AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Category: Uncategorized

Landscape Masterpieces of Li Keran

Sounds of the Mountain and Water, Li Keran, ink and color on paper (1970)

Li Keran (1907-1989), born in Xuzhou China, was a heavily noted Chinese artist of the 20th century and significant educator at the esteemed Central Academy of Fine Arts. Li began painting around 1934, and continued to develop his art career from there on out. Li was inspired by a professor while attending the Shanghai Art College, who’s works involved blending Western and Eastern art styles. Li was present when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and also became a member of the Yiba Art Society, a leftist art organization. After the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Li started to create works using an imaginative splash ink technique, while spending a lot of his time drawing from nature. In 20th century Chinese art, Li was said to be remembered as a pioneer through his ability to blend in stylistic Western elements, and through his idea that to conduct a reconstruction of Chinese painting would be from drawing. 

Li’s works often illustrate the beauty of China’s landscapes, painting scenes of grand mountains, trees, waterfalls, etc. These works can be found in black in white or color, depending on what Li wants to portray. Landscape pieces including, and similar to Ten Thousand Crimson Hills will be included in this exhibition. In the exhibition, the idea of how Li was able to illustrate through his landscape paintings, the ideas of the Chinese Communist Party at the time, will be explored. What will also be explored is how Li’s personal beliefs were forced to be put in the dark in order to have his artworks fit in with society’s ideals. As mentioned earlier, Li was an important figure in the reconstruction of Chinese painting, so this theme is important as one can learn more about the impact and influence of Li, and artists similar to Li, as one of the things he was known for was mixing Chinese traditions with Western styles. Seeing how the Chinese government and society responded to Li’s adaptation of outside styles, will help shed light on the current ideals of the time, as well as the mindsets of the people, and what direction art was heading in 20th century China. 


Andrews, Julia F. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979. University of California Press, 1995. 

Andrews, Julia Frances, et al. Between the Thunder and the Rain: Chinese Paintings from the Opium War through the Cultural Revolution, 1840-1979. Echo Rock Ventures, in Association with the Asian Art Museum–Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2000. 

Hawks, Shelley Drake. The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. University of Washington Press, 2017.

Xie, Mian, and Charlie Ng. The Ideological Transformation of 20th Century Chinese Literature. Silkroad Press, 2016. 



Preserving style and improving technique: the art of realism.

Realism has long been associated with Jiang Zhaohe and is arguably the most salient characteristic of his work, Jiang Zhaohe is regarded as one of the most important influences in developing figure painting in Beijing (Andrews).

The reason it is important to emphasize Jiang’s stylistic features of his art is because it represents a broader shift of Art in China, art during the 1940 was politically charged and often a point of contention (Migration World Magazine). Focusing on the stylistic feature allow us to also consider the accuracy and skill Jiang possessed in capturing realism. This is significant as he was far ahead of his time with the implementation of ink and brush to capture realism in regards to figure painting.  The preservation of traditional stylist technique was influenced by Xu Beihong, as Jiang learned under him. (Xiaosheng). This would be significant as it allowed Jiang to position himself as one of the pioneers in figure painting.

This exhibition I wish to focus on the stylistic technique of ink and brush implemented by Jiang to capture realism. The improvement of this stylist technique also reflects a political shift in the importance of raising standards and style in works of art in China. art as it exemplifies the preservation of Chinese ink and brush style yet at the same time is the product arising from the need to modernize art and raise its standards.

Work of Jiang Zhaohe from a Czech Private Collection

Jiang Zhaohe (1904 – 1986)

Old Man 1940



Sun, Xiaosheng. “Jiang Zhaohe, Portraying the Lives of Working People 2016-08-03 16:29:27   Source£ºbeijing   .” charmingBeijing. Accessed April 28, 2022. http://www.charmingbeijing.com/eng/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=183&id=965.

Sullivan, Michael. “Art in China since 1949.” The China Quarterly, no. 159 (1999): 712–22.       http://www.jstor.org/stable/655764.


Correctly Remembering History: The Monument to the People’s Heroes

As is the case throughout all of human history, the victors write the narrative.  As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power, in the years following the Second World War those who held prominent political positions sought ways to display the strength of their followers while validating their message, showing the CCP as the proper heir to a long line of dynastic succession in China (Hung, 242).  In my art exhibition, I would like to explore how the Monument to the People’s Heroes successfully validated the Chinese Communist Party and sought to tell a correct version of Chinese history.  When the Monument to the People’s Heroes was proposed, there were a total of ten historical events that were suggested to be shown on the monument, as well as others that were heavily considered.  In the end, the decision was made that the Boxer Rebellion, the Battle of Pingxing, the Long March, and Mao’s Yan’an Talks would not be displayed on the monument as they were “single events… [rather than being] comprehensive in scope” (Hung, 245).  The chosen moments that would be displayed on the monument looked to unite the populace of China, reminding them of monumental moments where the people held the future of their nation in their hands.  Therefore, there is a need to focus on and examine the chosen moments which are represented in the bas-reliefs.  It was this underlying message that would validate a communist government.  

In this art exhibition, I hope to illuminate and place the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the time it was created.  As planning for the monument began during the initial years of the People’s Republic of China in 1952, there is a need to understand the social and political climate of China in the 1950s.  As the CCP looked to construct a cohesive narrative about China’s past struggles, it is certain that there is no better place to begin this task than with a public monument.  With the Monument to the People’s Heroes being a true piece of public art, with anyone who was in Tiananmen Square able to view it, a cohesive narrative could be created and delivered to the populace.  Especially as the monument influenced the further development of Tiananmen Square and was the witness to the following social events that occurred in this area, there is a need to understand the beginning of this evolution of China’s socialist architecture. 

The People Will Never Forget 1989. Photography by Liu Jian. The Wall Street Journal. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiananmens-survivors-and-the-burden-of-memory-11559295001).



Hung, Chang-tai. Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

The commune is like a gigantic dragon, production is noticeable awe-inspiring

The commune is like a gigantic dragon, production is noticeable awe-inspiring

The commune is like a gigantic dragon, production is noticeable awe-inspiring

公社如巨龙, 生产显威风

Gongshe ru julong, shengchan xian weifeng

This political poster was made in 1959, September by Wu Shaoyun. The poster is 53×77 cm’s large, painted by oil, and published by the Shanghai renming meishu chubanshe. It was created during the Great Leap Forward Period to publicizing the “success” of People’s commune. The Great Leap Forward was the period of time when Mao decided to use three years to catch up British and five years to catch up America in both agriculture and iron production aspects. And the people’s commune was an important part for accessing this goal. In the commune system, masses worked together, ate together and lived together to get credits. It was a period of public ownership society. In this Poster, there’s totally five people in the middle who carrying a large basket. They were all peasants, soldiers, workers, party cadres and students, which corresponding to Mao’s Yan’an Talk that the art works should serve the peasants, soldiers and workers. The Dragon was the symbol of the commune, which implied that the commune system would eventually success. Masses who stand on the Dragon raises a huge basket with plenty of foods, showing the prosperities and huge rise of agriculture production that commune system could attain. The plenty of foods also implied that the agriculture production was excess the goal, which could stimulate masses to engaging in the agriculture work. In the right side there’s a door named “跃进门”, the “Leap Forward Gate”, which corresponding to a Chinese saying that “鲤鱼跃龙门”. This was the symbol that People’s commune will successfully achieve Mao’s plan to catch up Western countries in just several years, and it was the Great Leap Forward movement that leading masses to the prosperity life.  The background of the painting was depicted exaggerated, with realistic style of depictions with human characters. This was the academic realism style which started in the 1950-60s. The author used bright colors to draw the happiness emotion to the audience, and people’s facing are full of smiles, both implies their positive attitude toward the Great Leap Forward Movements.



The commune is like a gigantic dragon, production is noticeable awe-inspiring | Chinese Posters | Chineseposters.net

Julia F.Andrews and Kuiyi Shen. The Art of Modern China, University of California Press, 142-144.

Feng Zikai’s Looking at a Potted Plant

The painting above, Feng Zikai’s Looking at a Potted Plant; Thinking of Something Else (1949), comes from one of the most well-known collections of Feng’s paintings, the third volume of Protecting Life Painting Collection (Hu Sheng Hua Ji) published in 1949. In this painting, there is a bound and twisted potted tree next to a painting of a person treated in the same way. The Chinese characters on the top left of this painting mean the theme, “an idea inspired by the potted plant.” The whole painting is simplistic, with a few brushstrokes’ straightforward delineations of the objects. Such a painting style is called Man Hua, the Chinese cartoon.

With the inspiration of Buddhism, Looking at a Potted Plant is one of the representatives that convey Feng’s thoughts related to Buddhism and the protection of the living creatures. The painting collection included the painting above, Hu Sheng Hua Ji, which features Feng’s cartoons of animals and plants in imminent threat. In the collection, Feng intended to use humor to enlighten his readers to protect and respect all their lives and beings. Therefore, in Hu Sheng Hua Ji, Feng usually criticizes the particular ways that human beings treat other forms of life. To do that, Feng would like to present such treatments alongside the treatment of human beings in the same manner, which enables his readers to think about the cruelty involved in those treatments (Yan, 2019: 547). Looking at a Potted Plant exemplifies such a technique: next to the artificially tied and bound potted plant is the portrait of a person who has been treated in the same way. The logic behind this contrast is that If it is morally wrong for people to intentionally bind the limbs of others, it is also morally wrong to do the same to plants, and vice versa.

The interpretation of Looking at a Potted Plant is not limited to protecting life but also the protection of culture and arts. According to Feng himself, bending the plants to force them to grow in a particular way is unnatural and undesirable because it would cripple them. Moreover, Feng suggests that artificially shaping and prettifying plants cannot show the beauty of their natural growth (Hawks, 2017: 34). Unfortunately, the majority of the “gardeners” cannot be aware of that, and they trim the plants into an exactly uniform size and style. Thus, Looking at a Potted Plant also symbolizes Feng’s criticism of the ideologies that confine the development of art forms and aesthetics: it is meaningless to produce uniform arts.



Hawks, Shelley Drake. The Art of Resistance : Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.

Yan, Hektor K.T. “‘A Rich Conception of the Surface’: On Feng Zikai’s Paintings to Protect Life.” Philosophy east & west 69, no. 2 (2019): 535–558.


Old Man 1939


The painting, Old Man 1939 by Jiang Zhaohe 蒋兆和 (1904-1986). hanging scroll ink and color on paper. (66 X 45.5 cm. 926 x 17 7/8 in.)
In this painting we see the emphasis on realism. Old Man is extremely vivid in detail, perhaps best encompassing the ability of Jiang Zhaohe to artistically capture human faces well. The use of traditional ink and brush material combined with the more modern portrayal of a human face make this pieces remarkable. The precision of the shading, wrinkles and fine lines that underscore the Realistic them seen in the Old Man reflect Jiang Zhaohe’s art education. Jiang Zhaohe had an extensive art background, being a professor of sketching at Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, from 1930-1932 and also showing particular interest for western style painting early (inf.news). It’s perhaps within the integration of Zhaohe‘s interest that led to the culmination of his beautiful portraits. The synergy of western influence combined with masterful traditional tools allow this piece to have a lot of Chinese essence while being aesthetically pleasing.

Artistically the composition of this art is beautiful. The most notable aspect of this painting is the contacts between the body and the face. Although the human body is captured masterfully and proportionately, it lacks details past superficial strokes that portray minimal detail. What this allows is for the focal point to instead lie within the shaded, realistic face. The shading allows for the old man’s face to display emotion, perhaps the most important reason for this contrasting technique. We can see the expression of pensive or sadness. There seems to be a grading effect, the detail fades drastically as one moves their eyes away from the face. Placing this work in context amongst Zhaohes other works reveals the patriotic themes often portrayed in his works, most notable of these was Refugees (Andrews, kuiyi: 128). The choice to emphasize a face of a Chinese’s details the portrayals of emotions.



Andrews, Kuiyi: The art of Modern China, 2012. University of California Press.


Political Propaganda Posters

The Political Propaganda Posters in China generally refers to the Posters that created after Mao’s Talks at the Yanan Forum on Literature and Art. The target groups of the Propaganda Posters were the workers, the peasants, the soldiers, and the revolutionary cadres, who were the vast majority of the population in China. The goal was to use the Political Propaganda Posters as a “culture army”, for uniting China’s own ranks, defeating the enemy and helping the Chinese revolution. Hence, the topics of those Posters were related to the Historical events that happened at that period of time, and the Posters will either “reduced the domain of China’s feudal culture and of the comprador culture which serves imperialist aggression” or praising the revolution or Political Policies held by Mao at the corresponding period of time.  Because these Posters were serving for the variety of uneducated masses, the style of the Posters were mainly with bright colors and easy to understand. Sophisticated painting skills and Westernized skills were criticized by Mao, and the protagonists in the Posters will always be the masses and Mao. This is one of the Political Propaganda Posters during the Great Leap Forward, showing how People’s Commune policy led Chinese people into a happy life.

The commune is like a gigantic dragon, production is noticeable awe-inspiring

“The commune is like a gigantic dragon; production is noticeable awe-inspiring.”

made by Wu Shaoyun, Zhang Yuqing and Lu Zezhi. 1959, September. Shanghai renmin Meishu Chubanshe published


蒋兆和 Jiang ZhaoHe

Jiang ZhaoHe (1904-1986) was born in Luzhou, in Sichuan province. Heavily influenced by western art and style, ZhaoHe’s education was thorough. Having studied under Xu BeiHong and Qi BaiShi, ZhaoHe positioned himself to master not only traditional painting but also other forms of art, even venturing into sculpting.

JiangZhaoHe’s work often reflects his passion in current political transgressions. ZhaoHe lost his job as a result of his participation in waging anti-Japanese propaganda in 1932, he went on to mount his first solo exhibition in 1937. ZhaoHe went on to enjoy a  sucessful career. Becoming a teacher at the National Beijing Art School in 1947 and later In 1950, becoming a professor at the Central Art Academy.





King Chao

My name is Yueqin Chao, you can call me King or King Chao instead of full name. I am an Asian Study Major History minor Junior student who interested in the 19th century China History. Because I think that period of time was a period of revolution and changes, and to understand the modern Chinese society we should first know about that period of history. I choose this class because I think this will be very helpful for me to researching the poster and propaganda during Mao Years, how to analyze it within and without the political ideas, which might be my senior research.


Hey! I am Camilo, I am a Psychology and Chinese ID junior. I love traveling to China! I want to work in an international setting, I have an interest in language learning and I plan on integrating both of these aspects into a successful career in business/consulting . I think art is often overlooked when considering powerful influences for our past. I am interested in this course because I want to gain more background knowledge on Chinas culture and also be able to asses art under a more analytical lens. In doing this I hope to be more knowledgeable about the country and its portrayal of communism. My Chinese name is 慕容轩

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