ODU professor explains journey from communist China

NORFOLK, Va. - For the past 16 years Shaomin Li has taught international business at Old Dominion University.

He's a soft spoken, gentle man who once held a prominent place in the Chinese army.

“Mao needed artists who could glorify him. To praise him. So that’s how I got into the Chinese army to be an artist,” Li said.

Taking after his father, Li dreamed of being an artist since he was two.

When Mao Zedong became the chairman of the Communist Party in China, he ended education in the country. Li was in 3rd grade.

Eventually, he was recruited to be a propaganda artist for the army. 

“When I was about 19, Mao finally died and I was ordered to paint his picture for his funeral,” Mao said.

When Mao died, schools opened back up.

Li says he borrowed a high school math book and taught himself math in three months.

He passed the college entrance exam with the top score in his region, eventually earning a scholarship to Princeton.

“That really changed my life and my view - this country. Princeton changed me. I realized what Mao told us was a big lie,” Li said

He got involved in politics and was invited back to China to give a speech.

Li was arrested when he arrived and thrown in prison. Former President George W. Bush got involved, and Li was released after five months.

Today, Li uses his life and art to teach his students.

“Americans need to know what propaganda is like and what is used in China, and that will teach us what China is and will be,” Li said.

You can view Li’s artwork on display at the Chrysler Museum until June 24.