An art of revolution: some background

Revolutionary Propaganda Poster - the cult of Mao Zedong and the 'Little Red Book'
image courtesy

In order to understand the current dynamic Chinese artworld it is necessary to have a little knowledge of the background - how did contemporary art in China become so important?

This page covers:
  • some of the key traditions in Chinese art, such as ink-painting and calligraphy
  • the brief period in the early 20th century when western Modernist influences prevailed
  • Post 1949, Communist propaganda art
  • The 1980s and the avant-garde
  • The 1990s - Political Pop and the Cynical Realists 
  • The 21st century

A: Chinese Traditions and why they still matter

Landscapes Painted for Yuweng, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), dated 1673
Fan Qi (Chinese, 1616–after 1694)
Album of eight leaves; ink and color on paper
image from
Essentially the story of painting in China begins with calligraphy. One of the best sources for discovering the (very complex) traditions of different styles and schools of painting is the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, on the Metropolitan Museum (New York) web site:
"The discipline (of this kind) of mastery requires derives from the practice of calligraphy. Traditionally, every literate person in China learned as a child to write by copying the standard forms of Chinese ideographs. The student was gradually exposed to different stylistic interpretations of these characters. He copied the great calligraphers' manuscripts, which were often preserved on carved stones so that rubbings could be made. He was also exposed to the way in which the forms of the ideographs had evolved: their earliest appearance on bronzes, stones, and bones about 1300 B.C. (known today as "seal" script, after its use on the red seals of ownership); their gradual regularization, culminating with the bureaucratic proliferation of documents by government clerks during the second century A.D. ("clerical" script); their artful simplification into abbreviated forms ("running" and "cursive" scripts); and the fusion of these form-types into "standard" script, in which the individually articulated brushstrokes that make up each character are integrated into a dynamically balanced whole. Over time, the practitioner evolved his own personal style, one that was a distillation and reinterpretation of earlier models. 

The practice of calligraphy became high art with the innovations of Wang Xizhi in the fourth century. By the eleventh century, a good hand was one criterion—together with a command of history and literary style—that determined who was recruited into the government through civil service examinations. Those who succeeded came to regard themselves as a new kind of elite, a meritocracy of "scholar-officials" responsible for maintaining the moral and aesthetic standards established by the political and cultural paragons of the past. It was their command of history and its precedents that enabled them to influence current events. It was their interpretations of the past that established the strictures by which an emperor might be constrained. And it was their poetry, diaries, and commentaries that constituted the accounts by which a ruler would one day be judged."

These 'scholar officials' were called the 'Literati' and it is to iterati painting that many contemporary artists are now returning, and sometimes appropriating or 'recontextualising' in their works - whether they themselves are working with ink, paint - or even photography or digital animation.

For a good introduction to traditions of Chinese landscape painting, check out this Khan Academy link
Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank, Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279)
Liang Kai (Chinese, active first half of 13th century)
Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink on silk
9 x 9 9/16 in. (22.9 x 24.3 cm) Source:
© Yao LuYao Lu’s New landscape part I – Ancient Spring Time Fey, 2006Courtesy of 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing

To see how Chinese artists still, even today, make reference to the works of the Literati and to traditional ink painters, look at the contemporary photographic works shown above and below:
 Han Lei, Yellow Mountain 15, Lambda Colour Photograph

Huang Xu Plastic Bag No.20 2007 giclee print 50X100cm edition 12; C-print
 122X244cm edition 6 image courtesy the artist and China Art Projects 
Both Huang Xu and Yao Lu deliberately echo the forms of 'Shan Shui' (Mountain / Water) painting, however each uses rubbish - discarded plastic bags and junk, the flotsam and jetsam of our industrialised modern cities, to make a comment about their world. Yang Yongliang, similarly, works with digital animation to create works that initially appear very similar to traditional landscape paintings.
Yang Yongliang, Full Moon, Lightbox, 2012

Watch 'The Day of Perpetual Night' here

Now watch the clip below to see how (and why) the artist makes animated versions of 'Shan Shui' painting - how does he challenge the meaning of the original works?

The artist's web site:

Yang Yongliang, 'A bowl of Taipei', source

Explain how Yang Yongliang makes reference to Chinese tradition in his works 'The Day of Perpetual Night' and 'A Bowl of Taipei'. In your response, evaluate the ways he uses new technologies to communicate his ideas.

Xu Bing's series of 'Background Story' installations emulate traditional paintings, however he uses plant debris and rubbish, backlit behind a screen to create an illusion for the audience, a kind of optical trickery. For the British Museum he made a work:

"in direct response to a Chinese mountain landscape hanging scroll by Wang Shimin dating to 1654 which is a part of the British Museum’s collection. Xu Bing has been creating installations for Background Story since 2004 at the invitation of various museums in China and abroad, the last being shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2010. The six previous works in the series have been in a horizontal format as responses to traditional handscrolls, but at the British Museum he will work for the first time in a vertical format to correspond to the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. This change of format will present new challenges and significantly alter the impact of the work.
Background Story 7 will be nearly 5 metres tall and will consist of a light box made with a wooden frame and a panel of frosted acrylic that is lit from behind. Xu Bing will use unexpected and found materials such as hemp fibres, dry plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and debris sourced from sites across London, and will place them on to the back of the acrylic. His deft work creates imagery that when seen from the front looks like the brush strokes of a Chinese painting and represents landscape elements such as mountains, water and buildings, in this case echoing Wang Shimin’s hanging scroll. However the illusion is shattered when the viewer sees the seemingly chaotic scattering of debris at the back of the work. The work will be created on site by Xu Bing and his studio assistants and will be completely dismantled afterwards. The installation will be filmed for the first time to allow viewers to share the inside story of this artistic creation in a daily time-lapse segment on the British Museum website.Xu Bing’s work explores the relationship and tension between art and illusion. Xu intentionally challenges the relationship between the image and medium. Unlike the traditional Chinese painter who creates a simple illusion by committing a landscape scene to paper in a realistic manner, Xu extends the artist’s remit. He creates a work that reads as a landscape painting, but is neither a landscape nor a painting and uses three-dimensional materials to imitate two-dimensional brushstrokes. Each of Xu’s unique installations pushes the viewer to confront the limitations of the way we habitually process and respond to what we see."
Xu Bing, Background Story 8 installation, shown in 'Dead or Alive'
at the Museum of Crafts and Design, New York 2010

Watch the video for important information about his 'Background Story 7' created for the British Museum.  

Why do you think many contemporary artists in China take inspiration from, or make reference to, the art of the past?

Artists in this blog who make the art of the past a particular element in their practice are Shi Zhiying, Yang Yongliang, Bingyi and Hu Qinwu.

Suggested activity for students to work in pairs or small groups:

Take ONE traditional Chinese painting from the Metmuseum site and ONE work by Huang Xu, Yang Yongliang, Yao Lu or Xu Bing. Discuss how the contemporary artist has adapted and recontextualised elements of the historical work in order to create new meanings.

B: Modernism in China

Sanyu (chang Yu)(1901 - 1966 ) 
Chrysanthemums on the Red Table, oil on masonite

'Modernism' has a somewhat different meaning and connotation in China than in the West. It is contested territory, with suggestions of colonialism and the domination of China at the end of the Qing Dynasty by Western powers. However, In the early years of the 20th century a number of Chinese artists, writers and intellectuals travelled abroad to study. This group included the painter 'Sanyu', who lived and worked in Paris.

This link is a long article by Odile Chen about his work under the influence of early Modernists such as Matisse: Sanyu: A Chinese Painter's Parisian Nudes
Here is an extract from the article:
I. A First-Generation Western-Style Chinese Painter
In China, the early 20th century was a time of new departures and revolutionary transformation. Groups of Chinese intellectuals, acutely aware of the shortcomings inherent in the country's fossilized, corrupt traditional system and culture, and at the same time exposed to a constant influx of Western thought and ideas, became catalysts for a number of reform movements, acting as driving forces for change. In the field of literature, modernization began in earnest with the May Fourth Movement of 1919 - part of the larger "New Culture Movement" that swept across China with concepts such as democracy and the scientific method. In the fine arts, it was the students of influential thinker and educator Cai Yuanpei who brought back a fresh perspective from their studies abroad and sowed the seeds of modernity in Chinese painting. Paris was at the heart of this development, with many of the early trailblazers earning their chops in the City of Light, including Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, and Xu Beihong. All of them shared a strong background and education in traditional Chinese culture before coming into touch with European art, and like quite a few others they were part of the so-called "Work-Study Movement" (mouvement travail-études) promoted by Cai Yuanpei. This first generation of Western-style Chinese painters with French credentials also, and very prominently, included a young man named Sanyu.
Supported by his eldest brother, Sanyu went to study art in Paris in 1921. Not possessed of the revolutionary spirit of a Xu Beihong, and also lacking any ambition to deliberately modernize Chinese painting or reform China's system of art education, Sanyu was a true bohemian, a free spirit who loved and enjoyed life, pursuing art very much for his own, individual purposes, for the sheer pleasure he derived from expressing himself creatively.
Sanyu, 5 women

Realist Painting Traditions: 

a continuing thread

"In the early years of the 20th century, a number of Chinese artists studied in Europe and returned to take up teaching positions in Chinese art schools. Later, during the 1930s and 1940s, artists such as Wu Guanzhong returned from studies overseas and introduced Western art practices to their students. With all the utopian idealism inherent in early modernism they believed that art was linked to social change. Wanting to move away from ‘literati’ painting, they saw Western painting techniques as a form which could convey new ideas for a new society. In the Reform period after 1976, and through the 1980s and 1990s, significant experimentation in figurative painting occurred in different urban loci. From the Northern Art Group (Beifang Yishu Qunti) in Harbin, which included Wang Guangyi, to the Jiangsu Surrealist Group (Jiangsu Chaoxianshi zhuyi tuanti) and the New Realists Art Exhibition, Chinese traditions were set aside in favour of new approaches to oil painting. The extraordinary degree of technical accomplishment resulting from the rigorous academic training of Chinese art schools produced new forms of painting in a realist idiom. In addition to painters such as Geng Jianyi, Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun who rose to stardom in the Political Pop and Cynical Realist schools of painting, other key figures have continued to influence an emerging generation. Artists such as Liu Xiaodong and Zhang Xiaogang pushed painting beyond academic realism grounded in 19th century conventions, and far beyond imitations of Western trends, whether modern or postmodern. " (Luise Guest)

C: Art for the Revolution

Propaganda Poster from the Cultural Revolution
Designer: Propaganda Poster Group Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe 
1966, September
Criticize the old world and build a new world with Mao Zedong Thought as a weapon
Yi Mao Zedong sixiang wei wuqi pipan jiu shijie jianshe xin shijie (以毛泽东思想为武器批判旧世
When Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took power in 1949 they created the People's Republic of China. From that time, art was pressed into the service of creating a new nation and a sense of solidarity and revolutionary zeal among the people. The style required was similar to Soviet Socialist Realism - strong, graphic, dramatic posters. Older styles of Chinese painting were considered feudal and regressive.

Interesting links for further research:

A useful site to see more of these revolutionary posters:

Watch artist Men Rin, who was once a Propaganda Poster artist, explain how the artists had to follow certain rules of representation:
Click HERE for this video clip from the San Francisco Asian Art Museum

This New York Times link shows photographs shot by a photographer and cinematographer in Harbin during the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1970s)

The BBC site provides eyewitness podcasts to numerous aspects of the Revolutionary period in China's history, including the famine caused by Mao's 'Great Leap Forward', the attacks of the 'Red Guards' during the Cultural Revolution and the later pro-democracy movement.

This link is to a Guardian (UK) article and video interview with Xu Weixin, an artist who has painted a series of large portraits of victims of the Cultural Revolution - revealing its continuing influence on contemporary artists:

Chairman Mao Gives Us A Happy Life, 1956

D: Art after Mao:1979 - 1989 China Avant-Garde

The 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition was a show put on at the National Art Gallery in Beijing at which more than three hundred works by almost one hundred avant-garde artists from all over China were displayed. Following a controversial performance piece by Xiao Lu and Tang Song,in which Xiao Lu shot a gun into their installation (see the picture above), the show was closed down and the two performance artists were arrested. A number of the other exhibiting artists, including Xu Bing and Huang Yong Ping, went overseas (to New York and Paris, respectively) after this event. Many other artists, writers and 'dissidents' followed after the collapse of the pro-democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 1989. This 'diaspora' of Chinese artists to Europe, the USA and Australia was, ironically, an important factor in bringing Chinese contemporary art to the attention of the wider world. 

"There was a lot of weird stuff going on in that cavernous Beijing museum back in February 1989. A young man was throwing condoms to a group of people gathered around him; a guy in red was washing his feet in a basin plastered with images of Ronald Reagan; a long-haired man was selling fresh shrimps to a crowd of customers. Strange things were scattered around: lumps of gnarled plastic resembling human intestines; rotting surgical gloves preserved under glass; a poster announcing that a man's death sentence had been carried out was plastered on a wall of photographs. And then, suddenly, two gunshots rang out. More than your typical art show, it really looked more like a farmer's market, says video artist Zhang Peili, recalling the opening of an exhibition that was bound for history even before it was installed. What mattered that day wasn't the art, or the show itself. Everybody knew that we were making history. We were totally invested in our roles as actors on a stage where anybody could suddenly become a star. Inaugurated with fanfare at 9 a.m. on Feb. 5 in the China Art Gallery, China's Contemporary Art Exhibition displayed some 300 pieces by 186 artists. The police shut down the show at around 3 p.m. the same day, after artists Tang Song and Xiao Lu opened fire on their own work, paradoxically titled Dialogue."

Read more:,8599,2054554,00.html#ixzz2WHSeBk1Y

"The atmosphere of the exhibition is harder to describe. The early spring air was filled with soot and the men wore their hair at shoulder-length, giving the scene a distinctly bohemian feel. While the exhibition of nearly 300 art works was set in a museum designed and still managed in Stalinist fashion, it gave Chinese visitors—especially those 40 and older whose lives were traumatically altered and their minds shell-shocked by the Cultural Revolution—the impression that they were treading on forbidden, even foreign territory. One could sense their trepidation as they entered the great hall on the ground floor, and read the incomprehension in their eyes as they stood before works of art that nothing in their lives had prepared them for. They blushed, for example, at the sight of the hanging sculpture of inflated balloons and medical gloves explicitly resembling human genitals, the Gao Brothers’ Mass in the Midnight (1989), and craned their necks in wonder at Xu Bing’s huge ceiling installation Book From the Sky(1987–91), with its thousands of playfully sabotaged Chinese characters printed with hand-carved woodblocks." ( )

Some interesting links for further research include:

Wu Hung, 'Exhibiting Experimental Art in China'

Ai Weiwei, 1994, 'June 1994 Tiananmen Square' - one of Ai Weiwei's first artistic acts of provocation
Ai Wewei went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square.  The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “F_ _ k” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government in early 2011 — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “f_ _ k”. 
 ( )

E: Political Pop, Cynical Realism - the 90s

Wang Guangyi, from the 'Great Castigation Series'  - 'Coca Cola' 1993, oil on canvas
According to art historian Terry Smith, postmodernism provided the 'ticket out of socialist realism' for Chinese artists. And for none more so than for Wang Guangyi, whose iconic disruptions of Cultural Revolution iconography ignited the 'Political Pop' movement which captured the imagination of the international art market.

Wang Guangyi, Face of the Believer, Lithograph
A useful site for more information about Wang Guangyi:

Zhang Xiaogang, A Big Family, 1995, oil on canvas, 179 x 229 cm
image courtesy Saatchi Gallery UK

 Big Family

Yue Minjun "Noah's Ark," lithograph, 41 x 45 inches, 2006.

What was Political Pop?

The term was coined by art critic Li Xianting in 1992 to describe art created by a group of 1990s Chinese artists, whose works, executed in the style of 1960s American Pop, juxtaposed Cultural Revolution propaganda imagery, such as a portrait of Mao Zedong, with symbols of globalization like Gucci or Coca-Cola logos. In their work Political Pop artists—including most notably Wang GuangyiYu Youhan, and Li Shan—expressed ironic, wry—and at times humorous—criticism of Chinese society’s growing fascination with wealth and luxury following the austerity of the recent past.

Another significant movement in the early 90s was 'Cynical Realism':
Cynical Realism is among the best-known of contemporary Chinese art movements. Emerging at the end of the 1980s in Beijing, influenced by the events of 1989, its representative paintings typically mirror disenchantment with both political and artistic utopias. Less statements about historic events than expressions of ambiguity, Cynical Realist works often embody psychic conflict and unease about the dizzying pace and character of change in the PRC. Perhaps the most widely-seen group of Chinese artists in the West, Cynical Realism has helped fuel the (mis)perception that all recent Chinese art should first be "read" in relation to its political meanings or subtexts.

Artists included Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Liu Wei
Yue Minjun, Untitled,  2001

F: China in the 21st Century

Sun Yuan and Lu Peng, 'Old People's Home', installation view, image courtesy of Sherman  Foundation

From Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing, to New Media artists such as Miao Xiaochun, Yang Zhenzhong, and Zhang Peili. From photographers such as Wang Qingsong to conceptual artists such as Wang Jianwei, Qiu Zhijie, Shi Qing and Song Dong. From sculptors such as Huang Yong Ping to painters such as Pu Jie. The one constant element in contemporary Chinese art, in all its extraordinary diversity, is the incredible inventiveness and technical virtuosity of the artists, whatever their  chosen medium. These artists work within a world of turmoil and change, they deal with uncertainty and doubt on a daily basis. This world of flux and change informs their artmaking in a variety of ways.

Shanghai-based new media artist Lu Yang with her work 'Biological Strike Back', photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist.

On the other pages of this blog you will find case studies focusing on a number of interesting contemporary artists, both emerging artists and significant major figures in the Chinese artworld.

Lu Yang, 'Wrathful King Kong Core', multi screen video projection

Watch the video on VIMEO here:

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