AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Zhebin Yin

“Florescence of Chinese Modernist Art”: The awareness and formation of female identity

In the early 1900s, females were restricted to the “stereotypes and cliches” but little sense of self (Weidner, 1988). After the May Fourth Movement in 1919, with the acceptance of western ideas and the attemptence of learning from western, women got greater opportunities for education. The awareness of their rights and social roles “were now less restricted by traditional Chinese ethics” (Ng, 2019). Moreover, “women questions” (funu wenti 妇女问题) were brought out and “manipulated by divergent factions” (D.E. 2021). The equality of women and men was promoted and treated “as a component of the socialist state to be realized through revolution” (D.E. 2021). In 1929, shenbao, one of the most popular and foremost commercial newspapers in modern China, herald “a special issue of The Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi 妇女杂志).” This represents not only the rise of female artists with the enormous influence contributed to the twentieth-century China’s art world, but also the formation and explosion of the female’s sense of self.

In my exhibition, I want to explore the theme of female identity through female artists during the 1920s to 1930s, mainly focusing on Pan Yuliang. I will focus on her life experiences and her works to illustrate the awakening of female identity during modern China.

Pan Yuliang was born in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China in 1895, sold to her uncle after the early passing of her parents. Her second marriage with Pan Zanhua brought her freedom. Her husband helped and sponsored her education. She studied in Shanghai Art School in 1919 (Teo 2016). She later went abroad to Europe (Paris and Italy) in 1921 for further art studies. She was also one of the first Chinese students who studied art in France. Pan’s paintings of female figures “were among the most provocative in modern China” (Ng, 2019).

Another artist I want to briefly mention is Guan Zilan, who was born in Shanghai, China in 1903. She went abroad to Japan at Bunka Gakuin in Tokyo after her graduation at the China Art University in 1927. She was greatly influenced by Henri Matisse’s Fauvism (“the style of les Fauves, French for “the wild beasts”, which was emphasized by the “painterly qualities and strong color”) and returned to Shanghai in 1930. She became one of the first artists to bring Fauvism to China.

Both of these two artists went abroad to study painting and were known for applying western painting style to Chinese traditional subjects. The famous paintings of these two painters were both influenced by the western painting style: Fauvism (Matisse) and impressionism (cezanne). 

Pan’s most significant art illustrations were manifested through her various representations of the female nude (Teo 2016, 57). Among all her earliest works, Dawn and Spring (Fig.1) were her most satisfactory, Pan indicated (Teo, 2016, 57). Her painting theme was all about women. In her works, nudes are often portrayed immersed in reading and music, indicating a sense of “intellectual absorption and self-containment” (Teo 2016, 61). Her paintings emphasized the beauty and peacefulness of the female body. Her works illustrate the embracement of the female body, without any shameful sentiments, but peaceful, confident, and joyfulness.

Fig.1: Pan Yuliang, Spring (Rong), 1930, oil on canvas. Reproduction from the 1934 catalogue Pan Yuliang Oil Painting Collection.


  1. D E Gliem. “The Golden Key: Modern Women Artists and Gender Negotiations in Republican China (1911–1949).” Choice, vol. 59, no. 3, American Library Association dba CHOICE, 2021, pp. 445–46.
  2. Weidner, Marsha Smith. Views from Jade Terrace : Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912. Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1988.
  3. Ng, Sandy. “The Art of Pan Yuliang: Fashioning the Self in Modern China.” Woman’s Art Journal 40, no. 1 (2019): 21–31.

Portrait of Miss L. (1929)

Guan Zilan, Portrait of Miss L., oil on canvas 90 * 75 cm, 1929.

Nihonbashi (Nihonbashi kara 日本橋から), 1930, IMAI Hisamaro.

Portrait of Miss L. is one of the famous paintings of Guan Zilan.

In this painting, A girl is sitting on a chair and holding a cute dog. The girl is wearing the cheongsam which is the typical Chinese style dress during the 20th century in China. The main color of the dress: red, also represents China to some extent. Miss L. is wearing a lot of jewelry on her hands. The dress she is wearing is really dedicated and gorgeous. The colors on the dress are beautiful and the dress has a nice gloss under the lights. This shows that Miss L. is from the upper class. The facial expression of Miss L. is very peaceful and steady. Her eyes are looking outside of the painting. 

Portrait of Miss L. is one of the famous paintings of Guan Zilan. The colors used in the painting are very bright, vivid, bold, and with high contrast. The red lips and cheeks contrast sharply with the white face, as well as the red dress and blue coat. This is a typical characteristic of the Fauvism style which is “the style of les Fauves (French for “the wild beasts”).” The fauvism style emphasized “painterly qualities and strong color over the representational or realistic values retained by Impressionism.” In the 1920s, under the May Fourth Movement, people in China realized the importance of science and realism and were trying hard to learn from western. Guan Zilan went to Japan to study art which was influenced a lot by western modern art (the painting painted by Nihonbashi is a comparison). Unlike the traditional Chinese painting where there are a lot of landscapes, trees, and Chinese architecture, this painting only has a small part of the curtain as the background. Also, this painting is very realistic and detailed, unlike the abstract style of traditional Chinese painting. This shows that modern China was absorbing and learning western culture and techniques a great deal. At the same time, artists were actively trying to combine and involve the Chinese elements with western style, in this example, the red cheongsam. Other than that, the girl in the painting looking outside of the painting seems like she is thinking and planning something carefully. This might represent the intent of the artist of thinking about how to build a better China.


“Artworks By Style: Fauvism – Wikiart.Org”. 2022. Www.Wikiart.Org. https://www.wikiart.org/en/paintings-by-style/fauvism#!#filterName:all-works,viewType:masonry.

Crothers, W., 2020. Japanese modernism: between earthquake and war. [online] www.ngv.vic.gov.au. Available at: <https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/japanese-modernism-between-earthquake-and-war/> [Accessed 20 April 2022].


Guan Zilan

Guan Zilan (关紫兰; January 1903 – 30 June 1986) was a Chinese avant-garde painter. She was born in Shanghai, China. She was one of the most famous female artists in China in the 20th century and was the first artist to introduce Fauvism to China. She was known for applying Western painting style to Chinese traditional subjects.

Her parents were successful textile merchants involved in textile design, which exposed Guan to artistic education since her childhood. She went to school at the Shanghai Shenzhou Girls’ school before attending the China Art University where she studied western painting under the famous artist, Chen Baoyi and Hong Ye. Guan Zilan went aboard to Japan at the Tokyo Institute of Culture: Bunka Gakuin, to pursue painting, after graduating in 1927. She was influenced a lot by western modern art, especially post-impressionism and, more notably, fauvism.

Guan became very famous both in Japan and China, she was regarded as the embodiment of the “modern girl,” as a female artist trained in western styles. After she returned to China, she became a professor at Shanghai art college. After 1949, when the communists took over China, she worked at the Shanghai Research Institute of Culture and History and became a member of China Artists. She changed her artistic style to align with socialist realism dominant in Communist China. She was a leader among female artists until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when she stopped painting.

Her most famous work is Portrait of Miss L. (1929).


“Guan Zilan – 12 Artworks – Painting”. 2022. Www.Wikiart.Org. https://www.wikiart.org/en/guan-zilan.

“Guan Zilan – Chinese New Art – Chinesenewart”. 2022. Chinesenewart.Com. https://www.chinesenewart.com/chinese-artists15/guanzilan.htm.

“Guan Zilan – Wikipedia”. 2022. En.Wikipedia.Org. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_Zilan.

Zhebin (Irene) Yin

Hi everyone, I’m from China, Jiangsu Province, Changzhou city. I’m currently a senior, majoring in computer science and mathematics. During the pandemic, I was back home in China. 13 hours time difference was such a painful experience. It’s so nice to be back at the campus to continue with my undergraduate journey.

In this class, I would love to learn more about China’s modern history and arts. I think modern China is full of darkness, struggle, and pain. But at the same time, modern China is also an important turning point for China, standing on the world stage. This special era helped China grow, refresh, and learn from others, instead of just being complacent about the past and escaping from reality. I would also love to improve my writing, observation, and critical thinking skills from this class.

Nice to meet you all!

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