AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Athanasia Kytoudi

Navigating Modernity: Zhang Daqian and the Art of Resilience in 20th Century China

A pivotal figure in Chinese art history, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) made important contributions to the art world over the course of a career that spanned six turbulent decades (Sullivan, 1996). Zhang is a particularly diverse artist whose work includes modern art experiments as well as traditional Chinese painting, giving a visual picture of the cultural changes that occurred in China over the 20th century (Shen, 2012). 

The proposed exhibition will highlight Zhang’s artistically flexible answers to societal and political upheavals. The issue is particularly important because it emphasizes how art functions as a form of resistance and perseverance during times of significant cultural and political change (Wang, 1998). 

Zhang’s body of work reflects China’s more general cultural and political changes. His early paintings, which are steeped in the tradition of classical Chinese painting, exhibit precise brushwork and composition (Sullivan, 1996). Zhang’s style did, however, change to embrace elements of modernism with the beginning of Communist control, most notably in his later splash-ink works (Shen, 2012). This artistic change, which demonstrates Zhang’s tenacity, can be seen as a silent protest against the Communist government’s limiting ideologies (Wang, 1998). 

The socio-political turmoil in China during the 20th century had a big impact on Zhang’s development as an artist. Zhang chose self-exile after the Communist Party took power in 1949, first settling in Taiwan before moving on to Brazil and California (Sullivan, 1996). His geographic dislocation made it possible for him to incorporate various cultural influences into his work, bridging the gap between tradition and modernity and East and West (Shen, 2012). 

When Zhang’s work is considered in the perspective of China’s 20th century history as a whole, it becomes clear how Zhang and his contemporaries, like Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, struggled with the conflict between tradition and modernity (Sullivan, 1996). Their work displays a common tenacity in the face of significant change (Wang, 1998). 

The works of Zhang Daqian offer an intriguing prism through which to explore the interaction between art and its historical setting. Studying his work and the tenacity it displays helps us understand the larger story of cultural change and resistance in 20th-century China. Zhang’s aptitude at juggling tradition and innovation during alterations in his personal and political circumstances emphasizes the legacy’s continuing importance in the discussion of art history (Shen, 2012).

“Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains” (1947) – One of Zhang’s most renowned paintings, it exhibits the classic Chinese landscape painting technique (Sullivan, 1996). It is a wonderful example of Zhang’s early style before the Communist takeover because of the tedious brushwork and composition, which mirror the traditional Chinese painting heritage. 

“A Lotus” (1950) – Zhang produced this piece while living in self-imposed exile in Taiwan. It illustrates his fortitude and versatility amid a time of significant political and personal upheaval (Shen, 2012). Bold color and large brushstrokes are used, which shows an experimental style and a preference for modernism. 

“Lotus and Mandarin Ducks” (1963) – This picture was produced when Zhang was in Brazil and it demonstrates the influence of Western art on his work and signals a significant break from his traditional roots (Sullivan, 1996). This artwork exemplifies the blending of tradition and modernity, as well as East and West.

“Splashed Color Landscape” (1965) – This piece is an example of Zhang’s later work, which is distinguished by his inventive splash-ink style (Wang, 1998). It represents Zhang’s fortitude and inventiveness as an artist and serves as a symbol of his defiance of Communist government restrictions. 


  • Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. University of California Press. 
  • Shen, K. (2012). Zhang Daqian and the Chinese Art Market. Art Journal, 12(4), 76-89. 
  • Wang, E. (1998). The Art of Resistance: Zhang Daqian’s Splashed-Color Landscape. Modern China, 24(4), 408-434.

Flowers of the Four Seasons – Zhang Daqian

“Flowers of the Four Seasons” is a masterpiece by Zhang Daqian that showcases his talent and mastery of traditional Chinese ink and brush painting on paper. The painting is known for its vivid depiction of various flowers, each representing a season. In the upper left corner, you can see a blooming plum blossom, which is often associated with the winter season in Chinese culture because the flowers bloom in late winter, before the arrival of spring. On the upper right, there is a peach blossom, which is often associated with the spring season in Chinese culture because the flowers bloom in early spring, signaling the arrival of warmer weather and the start of a new growing season. In the lower left corner, there is a lotus flower, which is often associated with the summer season in Chinese culture because lotus flowers bloom in mid to late summer, when the weather is hot and humid. And in the lower right, a chrysanthemum, representing autumn because the flowers bloom in late summer to early fall, when the weather is starting to cool down.

The flowers are arranged in a way that creates a sense of movement, as if they are swaying in the wind. The color palette is also quite vibrant, with a mix of reds, pinks, blues, and greens creating a lively composition that is well balanced and harmonious. Each flower is depicted with a high degree of detail and realism, but also with a touch of stylization that adds to the overall aesthetic appeal. Zhang Daqian’s brushstrokes are expressive and fluid and his use of negative space gives the painting a sense of depth and perspective.

The symbolism of the flowers is also significant in Chinese culture. The plum blossom, for example, is a symbol of perseverance and hope, as the flowers are able to withstand the harsh winter weather and bloom early, signaling the arrival of a new year and new beginnings. The lotus flower symbolizes purity and enlightenment, as the flowers grow in muddy water but emerge clean and beautiful. The use of these flowers in the painting adds an additional layer of meaning and depth to the artwork.

  • Huang, Y. (2018). A Study on the Aesthetic Conception of Zhang Daqian’s Landscape Paintings. Journal of Literature, History and Philosophy, 4(4), 113-116.
  • Zhang, H. (2017). The Influence of the Four Seasons on Chinese Traditional Culture. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 5(6), 47-52.
  • Fan, Y. (2019). Zhang Daqian and the “New Literati Painting Movement” in Modern China. Frontiers of History in China, 14(1), 69-85.

Zhang Daqian

Zhang Daqian, a Sichuan native born in 1899, was encouraged to pursue painting by his family. He first visited Kyoto, Japan, when he was young to study Japanese weaving and dying. He then went to Shanghai to study with renowned calligraphers and painters and started to imitate the traditionalist masters Tang Yin, Chen Hongshou, and Shitao. Finally, he went to Beijing, where he was involved in cultural circles. An outgoing individual, Zhang surrounded himself with a sizable group of relatives, friends, students, and admirers. Zhang disguised himself as a classic literatus-artist by donning long robes for scholars and a flowing beard. The artist lived in Argentina, Brazil, the US, and lastly, Taiwan, where he resided in 1978 and passed away in 1983, after the Communist takeover.

One of the most well-known and prolific Chinese artists of the 20th century, Zhang Daqian is admired for both his intricate portraits and his splashed-ink landscapes. Initially a purist who mastered a wide variety of classical Chinese styles and techniques, he later invented novel techniques like pouring ink and color over paper or silk to create random, evocative patterns to which he added minute figurative features like a figure or a tree. Zhang, one of the great modernists of the last century, developed extremely inventive works by fusing traditional Chinese brushwork with semi-abstract compositions connected to American Abstract Expressionism.

Born in 1899 in Sichuan, Zhang Daqian was encouraged by his family to pursue painting. Starting with a youthful trip to Kyoto, Japan, to learn Japanese weaving and dying, he later traveled to Shanghai, where he studied with famous calligraphers and painters and began to emulate the traditionalist masters Tang Yin, Chen Hongshou and Shitao; then Beijing, where he was active in cultural circles. A gregarious man, Zhang surrounded himself with a large entourage of family, students, friends and admirers; he presented himself as a traditional literatus-artist, adopting long scholar’s robes and a flowing beard. Following the Communist takeover, the artist lived in Argentina, Brazil, the US and, finally, Taiwan, where he settled in 1978 and died in 1983.

Zhang was a longtime collector and left to the National Palace Museum in Taipei his extensive collection of Chinese artworks from the Tang through the Qing periods. His own work can be found, among other places, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei City.


  • “Zhang Daqian 張大千 1899–1983 Painter, Collector, and Forger,” February 29, 2016. https://asia.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Zhang-Daqian.pdf.
  • “Zhang Daqian | Art for Sale, Results & Biography | Sotheby’s.” Sotheby’s. https://www.sothebys.com/en/artists/zhang-daqian.

Athanasia Kytoudi – Introduction

I am Athanasia and I am an international student from Greece. I am in my senior year majoring in Studio Fine Arts with a concentration in sculpture and digital art. I work for the Arts & Exhibitions department on campus and would like to focus on art-handling work and personal projects in the future. A few of the things I really enjoy spending my time on is doing arts and crafts with my housemates, cooking greek food for my friends and solving sudokus. I also love spending time in the wood-shop which is where I am working on my thesis project for the senior show in May. Last term I took intro to Islamic art and architecture with professor Matthew and we covered some Chinese materials and techniques which I found really interesting and I also took a modern Chinese literature class in the fall which introduced me to the social and political world of China in the 20th century which is why I decided to take this art history course.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Skip to toolbar