AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Category: Visual Analysis

Propaganda Poster, Shanghai, 1976

With the sun in your heart, what is there to fear? Dare to sacrifice your youth with the people.”, Artist unknown, gouache on paper, Shanghai, 1976

For many years in the Communist Party’s reign over China, these posters were a way of connecting the government with its people. This propaganda-producing business usually churned out millions of posters annually, and had become so efficient at creating political posters that it would take less than a day to draft, print, and distribute new material for the masses to consume (Andrews, 2012).The purpose of these posters were to encourage the majority of society- the working class, peasants, farmers, and soldiers- to unite together as equals under one country. In this unity and idyllic society, everyone is treated as equals, which includes men and women. Mao Zedong explicitly states that “women can do the same as men”, and supports them in every way as long as it benefits the party (Evans, 1999). Women are allowed to dress, work, and have the same political power as men. This stance has given women the freedom to appear in artwork in the same company as men and give society examples of what their role is in this “new” China.

This poster below features a line of mostly young women with their arms linked to form a chain. They are forming a human dam against massive tides of water, withstanding the crashing waves with determined expressions. The caption below the poster reads: “With the sun in your heart, what is there to fear? Dare to sacrifice your youth with the people.”, and underneath that caption is another, saying “learn from the eleven educated youths of Shanghai’s Huangshan TeaTree Factory, who feared neither bitterness nor death.” (Evans, 1999). It is a gouache on paper, and is most likely a local propaganda poster. The fact that the image features mainly women goes to show how seriously women’s roles in Communist society were taken. They can bear the same hardships as men with equal resilience and determination. The main woman in the foreground of the work is clutching the “little red book”, a book of Mao Zedong’s sayings that the Red Guard often carried around. She is the only one in this poster whose face is showing fear. Though she appears as a “weak link” who allows the rushing water to pass by the human chain, she is still holding on and has a tight grip on the little red book, thereby solidifying her willingness to stand strong by her government and their beliefs.

Extension 1994

Cai Guo-Qiang is a versatile artist who has created his own artistic movement which utilizes gunpowder and explosives. Whether it is an installation, a performance, or a drawing, Cai Guo-Qiang blends many different aspects of humanity and investigates the true purpose of humans within this world. Cai Guo-Qiang’s Extension, 1994, is a beautiful work of art that utilizes his gunpowder technique. Within this work, he utilizes the entirety of the gallery’s walls which extends throughout 8 different canvases— the work extends fifty feet and is about seven feet high. This gunpowder drawing has a yellow and brown tint and moves quite majestically within the different panels. As a Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang creates this dynamic and abstract curvature to symbolize both the great wall of China and the famously known Chinese dragon. When thinking of the great wall of China and dragons, one thinks of length which is exhibited within the title of the work –extension. It is interesting to see Cai Guo-Qiang, create a simultaneous comparison between these two entities because both the Great Wall and dragons have a particular form that seems to be quite inconsistent –these two subjects appear to flow randomly. This particular work is somewhat of a nationalistic work of art because it connects Chinese cultural symbols, architecture, and resources all in one depiction. (Guggehim.org) Initially, when looking at this work of art it is hard to tell what medium is being used. Many may perceive this work of art as similar to Jackson Pollock who utilized splatter paint. In a way, Cai Guo-Qiang is modern-day Jackson Pollock because of his utilization of a new technique while focusing on the boundaries of abstraction. Cai Guo-Qiang, similar to Pollock, only has a certain amount of control over his medium; much of the final display comes down to the strategic placement of his own hand.

Extension, 1994, Gunpowder on paper, mounted on wood as an eight-panel screen, 256 x 1,560 cm


“Gunpowder Drawings.” The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, https://www.guggenheim.org/teaching-materials/cai-guo-qiang-i-want-to-believe/gunpowder-drawings.

Ai Weiwei’s Remembering

In English, this work reads ‘She lived happily on this earth for seven years’. In 2009, it was installed on the facade of Haus der Kunst in Munich, a museum hosting an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s work, titled So Sorry. Ai was permitted to install this work, which required nine thousand backpacks colored to match the shades of red, yellow and blue used in the Toys ‘R’ Us logo. With this piece, Ai was paying tribute to the countless thousands of children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008. In total, 70,000 died. So many were children due to poorly constructed school buildings built by the government. In this piece, I believe Ai Weiwei is not commenting on the tragedy as much as the censorship, secrets and lies perpetuated by the Chinese government. Ai values transparency and believes the public deserves information. He resented that lives were being forgotten due to the government’s desire to control public awareness of their failure. Ai embarked on a project to collect the names of these lost people, and made a documentary of this process titled Hua Lian Ba Er. In the documentary, he phones an agent working for the Sichuan Post-Quake Reconstruction office, asking for the most recent death toll. The agent replies that the death toll is a secret, and asks if Ai is really an American spy. Ai decides to put together a team to collect names themselves. Together, they found 5,212 names and birthdays, all of which were posted on Ai’s blog exactly a year after the tragedy. Immediately, authorities shut down his blog and his home was put under surveillance. Ai’s work lies in forming ideas and designs, and he hires a team to do all the physical executing. One member described their work in this role as being co-workers on a project, rather than hired help to Ai. This philosophy reminds me of the core principles of communism and equality valued in the Chinese people. To me, Ai does not make his work out of contempt for the Chinese government, but rather out of love for China and desire for positive change.

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, backpacks and metal armature, 2009. Image from publicdelivery.org.



“Ai Weiwei: The Sichuan earthquake & 9000 children’s backpacks.” Public Delivery. Last modified March 23, 2022. https://publicdelivery.org/ai-weiwei-remembering-haus-der-kunst-muenchen-2009/

Klayman, Alison, director. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Feltrinelli, 2013. 1 hour 31 minutes. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tlqnTEYJ00 

Weiwei, Ai. “Ai Weiwei: The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China.” The Guardian. February 15, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/15/ai-weiwei-remembering-sichuan-earthquake


Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World

Close up view of Wooden table with mesh wire underneath bridge structure.

The installation shown below is called “Theater of the World” done by Huang Yongping in 1993. The installation includes two main structures: first the arching metal frame that bridges over the second structure, a wooden four legged table with a transparent octagonal wire mesh cage on top of it (Jiang Zhi, “christies.com”, 2017). In the original piece the bridging structure housed snakes and turtles together, while the cage below was equipped with heating lamps, and housed live spiders, scorpions, crickets, cockroaches, black beetles, stick insects, centipedes, lizards, toads, and snakes (“publicdelivery.com”, 2022). Naturally housing all of these different species together led to some of them eating one another. This led to international outrage as animal rights activists gathered over 800,000 signatures to remove the work, and were actively protesting before the works installation in New York threatening violent retaliation if installment was not halted (“publicdelivery.com”, 2022). This public pressure forced organizers to remove Yongping’s installation along with two other pieces from Guggenheim’s new exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World (Jiang Zhi, “christies.com”, 2017). The organizers decision to remove the work from the exhibition due to threats of violence is extremely ironic. Through his work Huang was attempting to highlight humanity’s natural propensity to turn to violence, especially during this time period where the world is feeling the aftermath of the World Wars, and the Cold War (Jiang Zhi, “christies.com”, 2017). Huang wanted to show the world a completely natural, raw, and uncensored version of how animals survive in nature. Having the installment completely transparent as well allowed his audience to observe the animals in their natural form attacking one another to see first hand just how cruel nature can be. This was done purposely to draw on the long history of war, oppression and poverty not just in China, but the rest of the world as well (Jiang Zhi, “christies.com”, 2017). In a way Huang is attempting to illustrate that the cultural, and political divide between the east and the west boils down to humanity’s natural tendency to commit violent acts. 



  1. “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)
  2. “Theater of the World and the Bridge by Huang Yong Ping.” 2017. The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. October 6, 2017. https://www.guggenheim.org/audio/track/theater-of-the-world-and-the-bridge-by-huang-yong-ping.
  3. 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)


Commissioner Lin Zexhu’s Destruction of Opium

The Monument to the People’s Heroes has eight gigantic bas-reliefs on white marble.   Each relief has a different historical theme and they should be read in chronological order, beginning clockwise from the east.  The chosen moments looked to represent unity among the people of China during monumental moments of history while also validating the new government.  Each scene depicts good forces fighting against a repressive power, whether they be the Japanese, the Qing dynasty, or the Nationalist Party, to name a few.  

Before work was done on the monument itself, a sketch was produced which was then approved by the CCP’s Central Committee for endorsement.  Following this, it was then given to Mao for his approval.  Following this, the sculptors began working on the reliefs, “turning the drawings into intense facial expressions and forceful gestures, and giving the sculpted human bodies the appearance of vivid immediacy and compelling realism” (Hung 2011: 247).  

The Opium War, Monument to the People’s Heroes, Bas-Relief.

The first image depicted was the event that triggered the Opium War, and was one of six armed conflicts shown on the memorial and only one of three that occurred before 1919 (Hung 2011: 245).  The selected scene from the Opium War showed Commissioner Lin Zexhu’s destruction of opium in 1839, as this event changed the trajectory of modern China, igniting the war.  Done in a Soviet Realism style, the image focuses on revolution and the social conditions that led to change (Hung 2011: 250).  In addition to this, all the reliefs on the monument told a similar story of the Chinese people’s determination that allowed them to prevail when challenged by evil powers.  The seventeen men depicted in the scene from the Opium War image display great strength.  Some of them are bare-chested with their muscles showing, and there is an aura of the resilience of the Chinese fighting against one of the greatest powers in the world.  As the event was well known to the Chinese populace, there was an ability to easily understand who the enemy was even though they are not depicted.  Smoke clouds blew in the background, signaling the burning of opium and one man carries an ax while another has broken into a box of opium, which will later be dumped into the water.  The facial expressions of the men show that there is no question about what they must do.  Each one is shown in a firm yet calm manner, defending his nation as he is expected to do. 

Anderson, Forrest. 19th-century Opium Wars. Photograph. Hobble Creek. September 26, 2019. https://hobblecreek.us/blog/entry/tiananmen-squae-the-corridor-of-a-thousand-steps.

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

Number 19, Daddy and I (2005)

In O Zhang’s Daddy and I, photograph number 19, a 40 by 40 inch digital type c print, taken in 2005 is one of many studio-style portraits shot in idyllic outdoor environments, depicting modern multicultural family units in a prejudicial society (The Guardian, 2011). Number 19 exhibits a father/daughter portrait to which Zhang has placed the daughter in intimate proximity to her adopted father. Both subjects are huddled close together, staring straight at the camera. The image’s garden landscape is well cultivated, and staged which makes the artwork seem unreal. Number 19 questions the complex relationship between a young, adopted Chinese girl and her American father. It works to question the affection between the two, and how the nature of their relationship might be impacted by their different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, Zhang hopes to examine the female condition through image number 19. The father and daughter create an implausibly intriguing couple in the photograph. At first glance the photographs seem almost inappropriate to viewers who are conditioned by the media to be suspect about middle-aged men and young children. For one doesn’t immediately read these as photographs of fathers and daughters (Battista). The racial incongruity of the couple highlights our own assumptions about what constitutes traditional familial and gender roles (Battista). Additionally, photograph number 19 draws reference to Chinese history. This work exemplifies Zhang’s interest and interpretation of how the West saw the rapid development of contemporary China. The teenage girl in this photograph symbolizes the future potential of China. Like the girls adapting to their new situation, in 2006, China was learning from the West in order to grow its economy (Zhang, 2006). The relationship exhibited in the photograph exemplifies an emergence of feminine power (the daughter) contrasted with her father’s maturity, for Zhang, this is a metaphor for the two often divided cultures: East and West.

Found on www.ozhang.com.
(Number 19, Daddy and I, 40x40in, digital c type print, 2006)


theguardian.com. “Amnesty International’s Imagine a World Exhibition.” Guardian Unlimited, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/arts/pictures/image/0,8543,-10705343665,00.html.

Battista, Kathy. “Female Artists and O Zhang’s Art.” Art and Architecture Journal. Accessed April 19, 2022. http://www.ozhang.com/Site/O_Zhang,_article-2.html.

Zhang, O. “O Zhang Index.” www.ozhang.com. Accessed April 20, 2022. http://www.ozhang.com/Site/O_Zhang_index.html.

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].


Ten Thousand Crimson Hills

Ten Thousand Crimson Hills, Li Keran, ink and color on paper (1962).

Ten Thousand Crimson Hills is one of Li Keran’s most well known pieces. This work is an ink and color on paper created in 1962, in response to some criticism faced in a line from Mao Zedong’s 1925 “Changsha” poem (Hawks 2017: 69). Clearly this is a landscape piece, with vast mountains in the background, a waterfall flowing into diverging streams, and an abundance of trees surrounding a small village. Other than the painted affect of running water, the rest of the work remains in stasis. The size of this piece is 53.1 x 33.5 in. The vertical length of this work helps add a grand feel as the mountains are able to be painted more enormous. The mountains get lighter the farther back the viewer looks, adding more depth to the piece and showing how immense the landscape of China is. Individual brush strokes are able to be seen more easily when looking under the dots of red painted. Obviously, the color red is a big component to this piece as this color is associated with communism. The red in this piece is used to portray leaves and other plant life throughout the mountain, which is why the red look is so extensive. The pretty trees and giant mountains being painted this way points to the massive national pride and beauty of China, as this scene is very beautiful. Li also painted this piece in red as a line in Mao’s poem mentioned earlier, entailed that Li’s paintings don’t have enough color, as he responded to this by making “crimson hills” in this piece. Much of Li’s past works were completely in black in white which is how this criticism began. Ten Thousand Crimson Hills still received criticism, as a reviewer from a 1964 issue of Fine Arts said this work had a “sad atmosphere”, the opposite of what Mao’s poem was trying to portray (Hawks 2017: 71).


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


Chinese Ink Masterpiece Sells for $28m – Culture … http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/art/2015-11/16/content_22465529.htm.

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