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Here's What Happened When A Chinese Painting Depicted An Altered Version Of History


Forty years ago this week, China's leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, opened the country's economy to the rest of the world. It was a significant moment in China's history and in world history. NPR's Rob Schmitz has the story of a painting that illustrates how China's current leadership is rewriting that history.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, I went out with a couple of friends. Over pizza and beer, we talked about an art exhibition touring China commemorating 40 years of China's reform and opening. One friend, a Hong Kong businessman, showed me a picture of one of the paintings. It was an odd painting for reasons I'll describe later. So I asked him to send it to me over WeChat, China's most popular messaging app.

So you sent it to me and I didn't get it and then...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I sent it again.

SCHMITZ: Then you sent it again, and I still didn't get it.

Other messages he sent to me were going through just fine, but WeChat was preventing the image of this single painting from being sent.

So why do you think I didn't get it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't know. I mean, it's more interesting because after you didn't get it, I realized how sensitive the picture was maybe, you know?

SCHMITZ: And that's why I'm not sharing his name. This painting is a sensitive topic for China's government. In it, a man is pointing at a map lecturing five others who are seated. The one standing is Xi Zhongxun, the father of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Among those seated is Deng Xiaoping, former leader of China. The map is of Shenzhen, at the time, a fishing village selected by Deng to become the future showcase city of China's reform and opening, a project that turned China into the fastest moving economy in the history of civilization, turning it into the world's second-largest economy behind the U.S. Historians have many problems with this painting.

JULIAN GEWIRTZ: One is that this meeting didn't happen the way that it's depicted.

SCHMITZ: Julian Gewirtz, a China scholar at Harvard, says the meeting in the painting did happen, but it wasn't chaired by Xi Jinping's father. It was led by Hua Guofeng, who was in charge of China's Communist Party at the time. Hua, who was eventually ousted from leadership, does not appear in this painting. Another inaccuracy, says Gewirtz, is the face of Xi Zhongxun, father of Xi Jinping.

GEWIRTZ: The man is painted to look as much like the son as the father could possibly be. And on top of that, it looks like he is teaching Deng Xiaoping how to do this kind of reform and opening in Shenzhen.

SCHMITZ: In fact, Deng Xiaoping wasn't even at this meeting, but his role in creating Shenzhen is immortalized in one of China's most popular songs, "Story Of Spring."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: In spring of '79, the song goes, an old man in southern China drew a circle. The old man is Deng, but Chinese historian Zhang Lifan says the painting depicts a revised history.

ZHANG LIFAN: (Through interpreter) When I saw the painting, I immediately felt history is being rewritten. Xi's father did play a role in making Shenzhen a special economic zone. But we all know the story of how Deng drew a circle around the city to create it. Now, apparently, Xi's father did it.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SCHMITZ: Whether it's through song or a painting, historian Gewirtz says a historical event like the birth of China's economic boom is so important that remolding it is proving to be irresistible for China's current leader.

GEWIRTZ: It really epitomizes the sense that many people have that Xi Jinping and his advisers are trying to insert Xi and his family into the history of reform and opening in a new way.

SCHMITZ: At the expense, he says, of past leaders.

GEWIRTZ: That fact, I think, is what really gets people agitated when they think about this because they're able to see the manipulation of history in real time.

SCHMITZ: And that is why the painting's image went viral over China's social media. That's why it was blocked when my friend tried to send it to me. And that's perhaps why China's government has suddenly removed the painting from its national exhibition. Rewriting history, says Gewirtz, can be a delicate, sensitive process. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.