Friday, April 12, 2024

Shaomin Li: From ‘soldier-artist’ for Mao to ODU business professor

(Courtesy of Old Dominion University)

NORFOLK — When Shaomin Li was 18, he was drafted as a soldier-artist in his native China.

For the next year, in the room of a warehouse in the city of Shijiazhuang, where his extended family lived, Li drew about 10 sketches and one or two portraits of the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, every day.

Li was bounced from the job for exhibiting “bourgeois tendencies.” “I had too many opinions on things and questioned my officers,” said Li, now an Eminent Scholar and professor of management at Old Dominion University.

But after Mao’s death in 1976, he was re-enlisted to paint his portrait one last time – in black and white, befitting the solemnity of the time.

In addition to his own work, Li has collected about 250 Chinese propaganda posters. More than 20 pieces from his collection are on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk through June 24 in an exhibit titled “The Art of Revolution.”

The exhibit does not include the posters Li drew, few of which remain in his possession. But visitors will see a self-portrait, a photo of Li painting Mao’s likeness and a sketch of the cell in which he was imprisoned as an adult.

“We are thrilled to host Shaomin Li’s collection of these historic posters,” said Lloyd DeWitt, the Chrysler’s chief curator. “We are especially excited about sharing Dr. Li’s unique insights into these works as a former propaganda poster artist in the Chinese army during the Cultural Revolution but, also more recently, a dissident, political prisoner and activist for human rights.”

Li started drawing when he was 2. “I was very interested in shape and color,” he said. His favorite subject was horses. He had plenty of experience watching horse-drawn carriages clop by in Beijing, where his family lived when he was small.

Li’s skills were in demand with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. “Art flourished during Mao’s time,” he said. “Dictators need artists to praise them and draw them and commemorate them in statues.”

The artistic propaganda, which Li said China modeled after the Russian approach, worked. “I think it was successful in drowning out any doubt, any noise, any dissenting thoughts,” he said.

Mao’s followers were portrayed as full-faced and healthy, many holding aloft his Little Red Book, which collected Mao’s sayings and speeches.

When Li drew Mao’s likeness, “I was very careful and tried to be respectful,” he said. Artists whose portrayals were deemed unsatisfactory could get thrown in jail.

Mao’s face was never in the shade, and he always featured a glimmer of a smile. “He never wanted to be seen as denouncing his enemies,” Li said. “He wanted other people to do that.”

Art, Li said, “became a tool of the revolution. The truth didn’t matter.”

Why didn’t Li become an artist? As a soldier, he could apply only to a limited selection of colleges, and none had art majors. Li studied economics at Peking University and later earned his doctorate in sociology at Princeton University and became a U.S. citizen.

But his struggle with the Chinese government wasn’t over.

While giving a lecture in China in 2001, he was detained, falsely convicted of spying for Taiwan and imprisoned until U.S. pressure triggered his release five months later. The Chrysler exhibit includes his sketches of his prison cell and interrogation room.

In 2002, Li joined Old Dominion to teach international business. He won the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award in 2008.

Li hopes the Chrysler exhibit “helps people understand the role of political propaganda.” China and the United States will eventually stand as the world’s two superpowers, he said, “and they have very different ideals. We have to know where China is coming from.”

See Li’s posters and artwork in the new issue of Old Dominion University’s e-magazine, Monarch Extra, at

This story was originally published by Old Dominion University.

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