AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Alexander Mendel

Masks and Metaphors: The Dual Artistry of Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi is a component of Chinas dynamic history, crea­­ting artwork serving as a lens into understanding the complex social and economic factors of China’s development. Over the course of his career, Fanzhi expresses realism (depicting the world how it actually is without sugarcoating), expressionism (a focus on emotions and personal perspectives), and lately abstract works (creative and unique settings very different from our physical world). Fanzhi is best known for his rejection of Socialist Realism, something which had been very popular during the Cultural Revolution. Socialist Realism was a method of promoting socialism and communism by creating works that were uplifting and inspiring. Zeng has clarified that his theme is the agony of being human.

The range of works that I am interested in exploring are his mask series, and his abstract works series tied together into one exposition. Key themes that I want to explore are identity and symbolism. The reason why I really enjoy Zeng Fanzhi’s works and why I was initially drawn to him is his unique talent mixed with rich symbolism. In the past I have explored body language and symbolism, and also smartphones with their impact on modern society. The symbolism of the masks and the changing societal mindsets parallel with topics I am interested in which make me very excited to create this exposition.







Others will gain important value as they learn about Chinese art in 20th and 21st century through the works of Zeng Fanzhi. His technical expertise using color, line, and form are great ways to springboard into symbolism. The Mask series paintings that I will include are Mask Series #13 (1994), #8 (1997), #6 (1998), and The Last Supper (2001). For example, #8 displays a group of men with exaggerated masks that depict them weeping and laughing at the same time, which is an interesting dynamic between emotions and identity. I think that the monochrome masks probe the tendency of Chinese citizens to hide feelings and emotions, leading to a sense of isolation. Fanzhi himself had feelings of isolation in 1994 when he entered Beijing, knowing no one. The others touch upon the same superficiality, as well as the intersectionality between the economy and sociology/relationships. I think that viewers will have a lasting impression and have a better idea of China after seeing this artwork because our minds are hardwired to respond to emotions and contextual cues, which the masks are a goldmine for.

The abstract work I chose is “Bodhidharma, Still There” 2015. It uses vivid greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples. I sense a feeling of movement, and is eerily similar to a dark scary forest. We are situated in the dense tangles of overgrown bushes and thorns, and we are essentially at the edge between Western abstraction and Classical Chinese Landscape Art. Zeng Fanzhi has put a new twist on ancient traditions. You could say Zeng Fanzhi went back to our roots, while at the same time going beyond them.

Works cited:



“Work of the Week: Zeng Fanzhi, ‘mask: Rainbow’ (1997).” ArtReview, artreview.com/work-of-the-week-zeng-fanzhi-mask-rainbow-1997/. Accessed 13 May 2023.

“Zeng Fanzhi – Evening & Day Editions New York Tuesday, April 23, 2019.” Phillips, www.phillips.com/detail/zeng-fanzhi/NY030119/325. Accessed 13 May 2023.

Zeng, Fanzhi. “Fanzhi Zeng: Bodhidharma, Still There, 2015.” Art Basel, 1 Jan. 1970, www.artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/33449/Fanzhi-Zeng-Bodhidharma-Still-There.


Zeng, Fanzhi, Gladys Chung, Crystal Ming, Tiantian Feng, Fabrice Hergott, David Anfam, and Gustav Mahler. Zeng Fanzhi. Zürich: Hauser et Wirth Publishers, 2018.

Zeng Fanzhi : Catalogue Raisonn Volume I. Place of publication not identified: Skira, 2017.

Zeng Fanzhi Interesting Link

This video is an interview with Zeng Fanzhi detailing his works at Gagosian Gallery, located in New York. This exhibit was a culmination of 3 years work, and viewers can get a look into his thought process behind the creation of his abstract works. Fanzhi had mentioned that solely choosing the colors for some of his paintings took months, which I found shocking, and underscores the intricacy he takes with all of this works. He also describes mentally how the difficulty of the painting changes from start to finish which I never thought about. It was cool to learn more about Zeng Fanzhi as a painter as now I feel I can put myself in his shoes and think about the paintings he creates.

Mask Series No.26, 1995

This is Mask Series No.26, an oil on canvas created in 1995 by Zeng Fanzhi. We are shown two happy figures, a man and his dog. The observer is situated behind the man in the work, almost as if we are looking over his shoulder and getting a glimpse into his life. This man is looking into a mirror that shows a realistic reflection of himself and a dog, however the dog is not next to him in real life. His reflection is on a beach elsewhere. The most significant aspect of the painting is the mask on his face in the mirror.

The man is dressed in a bright yellow suit, with finely combed hair. He has a white mask covering his mouth, eyes, and nose. His eyes are wide, with wide red lips. An interesting thing to note is that the mask fits so well on his face that if the mask and his skin were the same color it would be very difficult to tell the apart. This suggests that he has been wearing it for so long or that it has become a part of him.

What does the mask symbolize, though? In the 1990’s, China was undergoing social and economic changes that were sparked by public unrest and globalization. The Tiananmen protest in 1989 implored for greater freedom, and globalization policies led to increased business with other countries [1]. What developed was a greater divide between the population as some benefitted more than others and led privileged lives. Essentially, a greater sense of individualism was taking root even though Chinese society placed an emphasis on collectivism. In fact, the economic reforms introduced profit incentives that increased the share of private and joint ventures by 8 percent [2]. People were focused on their own success, but were pressured into wearing a “mask” and saying its for the country’s benefit. This tension is what Zeng Fanzhi is highlighting.

Knowing this, the themes of wealth and the eagerness to show it are clearly displayed by the nice suit the man is wearing the beach he is on. This man is a component of the urban elite and his phony intentions are painted through satire; I mean look at that goofy mask! Interestingly, the mirror adds another implicit dynamic symbolizing the superficiality of the situation. Everyone is masquerading their patriotism but when they look in the mirror, you can see the truth. In the dog’s case, his truth doesn’t need a mask because he isn’t subjected to the pressures a human is.

Work Cited

1.Linda Chao & Ramon H. Myers (1998) China’s consumer revolution: The 1990s and beyond, Journal of Contemporary China, 7:18, 351-368, DOI: 10.1080/10670569808724319

2.Hu, Zuliu, and Mohsin S Khan. “Economic Issues 8 — Why Is China Growing so Fast?” International Monetary Fund, June 1997, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/issues8/index.htm


上海香格纳文化艺术品有限公司 . “Mask Series 1995 No.26.” ShanghArt, https://www.shanghartgallery.com/galleryarchive/work.htm?workId=1309. Accessed 20 Apr. 2023.

Zeng Fanzhi

ZENG FANZHI 曾梵志 "From 1830 Till Now No.4" (2014), oil on canvas | Image source: shanghartgallery.com

The year is 1964. Cultural revolution in China is looming, and renowned Zeng Fanzhi is born in Wuhan. Fanzhi grew up on a narrow alley amid cultural turmoil surrounded by a diverse group of craftsmen, locksmiths, blacksmiths, and masons.

The strong memories taking root within Fanzhi began to materialize when he picked up a paintbrush at the age of 8. At the age of 16, Fanzhi was introduced to a new mentor Little Yan who took Fanzhi to see the Hubei Institue of Fine Arts. This was the epiphany for Fanzhi, the moment he knew he wanted to persue art and get into the painting department at this school.

Over the course of his life, there have been many phases in his artwork. His works burst with color and meaning. Among all, there is a strong sense of technique and emotion. He listens to his heart, creating amazing artwork that is rich with contemporary themes.

“The language of art is universal. They can understand your thoughts and emotions. I think they can understand most of them. I think an artist should follow his heart and create, then move forward. If you keep repeating yourself then that’s a waste of your artistic life.”
-Zeng Fanzhi

Works cited: (direct interview)
“Zeng Fanzhi explains the theory and thought behind his work” YouTube, uploaded by NOWNESS, 1 Sep 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yhOJ3mfrMc&ab_channel=NOWNESS

Image source:
This site has many more of his amazing works, check them out!

Alex Mendel

Hey, I’m Alex Mendel. I am a senior Mechanical Engineering major born and raised in the Albany area. Ever since my two older sisters moved down south I’ve wanted to follow them. My sister Tina is the other person in the photo. After I graduate you will either find me in Florida or South Carolina. My interests are soccer, golf, chess, video games, and recently piano. Hot take: the greatest show of all time is Game of Thrones. I’m currently enjoying The Sopranos and The Last of Us, but I don’t see them taking the top spot in my list any time soon.

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