AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Zeji Lin

Xu Beihong Exhibition Theme

Xu Beihong, The foolish old man who moved the mountain, ink and color on paper, horizontal scroll, 1940.

Oil painting, known as a prominent art form in the West and the world, has showcased extraordinary artistic charm since its inception. In China, oil painting was once referred to as “Western painting,” and its appearance had significant implications for the Chinese people. However, before the end of the 19th century, Chinese understanding of oil painting was limited and one-sided. The influence of Western painting on traditional Chinese art was minimal. It was not until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that oil painting was widely popularized and recognized in China.

As a new form of artistic expression, oil painting differs from any category of Chinese painting in terms of material techniques, observation, and aesthetic experience. It is subversive to the Chinese peoples, and therefore, the development of contemporary Chinese oil painting and its “nationalization” phenomenon holds significant importance for the 20th-century development of Chinese oil painting. 

Oil painting developed in the west, but this does not mean that the oil painting art expression language should have the fixed western pattern. After the introduction of oil painting into China, the Chinese artists began the process of assimilation and localization of oil painting. In the early 20th century, Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, and other Chinese artists went to Europe to study painting during a time when western modernism was flourishing in literature and art. Within the field of painting, various modernist schools, such as realism, impressionism, and post-impressionism, were coexisting and could be studied according to personal interest and needs. This allowed for a combination of different painting styles and schools, leading to the development and success of Chinese oil painting during this period.

Xu Beihong was one of the artists who led the movement of nationalizing oil painting in China. After his appointment as the dean of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts and the president of the China Artists Association in the 1950s, Xu Beihong attached great importance to injecting elements of Chinese national culture into his works. My exhibition will focus on Xu Beihong’s contribution in the movement of nationalizing oil painting in China, including his works that range from before the Anti-Japanese War and after the founding of the new China. Under different historical contexts, I plan to demonstrate how Xu Beihong’s oil paintings reflect his ideology that promoted the nationalization of Chinese oil painting. 


Sufang, He 何淑芳. 2016. 对油画民族化的深入思考 (A Profound Reflection on the Nationalization of Oil Painting). 中国期刊. https://www.zzqklm.com/w/yl/17086.html.

Xu Beihong Interesting Link

This article introduces an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum called “Xu Beihong in Nanyang”. As Xu Beihong traveled throughout Southeast Asia and India between 1939 and 1941, his paintings still conveyed a subtle patriotic theme for supporting the people in his motherland. This article also included some comments from Kwok Kian Chow, the director of the Singapore Art Museum. Chow comments that Xu was not the first to formulate the idea of integrating Western practices and ideas into Chinese art, but he was one of the first to offer a solution and a direction. From this article, I understand that Xu Beihong had an immense influence on the development of Chinese painting in the 20th century because he championed an expansive realism that included Romanticism and Expressionism. These comments are particularly useful for me to understand Xu Beihong’s ideology in his art creations and how this built his prestige and influence within China. This article also provides information about the significance of some of the famous works in the background of the Anti-Japanese War, such as “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” (1940) and “Put Down Your Whip” (1939).


Kolesnikov-jessop, Sonia. “Xu Beihong: A Chinese Master of Styles That Straddle East and West.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 11, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/11/arts/11iht-jessop.1.11901116.html.

徐悲鸿 Xu Beihong “Wounded Lion” – Visual Analysis

Xu Beihong. Wounded Lion. ink and color on paper. 1938. Beihong China Arts (https://beihongchinaarts.com/figure8/8-wounded-lion-2/)

In 1938, Xu Beihong created “Wounded Lion” as a tribute to the heroic spirit and patriotism of the Chinese people during the Anti-Japanese War. The painting portrays a wounded lion standing on a hillside with one of its front legs injured. The lion’s majesty and strength were weakened by the injury, but it still appeared to be strong and unyielding. Xu Beihong uses a large lion to represent China during wartime, standing tall with a bruised body, symbolizing the Chinese people in the war. Although they were hurt, they did not yield and remained strong and unyielding.

Xu Beihong applied shadows and bold brushstrokes in the delineation of the lion, contributing to the powerful momentum that burst from the lion in desperation. There is also an integration of firm and bold brushstrokes with the precise delineation of form, reflecting a mixture of Western realistic techniques in a traditional Guohua style. In other words, Xu Beihong retains the traditional characteristics of Guohua in terms of color and composition while adopting techniques from Western oil paintings. Much of this stems from Xu Beihong’s early European experience of studying Western art (Rule 2020: 103). The messages of Xu Beihong’s paintings during the Anti-Japanese War are about virtue, courage, and righteousness, reflecting the predicament of China at the time (Wong 2004: 33). As the Japanese incursion progresses in 1937, “Wounded Lion” echoes with the movement of anti-Japanese propaganda in society (Andrews and Shen 2012: 117).

Overall, “Wounded Lion” showcases Xu Beihong’s remarkable painting skills and deep understanding of the natural world. Through this painting, Xu Beihong expresses the inner tenacity and unyielding spirit of Chinese people during wartime by presenting the perseverance and vitality of animals in nature.


Andrews, Julia F. and Kuiyi Shen. The Art of Modern China. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2012

Rule, Ted. 2020. “Pan Yuliang Xu Beihong and the Revolution in Chinese Art.” Quadrant, Apr 01, 100-105.

Wong, Ka F. “Reimaging China: history painting of Xu Beihong in early twentieth century.” PhD diss., 2004.

Xu Beihong Bibliography

Xu Beihong, born in 1895 and passed away in 1953, is commonly acknowledged as the “founding father” of contemporary Chinese art and played a crucial role in establishing Socialist realism as a practical art form in the Chinese mainstream. Xu studied in Europe (mainly in France and Germany) for eight years with support from the Beiyang Government. His 8-year art apprenticeship in Europe shaped his aesthetic interest, creative concept, and artistic style for the rest of his life.

The accomplished Xu Beihong returned to China at 32 and began to devote himself to arts education in China and develop his own art career. He participated in the “Southern China Society” and advocated the “Southern spirit of seeking truth before seeking beauty and goodness”. He continued to create large-scale paintings based on historical or ancient fables.

When the Japanese invasion intensified in 1931, Xu painted in support of the anti-Japanese War at home. During this period, his works praised the perseverance of the Chinese people and their indomitable will to win the final victory of the anti-Japanese war. In addition, he also created a large number of realistic subjects and portraits and animal subject artworks.

After the 1949 founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China, Xu continued his paintings while still in charge of government affairs and administration. He enthusiastically described the new people, new events, and new features in the construction of the new China.

Du, Weihong. “A Turning Point for Guohua?: Xu Beihong and Transformative Encounters With the Socialist Spirit, 1933–1953.” Twentieth-Century China 39, no. 3 (2014): 216-244. doi:10.1353/tcc.2014.0020.

“Xu Beihong.” The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Oxford University Press, 2015.

“Xu Beihong,” February 2, 2016. https://www.comuseum.com/painting/masters/xu-beihong/.

Zeji Lin

Hi, my name is Zeji. My major is Biological Sciences, but I discovered my passion for the arts in my digital arts class. Creating artworks based on different background was a lot of fun to me, which is represented in this drawing I created in Photoshop. I learned a few things about Chinese history when I was studying there, but I am not familiar with the arts in China, especially how they are related to the historical context. In my free time, I enjoy cooking and watching movies.

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