Deep Water, Hot Fire: Shaomin Li’s Journey from Army Painter to ODU Professor

James Finney | Tech Editor

Courtesy the Chrysler Museum

This article was originally posted on March 24, 2018

Shaomin Li was 12-years-old when Mao’s government moved his family from Beijing to the countryside. It was punishment for his father, an outspoken intellectual and part of the Chinese government.

It was 1969, and things were changing in China. Mao Zedong, the leader of the communist party of China, was trying to transform the land and minds of the people. He was starting a revolution. A revolution that, in his opinion, would be carried by the will of Chinese farmers and workers.

Dissenting opinions had no place in Mao’s vision and neither did education. Li was only in third grade when he was taken out of school.

“It was the time of the Cultural Revolution,” Li says, in between sips of coffee. “Mao just said, ‘you all have to leave Beijing and go to the countryside.’”

For his part in the revolution, Li found himself on a poultry farm, feeding vegetables out of a bamboo basin to ducks and chickens. Everyday he found himself working in damp and dirty duck huts, a ripe target for the critters and dangers that lived in the countryside.

“I would see these black clouds headed towards me, mosquitoes. They would land on my arms, and that’s when I learned that if you tensed up, they couldn’t pull their needles out of you. So I would just smash tons of them.”

Things were bleak, but life in the country wouldn’t stop Li from pursuing his passions.

“I basically did three things: fight mosquitoes, try to read a little bit and paint,” Li says.

While his experience as a veteran mosquito fighter hasn’t quite paid off yet, Li’s early persistence in those days certainly has. Today, Li is sitting in his office in Constant Hall on campus, where awards for teaching and business research hang off the walls by his window.

On the other end of the room, a lithograph done by Li hangs on the wall, next to a cozy leather chair covered in blankets. The print depicts a huddle of Tibetan children hanging out by a window, staring out at him.

The inspiration for the piece came to Li on a trip to visit the Dalai Lama of all people. He found himself in a Tibetan Children’s Village in India, a village for Tibetans orphans sent to live outside of their homeland and away from the oppression of the Chinese government.

“I visited them and they rushed to the window to see me. I said, ‘Look at those children. They have a bright future if they get a chance.’ They were just like me,” Li says.

Li had learned lithograph printing from another professor at ODU, but he had been painting since he was two years old. It’s been a passion of his from the start. And while his family’s sentencing to the countryside had a put an early end to his formal education, in a stroke of luck, it put Li exactly where he needed to be to pursue his passion.

“Eventually I got the chance to follow a few very good artists, masters. I just learned from them, and it was pretty solid training,” Li says.

These artists were mostly from the city as well. They were high school art teachers and known painters who found themselves in the same spot as Li and his family.

After five years of life in the country, Li’s father sought permission to move back to the city, and that permission was granted. Li was now living in the city of Shijiazhuang, not too far away from Beijing. However, things in the city weren’t much better than in the countryside.

There was little access to work in chinese cities. The economy was in tatters, courtesy of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward,” a five-year economic plan designed by Mao in the late 50’s that ended up failing in spectacular fashion.

China was still recovering from the damage in the ‘70s, and young people had very few working opportunities at their disposal.

One of the better choices was joining the army.

“Joining the army was the best thing young people could do for themselves. At least you would have food. You were valued. However it was also pretty competitive,” Li says.

The path to joining the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was shrouded in nepotism. Recruits would have to make use of whatever money, connections and skills they could to find themselves a place in the PLA.

Li, however, had something the army needed. He was a skilled artist.

“The PLA needed a lot of artists to praise Mao and do propaganda work. So, when they went recruiting, they had quotas for artists,” Li says.

Three individual army units reached out to try and enlist Li. He chose the unit stationed at Shijiazhuang so that he could stay where he was.

In the army, Li was provided with a place to sleep, food and a certain amount of comfort. As an artist, his barracks even provided him with more room than the average soldier got.

Despite having been forced to move to the countryside as a child, despite the shortages of food across the country and even in spite of his own demotion in the army for having “bourgeois tendencies,” Li firmly believed in Mao Zedong and the communist party at the time.

Li takes another sip from his coffee. He squints his eyes, reflecting on his life in China “It’s a truly orwellian society. The distortion of history and truth. They were doctoring and changing photos before photoshop existed.”

Things started to change after Mao Zedong’s death however. Mao died on Sep. 9, 1976, when Li was 19. Within a week, the PLA commissioned Li to paint a massive portrait of Mao in black and white.

The entire country was thrust into mourning, but Mao’s death would soon grant Li an opportunity. Free of Mao’s influence, the communist party began to reinstitute certain practices that Mao was never very fond of, like education for starters.

The army was looking for people to send to college, and Li was planning to be at the top of that list.

“I would have loved to go to an art college, but I was in the army. They said they had to approve what college I could go to. There was no art. I could only apply for econ at Peking University. That was the best. They taught history at another university, chinese and then medicine at another.” Li says.

Li took to his studies with aplomb, teaching himself four years of high school in mere months. He got first pickings when it came time to be sent off to school, and Li chose to study economics.

Marxist doctrine was part of Li’s curriculum at Peking University, and while he was there, he discovered that he hated it.

By 1985, Li was studying in America. He was pursuing a masters degree, and slowly but surely, his relationship with the China he knew had started to deteriorate. By 1989, Li had earned a doctorate in business and had begun publishing articles criticizing the communist party of China.

Mere months before the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Li produced a piece for the Wall Street Journal called, “Taiwan was Right Along.” The piece lambasted the Chinese government for its abuse of human rights and the poor conditions that many of its people were forced to live in.

Li was taking a stand for what he believed was right. He didn’t realize it then, but his body of work was beginning to catch stares.

By 2001 Li was an American citizen, teaching in Hong Kong, but he hadn’t escaped China’s radar.

Li can’t help but laugh about it now. “It was 12 years after I had published the article. They came to tell me it was me who was wrong.”

The government simply picked up Li at a border-patrol station one day, and kept him under arrest for six months.

There was an outcry. The Wall Street Journal started to reproduce Li’s articles in protest. Li’s daughter wrote a letter that eventually its way to president George W. Busch and the House of Congress demanded Li’s release. The New York Times as even covering him.

China was under a lot of pressure from a lot of different angles. So, they let eventually let Li go.

Li’s willingness to speak out against injustice made him a target, but it’s also what saved him in the end. Had he not made a name out of fighting for what was right, no one might have ever heard of him.

Today, Li teaches at ODU, a ways away from the dangers of his earlier life. However his trials still fuel his desire not only to pursue his passions, but to teach, profess and pass on his experiences.

“I think it’s good for our students to have some inspiration. If I can overcome that much, they can overcome whatever it is they’re facing.” Li says. “Don’t underestimate your own potential. Ever.”