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New year rabbit from hell

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Following the twelve-cycle zodiac, the Chinese celebrate 2023 as the New Year of the Rabbit. Under the traditional lunar calendar, it begins at midnight on Sunday. In honor of the rabbit, China’s world-famous artist Huang Yongyu was allowed to design two stamps for China’s postal service. Outraged bloggers raised a virtual storm. They accused Huang of having malicious intentions. 

China’s two cartoonish stamps for the New Year of the Rabbit 2023. Both designs were created by the grand master of China’s artists, Huang Yongyu. His blue rabbit with red eyes triggered an online outrage against the “creature from hell”. Yet many Chinese lined up outside post offices to buy the stamps.

Because this old master of Chinese painting, versatile art and satire – he turns 99 this year – delivered two caricatures. His first hopping creature seemed to have emerged from the underworld: A child’s worst nightmare with blue fur and glowing red eyes. A rabbit with human hands, holding pen and paper, ready to settle scores with China. At least that is what one blogger believed, who posted an angry message under the colorful pseudonym “Orchid Garden from Zhejiang” (严州兰苑): “Toxic! …looks like a rat making a new Coronavirus in the lab. In one hand it holds the pen of the infernal accountant Panguan and in the other the list of life and death. Shockingly, the number is 120!” (“毒!…一只在实验室做新冠病毒试验的老鼠~一只手拿着判官笔一只手拿着生死簿还有令人心惊胆战的120!”).

Post offices started selling the stamps on Jan. 5. The online community has been bashing Huang’s “ugly” bunny ever since. To them, it is a demon-like creature, an “Omicron rabbit” (奥密克戒兔), who zigzags around Pandemic-stricken China. Conspiracy theories point to the stamp’s face value, 1.20 yuan. 120, however, is China’s emergency telephone number. Fittingly, Huang’s second rabbit design also appears to be filled with allusions. In the foreground, it shows three cute rabbits running around in a circle. But in the background hides the moon rabbit Yutu, which according to the legend (玉兔捣药) stamps medicines.

The second stamp shows three rabbits running in a circle. In the background, Huang hid an image of the moon rabbit Yutu stamping medicine, an allusion to the Covid pandemic.

But logic won’t get you anywhere here. The postage for a domestic letter is 1.20 yuan. Also, China’s mourning color is not blue, but white. Huang, the artist, responded with a smile in a video clip, saying that drawing rabbits is no big deal. Anyone could do it. “I drew them to make everyone happy.” (画个兔子邮票是开心的事 …让大家高兴). He said the only allusion is in the words for “blue rabbit.” They are homophones – pronounced the same, but written with different characters – for the New Year’s wish for “great plans” (蓝色兔子谐音 “宏伟蓝图”). 

The grotesquely comical online dispute started by a minority only fueled the real run for the stamps by the majority. Stamp fans waited in line up to three days before the issue date – and rallied their families to take turns standing in line. They sensed the proverbial stock of the common man. 

Post offices often sold their stock within the first hour. The online shopping site Taobao reported 200,000 orders. Supplies there also sold out quickly, although the postal service was prepared: It printed the stamps in record quantities of 39.5 million each.

The high demand was sparked by a combination of superstitions, coupled with the obsession to make a bargain and Huang Yongyu’s fame. The 2023 Rabbits are the third zodiac stamp designed by him for China’s postal service since it first issued special Year of the Monkey stamps in 1980. 

In 1980, China’s postal service issued its first New Year’s stamp for the Year of the Monkey, which is China’s equivalent of the blue Mauritius “Post Office” stamp. Huang Yongyu designed the stamp.

Since then, every Chinese child has grown up with the story of the red monkey stamp that Huang drew for China’s postal service in 1980. It became the Chinese equivalent of the blue Mauritius stamp. With a face value of eight fen – the postage for a domestic letter at the time – it became the most expensive postal stamp in the People’s Republic. Its current market price is well over 1,000 euros, even though five million copies were issued in 1980. 

One German chief engineer who worked on the early Wuhan project of a large cold rolling mill imported from Duisburg also profited from the absurd hype. In the Yangtze city, he spent his free time buying Chinese stamps by the sheet with his son until 1984. In November 2022, his son had the collection, which had been locked away for decades, auctioned by the Felzmann auction house, including a sheet of 40 monkey stamps. His father bought them in 1980 for 3.20 yuan. The bid started at 25,000 euros. The winning bid came in at 39,000 euros.

Visiting Huang Yongyu on the occasion of the Year of the Rabbit 2011. The soon-to-be 99-year-old owns 1000 smoking pipes.

Huang painted his second New Year’s stamp in 2016. It was once again the Year of the Monkey. He painted a peach, the symbol of long life, referring to the legend of the Monkey King rebel Sun Wukong. According to legend, he dared to steal a peach from the Heavenly Garden. For the second design, Huang drew a monkey with two infants. It was his plea against China’s one-child policy. “Everyone is after these stamps as if they were monkeys themselves,” Xinhua disapprovingly wrote at the time.

Mocking picture by cartoonist Huang Yongyu for the Year of the Rabbit 2011.

When I visited Huang in his Beijing studio twelve years ago – for the 2011 Year of the Rabbit – he showed me a picture he had drawn for himself. Inspired by the saying that a crafty rabbit has three burrows, he had drawn three rabbits happily sitting in just one burrow. “We don’t need so many places to hide in this country anymore,” Huang said mischievously. When I asked him if he believed China’s society was well on its way to normalcy, he asked a rhetorical question in return: “If it were so, would we still have to hang a portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Gate?”

This much skepticism did not stop him from creating huge artworks for the government, such as a 24-meter-long and 7-meter-high mural depicting rivers and mountains. It can be found in the reception room behind Mao’s marble bust in the huge Mao Mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. 

But he refuses to be used for party propaganda or by system critics. Recently, an alleged protest photo of him against Beijing’s pandemic response appeared online. It shows him with his drawing of a hand flipping Beijing off. The writing next to it says, “The people are upset!” (中国人活得有气). 

Fake: Huang’s alleged protest picture, giving Beijing the finger. Next to it is the proclamation, “The people are upset!” (中国人活得有气). The photo has been altered.
Original: In the original painting, painted after the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Huang’s hand shows the Victory sign as a gesture of solidarity. The characters read, “The people are full of vigor!” (中国人活得有气势)

The photo was fake. A finger and a character were painted over. On the original drawing made after the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, two fingers show the Victory sign V. The characters read, “The people are full of vigor!” (中国人活得有气势). 

Yet Huang would have plenty of reasons to be bitter. He survived brutal persecution – in the early years of the traumatic Cultural Revolution at the hands of the Red Guards and seven years later at the hands of Mao’s scheming comrades, including his wife Jiang Qing. 

In order: In 1966, Huang taught at Beijing’s College of Fine Arts as its youngest professor. Cultural Revolutionaries branded dean Ye Qianyu, painter Lu Gongliu, and Huang as counterrevolutionaries and traitors to Mao. On August 23, 1966, all three artists were bloodily flogged after a public tribunal. Huang survived 242 lashes with a leather belt. 

Years of farm work in a cadre school in the province of Hebei followed. In 1973, Huang and other painters were unexpectedly brought back to Beijing from exile – by then-Premier Zhou Enlai. It is now known that it happened on Mao’s orders. After Nixon’s visit in 1972, Beijing wanted to present a friendlier image to other Western guests. Huang and other painters were supposed to paint a mural of the Yangtze River as an eye-catcher in the foyer of the newly built Beijing Hotel.

A visit to Huang Yongyu in Rabbit Year 2011. He sits in his studio on his massive wooden working table.

Huang, who was again allowed to visit acquaintances, drew one of his favorite motifs for a friend as a private gift – an ink painting of an owl with one eye closed and one eye open. This was the beginning of the infamous owl painting incident, of which Huang was the first victim. He was unaware that the friend had passed on the drawing and that it had been included in a Shanghai catalog of modern painting. Zhou Enlai wanted to once again internationally promote China’s art.

But it was this very catalog that became a target for a powerful group of ultra-leftist followers around Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, including then-Minister of Culture Yu Huiyong. He made himself a spokesman for renewed persecution of “black bourgeois paintings,” China’s word for degenerate art, which alleged enemies used to seek the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. On Feb. 15, 1974, the Beijing Art Gallery held a critique exhibition of “black painting” featuring 215 paintings by China’s eighteen best painters. Huang’s owl was by far the “blackest painting” among them. The owl holds one eye open and one closed. The artist allegedly used it to express his indifference and contempt for Mao and socialism. 

Huang Yongyu’s world famous owl almost cost him his life. The owl holds one eye open and one closed. In the late phase of the Cultural Revolution in 1974, ultra-leftist followers of Mao around the then-Minister of Culture and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing wanted to have painters and artists persecuted again. Huang’s Owl was denounced as a major work of “counterrevolutionary black art” (degenerate art). It closed one eye to socialism. But Mao prevented a reprise of the radical leftist campaign. “Owls look like that,” he said.

In a comprehensive biography of Huang Yongyu (李辉: 黄永玉传奇), Beijing’s cultural critic Li Hui investigated the intrigue at the time, which was actually supposed to bring down the loathed Premier Zhou Enlai. Huang obtained the original proposal for a campaign against black art with the written approval of all involved, including Mao’s wife, and had it framed and hung it in his bedroom, Li Hui writes. For Huang, it is satire, for others a piece of contemporary history from the Chinese madhouse of the late phase of the Cultural Revolution. 

Of all people, the fickle dictator Mao brought the persecution of artists to an abrupt end. When he was shown the photos of the Black Painting Exhibitions in order to receive his “highest directive” to launch a nationwide culture war, the aging Mao could not see anything offensive. He even praised Huang’s owl. One closed eye and one open eye are common for owls, he said. A German painter had once presented him with such a painting. The campaign ended before it even began. 

According to his biographer Li Hui, Huang Yongyu framed this internal indictment (a rare contemporary document) of the Cultural Revolution and hung it in his bedroom.

The current best profile on Huang Yongyu and a tribute to his satirical work was published by reporters in Renwu magazine (人物), Personalities, in 2022. They titled it, “As long as people can laugh, nothing is lost” (人只要笑,就没有输).

Huang can laugh. The Year of the Rabbit will be followed by the Year of the Dragon in 2024. He will then be 100 years old. His New Year’s drawing is something to look forward to. He revealed to Renwu reporters that he is preparing a century exhibition. If they see him motionless there, “pinch me and check. If I laugh, I’m still alive” (到时候胳肢我一下,看看我笑不笑 笑了,我就还活着).

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