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, with assistance from Stephen Qiao of the East Asian Library at the University of Toronto and the Fisher Library’s Liz Ridolfo.

A video narrated by Jenny Purtle and featuring highlights from the collection can be viewed on Fisher Library’s YouTube Channel: There is also an hour-long audio guide that accompanies the exhibition, narrated by the curators. It can streamed or downloaded via SoundCloud:; it is also available as a podcast on iTunes:

A catalogue of the exhibition is also available for purchase. Catalogue ISBN: 978-0-7727-6119-4 (paperback)