Until recently my various engagements and connection with China have never involved the People’s Liberation Army. I am supremely relaxed about this – and I trust they are too. I had though always thought that I knew one big thing about the PLA but I discovered this week that I didn't. Know that one big thing, that is. However I did discover some other interesting stuff. Stick around and I will share it with you.
The one big thing that I thought I knew was that the PLA was the largest organisation in the world – in manpower terms totalling up to about 2.3 million people. It turns out that in fact it is comfortably topped by the United States’ Department of Defense which employs 3.3 million. Depending on your geo-political sympathies you may take some comfort in this. You might though want to factor in an awareness that the US figure includes not only forces active on duty and military reservists but also their civil service headcount. The PLA’s active military element is that 2.3 million headline number alone. Reservists and desk fillers aren’t included. It’s simply the biggest army in the world.
That being the case – and human nature being what it is all over the world – you might not be surprised to discover that there are some interesting nooks and crannies concealed with that vast army and those millions of people. And one of those was illuminated in Birmingham the other day. Specifically, this was a group from the Chinese Association of Artists including a couple who were part of the People’s Liberation Army which has its own art college, training facilities and indeed career paths for practising artists.
The focus of the PLA on the arts generally – and on the performing arts in particular - is less surprising when you appreciate how utterly entwined it is with the Chinese Communist Party – and its worth bearing fully in mind the fact that the first objective of the PLA even today is simply to ‘consolidate the ruling status of the Communist Party’ - ahead of any issues of wider national security. There is also actually a new and closer personal connection between President Xi Jinping and the army which has its own significance.
In revolutionary days the task of winning hearts and minds of the people through propaganda was a vital strand of work for the Party. Theatre and musical entertainment were always one of the principal routes for this and the PLA was probably the most important way that this was all delivered. Training in these skills was always part of the PLA responsibility and its been a route for personal advancement. Xi ’s wife, Peng Liyuan, rose first to national prominence in her own right as a folk singer from within the army ranks.
The range of artistic and cultural infrastructure that sits within the PLA is quite startling. In addition to the art college its includes opera house, opera, symphony orchestra, drama troupe and numerous bands plus its own Arts University which has departments covering drama, dance, music and literature. Apart from Prince Harry and colleagues’ well reported occasional forays into drag and fancy dress, I am not sure that Sandhurst has anything that quite matches.
You’d probably be inclined to suspect that Chinese military art was above all patriotic and bland – a range of postage stamp produced to mark the 80 anniversary of founding of the PLA, designed by one of the delegation and presented as a gift by the visitors fell pretty squarely into that category. But Xin Junqin who was also in the group who came here works at something a little more quirky to say the least while not losing a military dimension. His pieces include a reworking of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ covered in camouflage markings; Michelangelo’s Pieta with the dead Christ similarly decorated; paintings by US artists Edward Hopper with pieces of military hardware added. I am not, to adopt Dr Johnson, sure how well it is done but . . .
From the home side the group visited the Birmingham Royal Society of Arts and met with Ikon Gallery. There was a professional interest in the exhibits and BRSA and in matters of technique and framing and mounting of the display. They were gratifyingly impressed enough to put hand to pocket and draw out wads of £50 notes suggesting that they will be making contributions to the balance of payments while here, over and above their purchases at Brook Street.
You might be aware that art critic Andrew Graham Dixon has a series currently on BBC4 covering the history of Chinese art. His coverage to date of military art has been limited to the (unavoidable) terracotta army but you could keep an eye peeled for a Mona Lisa draped in combat drabs in a forthcoming episode.