The man behind Mao’s portrait
I was honored and excited when I first heard that I would be joining the TV team for a story which Reuters had been chasing for 2 years – photographing the one and only painter at present who draws the giant portrait of Chinese late chairman Mao Zedong hanging at Tiananmen Square.
Ge Xiaoguang, 58, started learning large-scale portrait painting from Wang Guodong in 1971, and since Wang retired in 1977, Ge has been the author of Mao’s portraits at Tiananmen Square.
We arrived at the entrance of Ge’s studio before 9:00 a.m., a 10-meter-high red building located between the Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City. Millions of tourists pass by every day, but most of them would never find out what has been going on in this building.
40 minutes later, Ge arrived. A plain old man with white clothes and white hair, shook hands with each of us and escorted us into his studio. Two giant portraits appeared in front of my eyes, father of the modern China Sun Yat-sen on the left, and China’s late chairman Mao Zedong on the right. I started taking pictures immediately, but Ge stopped me by asking what models my cameras were. He then told me that he owned a Canon 5D Mark II, before I could feel happy about having something in common with him, he added: “But I never knew how to use it.”
Later, while Ge was making plans with TV colleagues, I tried to take some more pictures. He stopped me again saying that he hadn’t allowed any photographer or cameraman to shoot in his studio for 20 years. I was quite happy when I heard this, because this will make the story even more valuable. But the situation got worse after he got on the elevator. At first I took some pictures behind him as he used the elevator which made a lot of noise so my shutter sound would be obscured. Then I moved to one side trying to get a different view. He suddenly caught me this time and said if I kept shooting, he would have to send me out. For the next 30 minutes, I tried to behave. Luckily, he agreed to let me take pictures of him during the interview with Reuters TV.
I learned from the interview, that Ge needed to paint a new Mao portrait every year, to replace the old one hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace before Chinese National Day which falls on October 1. He also said he can finish a portrait with about 50 days of intensive work of his own.
Overall, this trip remains a precious experience to me. I never knew that I could be so close to the most sacred portrait in many Chinese people’s minds. And the best part was getting to know how the sacredness was created and kept by a plain old man within these red high walls of his studio and the grand Forbidden City.