AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

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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.

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.





Yin Xiuzhen

Yin Xiuzhen, 59 today, grew up in Beijing, impoverished during the Cultural Revolution.  Xiuzhen was raised in one of the city’s siheyuan that were demolished during urban reconstruction efforts in the 1990s.  Yin utilizes her work to pay homage to the remnants of destruction caused by urbanization such as her childhood home.  She uses recycled objects such as fabric, found objects, keepsakes, concrete and discarded building materials to create her sculptures and installations.  Her pieces bring attention to the individual and collective histories of these found objects as well as the demolished cities and lives they represent.  This is prevalent in her piece Transformation, where she collected thousands of roof tiles from the demolished  siheyuan and attached photographs of the neighborhood on each tile, using the debris to create art that celebrates the memory of the old courtyard houses.  Her work also specifically focuses on the environmental issues produced by industrialization, such as Washing the River, where 10,000 liters of frozen water are arranged and washed to illustrate the cleaning of the polluted river.  Yin is considered to be a contemporary artist.  At the time the avant garde movement was dominated by men, but this did not prevent women like Yin Xiuzhen from speaking out about the environmental decline of China and the unwanted impacts of excessive urbanization and the growing global economy.

“Washing the River” August 12, 2017

Ai Weiwei

Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, a poet whose participation in Communist agitation in Shanghai throughout the 1930s got him imprisoned. Ai is similarly revolutionary, as the variety of mediums he works with, including photography, sculpture, film and performance, are unified under the theme of challenging authority. He studied at the Beijing Film Academy before attending Parsons School of Design, and spent the 1980s in New York City. He returned to China in 1993 as a designer, and emerged as an outspoken intellectual. He produced Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn in 1995, a set of three photographs which document Ai holding, dropping, and standing over the remains of a 2,000 year old Han dynasty urn. Urns appear often in Ai’s work, commenting on mass consumption, individuality and censorship. In 2011, the Chinese government imprisoned him for 81 days. Ai left China in 2015, and currently resides in Berlin.

Huang Yong Ping

Huang Yongping was born in 1954 in Xiamen, located in the Fujian province which is in the south west region of China. Huang was considered one of the most recognized artists of the 1980s for his innovative, yet controversial works. His work began to be considered controversial when he started to burn his pieces when they were completed. However this unique practice of anarchic art began to put Huang in the national spotlight allowing him to travel west to Paris where he spent much of his later life. Growing up in China Huang was morphed by western philosophy, art, and teachings however as he spent more time in France his artwork began to reflect styles more typically see in the east. This allowed Huang to explore works with more politically posed messages that outraged not only the Chinese, but Americans too as he mixed the two cultures in his works showing the divide between eastern and western ideologies.  

Zhang Hongtu 张宏图

Zhang Hongtu was born in 1943 in Gansu Province in the northwest of China to a Muslim family. He studied at a high school attached to the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing. Having lived through the cultural revolution, Zhang witnessed book burnings and killings which led him to conclude that this was not a revolution but a destruction of culture. Zhang Hongtu’s status as a Muslim also cast him in a tumultuous relationship with modern China. In 1957 his father, a devout Muslim who had devoted his time to teaching Arabic around China, was labelled a Rightist, a counterrevolutionary. His father managed to avoid being sent to a reeducation camp, however his family was marked with the stigma of a traitor. In 1982 Zhang Hongtu left China after enrolling in the Art Student League in New York. Primarily a painter, Zhang Hongtu works in a variety of media in creating his own art combining influences from both East and West with criticisms of both.

Fig. 1, Zhong, Hongtu, “The Last Banquet,” Laser prints pages from the Red Book and acrylic on canvas, 1989, Collection of the artist

Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Jonathan Hays. Boundaries in China. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1995

Zhang, Hongtu, Interview with Martin Powers, Ars Orientalis Volume 49, Michigan Publishing, 2018

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.

Feng Zikai

Regarding Chinese cartoons, Feng Zikai (1898-1975) is one of the representatives whose art works involve a variety of topics, and he was also well-known writer, calligrapher, scholar, musician, and translator. Feng was a native of Tongxiang in Zhejiang Province (the South China), who was born during a turbulent period. During the first half of Feng’s life, he has experienced the major reform of Chinese society and various significant conflicts and wars, such as Sino-Japanese War and civil wars. Since the experience of studying abroad in Japan in the spring of 1921, Feng has received great influence from the Westernization and Japanese arts. Also, Feng’s works have strong concerns of Buddhist belief, humanitarianism, and individualism. After the publication of his Zi Kai Man Hua (the collection of Feng’s cartoons) in 1924, Feng was regarded as the father of contemporary Chinese cartoons. Hu Sheng Hua Ji (Paintings for the Preservation of Life) was created between 1927 and 1973, which is one of his most famous art works that involves profound Buddhism inspiration.


Lin, Su-Hsing. “Feng Zikai’s Art and the Kaiming Book Company: Art for the People in Early Twentieth Century China”. The Ohio State University / OhioLINK, 2003.

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