AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Category: Exhibition Themes

“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.

Childhood According to Feng Zikai

Childhood has been a significant theme in Feng Zikai’s arts. Feng spent a lot of time painting children; some of the famous works related to children include A Collection of Cartoons of ChildrenSketches of Children, and Cartoons on the Little Ones (Hung, 1990). There are also many literary works that convey Feng’s affection for childhood, such as “To My Children,” “What Children Reveal,” and “The Diary of Huazhan” (Laureillard, 2014). It is easy to see that Feng did not hesitate to present his affection for children in his works. According to Feng’s early writings and paintings, childhood is regarded as the precious “golden age” of human life: it is the period when a human’s world is free, uncomplicated, and full of imagination and creativity, whereas an adult’s world is full of limits and regulations. “When Father is Away” (Fig 1) by Feng could sufficiently exemplify such a perspective (Hung, 1990). In the painting, a child held a brush to show his artistic talent on his father’s desk. We could notice that the child’s act is not an imitation of an adult but a purely exploratory behavior developed by his or her curiosity and creativity. If it were an imitation of an adult’s behavior in this painting, the child would have drawn or written on a piece of paper because it is common knowledge in the adult world.

I would like to explore the childhood in Feng’s works for my exhibition. In particular, I wish to introduce and analyze how Feng developed his perspective on childhood and portrayed children in his artworks, especially in terms of his early works, works during wartime, and works regarding the Buddhist philosophy.

Figure 1: “When Father is Away”


Hung, Chang-Tai. “War and Peace in Feng Zikai’s Wartime Cartoons.” Modern China 16, no. 1 (1990): 39–83.

Laureillard, Marie. “Regret of spring: The child according to Feng Zikai.” Oriens Extremus 53 (2014): 47-60.

Explosions for Rebirth: Surpassing the Memories of Pain

Cai Guo-Qiang is most famous for his pyrotechnical artistic methods and installations which explore the visual language of explosions and the aesthetics of pain. Cai Guo-Qiang is known for creating explosive performance art that has a deeper political meaning that usually revolves around China. As Cai Guo-Qiang become more world-renowned he began to expand his artwork internationally. A particular artwork that showcases Cai Guo-Qiang’s artistic expansion was showcased in 2005 at the entrance to the Zacheta National Gallery of Art. Cai Guo-Qiang’s intention for this particular work of art is to blend the past and present through location and content. The Zacheta National Gallery is a location with great significance as it was the location where Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of Poland in 1922, was assassinated (Munroe, 2008). This location was also quite important in the 1980s because it was the communal area where people protested against the communist regime in Poland. The use of this historical location allowed Cai Guo-Qiang to utilize the well-known red flag which is about 21ft x 31ft within the façade of the building. Cai Guo-Qiang uses his artistic niche of pyrotechnics to burn down the infamously known red flag which generally symbolizes socialism, communism, and Marxism. Initiating an explosive performance in a location with communist history demonstrates Cai Guo-Qiang’s vision of visually burning away the dark and painful past of communism and signifying the purification and rebirth of Poland. Cai Guo-Qiang has created many artworks that directly speak against China’s communist ideals and continues to demonstrate his stance on communism by creating works internationally. This piece demonstrates his artistic expansion. Cai Guo-Qiang extends his work by going beyond China and connecting his art to any person or nation that has suffered through times of communism.

For my exhibition for this course, I would like to utilize the outdoors of the Union College campus. I would like to incorporate some sort of firework display symbolizing an important message that identifies with the student population. I would like to somehow utilize the Nott Memorial as the centerpiece as fireworks ignite within a reasonable distance. Cai Guo-Qiang has many performance artworks that start with a particular visual of something important that ultimately ends up exploding. I would like to use some sort of visual represnetation that ulitamtely ends up exploding near the Nott.

Image of Art:


Munroe, Alexandra, and Thomas Krens.Cai Guo-Qiang I Want to Believe. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2008.

Rojas, Carlos. “Cai Guo-Qiang.” Diacritics 47.4 (2019): 130-5. ProQuest. Web. 8 May 2022.

Personal cults in image: The image of Mao in Chinese Political Posters and Propagandas.

The Political Poster in 20th century China takes huge tasks in depicting Chinese Political Leaders, forming the cult of the leaders and helping conveying the political ideas.Political posters can show an image of powerful political leaders, and being the important tool and modern technologies to render a subconscious impact of personal cult. The Political Posters could also convey the political ideas through depicting character’s emotion, changing their size and the background color. In China, Mao’s images in the Political posters and propagandas are the example of using the posters not only to form a personal cult of Mao, but also to convey China’s relationship with the Soviet Union and other countries. Such as Li Binghong’s The Sino-Soviet Allliance for Friendship and Mutual Assistance Promotes Enduring World Peace. In this painting, it contains both Chinese and Soviet Union’s leaders ‘ images to show the inviolability of the Soviet-Chinese friendship. Stalin’s image was at the side of Mao, just as the teacher of Mao, which helped build the personal cult of Stalin in Chinese masses.

Li Binghong 黎冰鸿. Ca. 1950. The Sino-SovietAlliance for Friendship and
Mutual Assistance Promotes Enduring World Peace (Zhong Su youhao tongmeng huzhu cujin shijie chijiu heping 中苏友好同盟互助促进世界持久和平) [Source: Chinese Posters Foundation 2019]

Based on the poster I described, we can see that it is important to use different posters and propagandas that include Mao’s image to analyze what political ideas they try to convey and how the details of the poster could help audiences to understand those informations. Hence, In my exhibition, I will introduce five different political posters that include Mao’s images, analyzing these posters through color, character position, size of character and emotional aspects  to show how the Chinese government in the 20th century used propaganda to build personal cult of Mao and convey political ideas & international relationships.



1:Polina, Komarovskaya.The Political Poster and Its Role in the Personality cult of Mao Zedong, Accessed 5/5/2022, OE-57-7.pdf (oriens-extremus.org).

2:Benewick, Robert.”Icons of Power: Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.” From Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China:Posters of the Cultural Revolution. Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald edited. Rowman & Littelefield Publishers, New York, Oxford. 1999.

3:Yuzhu Fu, and Cheng Yan. The Way of Visual Persuasion in Chinese Propaganda Poster. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, volume 123. Atlantis Press, 2017.

4:Sprouse, Sarah. “The Aesthetics of Revolution:Chinese Propaganda and the Anthony E.Clark Chinese Poster Collection.”Chinese Art Posters Documents. Whitworth University. 2017. The Aesthetics of Revolution: Chinese Propaganda and the Anthony E. Clark Chinese Poster Collection (whitworth.edu)


“Women Hold Up Half the Sky”: A Woman’s Role during the Cultural Revolution

There was a famous quote from Communist Party leader Mao Zedong claiming that “women hold up half the sky” during the cultural revolution. During these years – from 1966 to the time of Mao’s death in 1976- there seemed to be a sense of freedom and liberation for women. The leader of their country, their idol, had expressed his support for women to be treated equally as men. The Communist Party needed to get as many people on board with their agenda, and to do that, they needed some way to include the female population. The main way to show that women could now theoretically hold the same opportunities as men was through propaganda. 


Propaganda posters were extremely effective in portraying women in a positive light and creating a cult of diehard supporters of the movement. The nature of propaganda is anonymous; meticulously cultivated and distributed by government controlled institutions. For this reason, oftentimes there is no individual artist credited with creating a poster. There can be individual artists that create their art under very strict guidelines by the CCP that resembles propaganda, but for official, widespread propaganda posters were mostly left nameless. The style of these posters are often very cartoon-like. The figures are always dominated by a bright red/warm color background, and are pictured with either very fierce or overly happy expressions. There are often no shadows or any cool colors that suggest any emotion other than determination or happiness, creating flat characters with no depth (Lü).


 I want to discuss how these posters convey women’s role in the cultural revolution, and see if it was as progressive towards women’s rights as they claim to be. This is important because after Mao’s death in 1976, the cult of Mao seemed to die off, and we see his predecessor take over and change CCP policies. Before Mao rose to power, women were restricted to homely duties and taking care of children, but now they are pictured in these propaganda posters as strong and reliable, which was a drastic change for the country. The change in women’s roles during the cultural revolution was exciting for women who were being liberated for the first time.



Lü, Peng. A History of Art in 20th-Century China. Charta, 2010

Deng Shaoyi, ‘We Have Seen Chairman Mao’, 1974, oil painting



图在东西之间 Figures between East and West, A Zhang Hongtu Exhibition

图在东西之间, Figure Between East and West


As an artist, Zhang Hongtu seems to constantly be navigating the theme of East and West in his work. Zhang Hongtu, 张宏图,born in 1943 and still living today, gained fame in the 1980s and 1990s initially for his series of paintings of trivializing depictions of Mao, such as replacing the farmer on a Quaker Oats box with Mao1. Zhang became notable for fusions of Eastern and Western symbols like these. While Zhang’s transformations of Mao’s image in pieces such as The Last Supper and his Material Mao series contain powerful political and social critiques, they were personal to Zhang Hongtu as well. Having lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Zhang Hongtu had personally experienced its paranoia and repression. When he moved to New York in 1982 he was able to freely explore his own relationship with Mao’s icon and question Mao’s image. With the newfound freedom of the Western world Zhang Hongtu was able to further investigate the exchange of ideas between East and West. 


With Zhang Hongtu’s later work there features a more introspective examination of Western and Eastern artistic movements and philosophies with similarities being aptly pointed out by the artist such as the comparison of Van Gogh and Bodhidharma in the Van Gogh – Bodhidharma series2. Zhang Hongtu’s use of the theme of East and West goes beyond the use of Western motifs to examine the East but to also break down the duality of an East and West split such as in his Sanshui series where he uses impressionist brushwork to recreate famous Chinese ink and brush paintings3. The theme of East and West then no longer serves as an antagonistic relationship but transforms into one of self-recognition as the artist’s philosophy evolves. 


  1. Zhang Hongtu, Interview with Jane DeBevoise. Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art From 1980-1990. New York City: Asia Art Archive, 2009 
  2. Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Martin Powers, Ars Orientalis Volume 49, Michigan Publishing, 2018
  3. Lee, Luchia Meihua, Jerome Silbergeld, and Julia Frances Andrews. Zhang Hongtu: Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World. Queens, NY: Queens Museum, 2015.

The Personal is Political: Female Identities In A Post-Revolution Era

The destruction of gender convention and deconstruction of society’s stylescape proves a hot topic with more than one Chinese artist. Female photographer and mixed media artist, O Zhang (b. 1976), hails from the city of Guangzhou, China where she would soon evacuate due to pressures of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Currently, she has been photographing and traveling between New York and Beijing. Oil Painter, Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970), photographer and performance artist, began painting at a young age in northern China. She eventually became a member of the group called Sirens, where she, and three other female artists exhibited work in their small apartment – as women were hardly welcome in public spaces in the 90’s.Chengyao He (b. 1964), was born in the Sichuan province in China. During her childhood, the Cultural Revolution gained momentum and her family suffered. Much of her art has challenged feminism, body politics, nationalist and transnational issues as well as, photographer Pixy Liao (b. 1979), born in Shanghai who began her artistic adventures at the University of Memphis.

The Personal is Political: Female Identities In A Post-Revolution Era will explore the identities of women and children; specifically, how the cultural revolution (1966-76) and Chinese politics have affected the way in which these identities have been altered. This exhibition will feature four series of works which act to examine the personal female experience. Xiuwen’s One Day in 2004 (2005) and Zhang’s Horizon (2006), capture the relationship between society and the female body whilst incorporating memories of their own childhood. Artist’s Liao and He, “deconstruct China’s resolute definitions of gender and power” (van Peridon, 2020). Furthermore, testing Mao Zedong’s China (1946-1976): a discipline which molded the “individual body and mind, shaping a collective” consciousness and socialist entity (Cui, 2015). Aware of the profound changes in post-Mao Chinese society, these artists are an emblematic figure of a new generation of female artists whose presence is strongly asserted in the international art scene.


Cui, Shuqin. Gendered Bodies: Toward a Women’s Visual Art in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015.

van Paridon, Elsbeth. “Bloody Pixy Liao: Reappointing Society’s Gender Roles.bloody Bad*Ss.” The China Temper, February 16, 2020. https://chinatemper.com/the-photographers/pixy-liao.

Art through Arson

During the 1980’s Huang YongPing co-founded an artist group which became known as the Xiamen Dada group. The group was considered one of the more radical avant-garde groups emerging from China at the time for their unique styles, and their cultural critiques. Xiamen Dada became part of contemporary Chinese art history in 1986 when their works were on display at the Exhibition of Modern Art which was held in Xiamen People’s Art Museum. Their works gathered mass attention, and critiques when the group decided to publicly burn their works at the end of the exhibition in defiance of the cultural, and political revolutions going on in China at the time. Primarily the group was protesting the leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng Xiaoping, and his desire to return China to a socialist government with more Chinese characteristics (Doryun, 2015). This act of arson sent shock waves through the art community as people were puzzled as to why an artist would destroy something beautiful that they created themselves. Huang, and other members of the Xiamen Dada group chanted “Without destroying art, life will never be peaceful.” (Dawei, 2022). This idea of finding peace within destruction coinciding with China reopening its doors to the west after its painful cultural revolution goes to show how even in the most trying of times there is still hope for a better future. Continuing further with this idea, it is evident through the progression of Huang’s works throughout his career that he is able to use forms of destruction to create new ideas and styles. In essence works like Xiamen Dada, Reptile, and Theater of the World served as pedestals for Huang allowing him to mix different styles from different cultures, specifically traditional Chinese culture and modern western culture that was beginning to flood China. For my exhibition I would like to incorporate fire somehow (maybe a fire pit around campus) and begin a sort of maze throughout campus showing Huang’s different works and how he was able to draw attention to his work through destruction.

I decided to move away from the snake idea we spoke about because I find dadaism very fascinating and I feel this would be a fun topic to continually work on leading up to the final essay.

Post exhibition burning. Xiamen Dada.


1. Zhi, Jiang. 2017. “Eyes Wide Open: How Chinese Contemporary Art Went Global | Christie’s.” Www.christies.com. 2017. (“publicdelivery.com”, 2022)https://www.christies.com/features/Art-and-China-after-1989-Theater-of-the-World -8579-1.aspx. (Jiang Zhi, “christies.com”, 2017)

2. Lin, Xiaoping. 1997. “Those Parodic Images: A Glimpse of Contemporary Chinese Art.” Leonardo 30 (2): 113. https://doi.org/10.2307/1576420.

3. Chong, Doryun. 2015. Review of Huang Yong Ping: Change Is the Order of the Day. Informit. March 1, 2015.

4. Holmberg, Ryan, and Huang Yong. The Snake and the Duck: On. Sept. 2009.

– This is a great .PDF excerpt that I found online from “Yishu: Journal of

5. “Huang Yong Ping’s Controversial Theater of the World – Public Delivery.” 2022. Publicdelivery.org. April 14, 2022. https://publicdelivery.org/huang-yong-ping-theater/#Who_was_Huang_Yong_Ping. (“publicdelivery.com”, 2022)

6. “Fei Dawei on HUANG YONG PING.” n.d. Www.artforum.com. Accessed May 12, 2022. https://www.artforum.com/print/202001/huang-yong-ping-81612.


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