AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

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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.


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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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