AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Category: Artists’ Biographies (Page 1 of 2)

Zao Wou Ki , Juin Octobre, 1985

    Juin Octobre, 1985 was painted by Zou Wou-Ki in 1985, but it is not clear if the artist had started painting this masterpiece in June, and ended in October. The painting itself does not depict a certain object, group of people, or even a landscape like traditional Chinese paintings do. As a matter of fact, it shows nothing but bodies of colors. To be specific, it only shows a blurb of bright yellow in the center, with bluish darkness and some green filling up the edges and the corners – leading to the conclusion that this is an abstract painting. The colors in this painting are not separated by a definitive border, but there is a sense of depth and sophistication, where the yellow part of the painting is hollow. The colors merge together where they connect, as if blue, black, and green drops of paint have been dropped in a body of bright yellow colored water. This single painting on a single canvas followed Zou Wou Ki’s signature style in painting – oil on canvas. 

[Image of Juin Octobre, 1985. Obtained from https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales]

    Expert opinions lead to the conclusion that Zou was greatly affected by the ideology of Zen Buddhism and Daoism (also known as Taoism) (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129). Zen Buddhism emphasizes present-moment awareness and non-conceptual understanding (Suzuki 1991, 34), and Daoism beliefs generally assume nature is what controls things, not people (Kohn 2009, 20). Zao has also lectured his students to “forget the topic and forget about everything in the world (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129)” and emphasized the importance of “nothingness”, which led to an art-work like Juin Octobre, 1985. The painting is quite massive, measuring about 10 meters in length and 2.8m in height, and from my understanding of the beliefs that Zou had in mind when he was painting, I came to the conclusion that this majestic size of the painting probably represented the vastness of “nothingness”. The fact that nothing, except colors, were shown in the painting without any figures or symbols in such a large painting is what made me think this way. The feeling of depth (yellow part) created by Zao also creates a sense of hollowness, which to me allowed me to focus on the presence of me looking at the painting, as if the void was supposed to be filled with my (the viewer) awareness. 



Kohn, Livia. Introducing daoism. JBE Online Books, 2009.

Shin, Ryan, and Xuhao Yang. “Culturally Responsible Approach to Teaching East              Asian Art in the Classroom.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education              38, no. 1 (2021).

Sotheby’s. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. An introduction to zen buddhism. Grove Press, 1991.


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.

Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun is a contemporary Chinese artist who was born in 1962 in Daqing City, China. He is most famous for his self portraits where he draws himself with a unique smile, always laughing. While many people categorize his art with cynical realism he disagrees with this classification and claims his art is unique and doesn’t fit under any current style. Going to art school in the 80s, he witnessed the changes that were going on in China leading up to Tiananmen Square. He used his art to represent the changes going on throughout China in the following years. He has also done a collaboration with the artist KAWS where they made a figure inspired by Yue’s art.

Xu Bing

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. He went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1977, and went on to join the faculty and earned a master’s degree at the same school after completing his printmaking studies. In 1990 he was invited to the US as an honorary artist, and in 2007 he went back to China and was appointed multiple leadership roles at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, including supervisor of doctoral students, professor, and Vice President. Xu Bing creates all kinds of art from printmaking to large-scale room installations with an emphasis on using unique materials. Below is (the best close-up I could find of) a tiger rug made of cigarettes turned in two different directions, symbolizing humanities’ tendencies to fall into bad smoking habits. The ‘rug’ is made from over 500,000 individual cigarettes and weights more than 440lbs. Xu Bing has won numerous awards celebrating not only his artistic originality but also his transcendence of cultural boundaries, “bridging the divide between East and West and expressing his thoughts and realities in a visual language.” (quoted from the bio on his website)

– Walter K.

Feng Zikai

Feng Zikai – China Online Museum

Feng Zikai was an influential painter and illustrator from 1898, until 1975. He was a modern artist who dabbled in a few different areas of media, from painting to music, Feng Zikai was a multi-talented man. He learned painting and music from Li Shutong and founded the Shanghai Vocational Normal School with fellow classmates in 1919.

Later in his career, Feng traveled to Japan in 1921 to continue his studies. Feng’s style consists of simplistic cartoons with an innocent tone. He had a focus on ancient poems and children’s life, which is represented within his artwork. He created comics which had first published in a magazine in 1924.

Feng was a part of many important organizations during his time, including the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), he also served as the vice-chairman of the Shanghai Federation of Literacy and Art Circles and held the same position for the Shanghai branch of the China Artists Association.


Works Cited:

The Award and Feng Zikai. Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award,

“People Sitting Under the Old Tree.” Google Arts & Culture,

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/.

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!

Zao Wou-Ki

  Zao Wou-Ki (赵无极), was a Chinese-French painter. He is known for is abstract paintings that combined traditional Chinese calligraphy with  Western modernist techniques. His early works were heavily influenced by Chinese landscape paintings, but later incorporated elements of Western art, such as use of color and abstraction.

He born in Beijing in 1920, but his family moved to Shanghai shortly after. He graduated from Hangzhou School of Fine arts in 1941, which was forced to relocate to Chongqing in 1938 due to the second Sino-Japanese war. In 1948, he ended up in Paris to extend his artistic studies. This period of time is also known as the Chinese civil war period between the nationalists and the communists. He was also present in the May 1968 protests in France, and the Tiananmen square protests, both having great on French and Chinese culture and politics, respectively.

Although not strictly aligned with any artistic movement, he was a member of”Chinese School of Artists”, a group of Chinese artists in Paris between 1950-1960 who were looking for ways to merge traditional Chinese art techniques with Western modernist approaches.

[June-October 1985, one of the most well-known artwork by Zao Wou-ki. Source: https://www.sothebyscn.com.cn/en/articles/zao-wou-ki-by-the-numbers]

Zao was one of the first Chinese artists to achieve global recognition for his art, and his art can be found in numerous museums and collections in more than 20 countries. His cross-cultural and innovative combinations of painting techniques have inspired a lot who came after him.



“Inside the Mind of an Introvert.” YouTube video. Posted by TED-Ed, January 8, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2u3K5xewOM

Pollack, Barbara. Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Zao Wou-Ki foundation. Biography. Zao Wou-Ki Foundation, n.d. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-artist/biography/

Zhan Wang

Zhan Wang was born in 1963 in Beijing, China. Since his childhood, Wang was fond of drawing. Once a young adult, Wang spent three and a half years studying sculpture at Beijing Industrial Arts College.  Wang expanded his awareness of art by taking courses with teachers from the Fine Arts College and even spent time practicing his drawing skills by copying Buddha figures in Buddhist temples. Zhan Wang’s first significant works date to 1988, and are traditional in nature. In 1990 Wang began experimenting with surrealism.  In 1994, he exhibited the “Mao Suit” series for the first time and in 1995, he created the “Artificial Rocks” series. In 1996 Wang graduated from the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), where he currently teaches sculpture. In 2010, Zhan Wang created the “My Personal Universe” series. Zhan Wang’s latest solo exhibition was entitled “Zhan Wang: Objects of Idea”, showing 22 works of different creative directions from 1988.



Wang, Alice. “Zhan Wang: Master Sculptor”. ARTZINE, A Chinese Contemporary Art Portal. 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20120310022556/http://new.artzinechina.com/display.php?a=200

Central Academy of Fine Arts. “RTSM | ZHAN Wang: It was already the doomsday, but I’m back to reality again.”. 2020. https://www.cafa.com.cn/en/News/details/8330204.


Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist working in the fields of architecture, design, exhibition planning, and publishing. Ai is well known for working on the “bird’s nest” that was built for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He started off with architectural projects, but transitioned to more installations that focussed on the importance of showcasing human life. When the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck killing around 5,000 children, Ai wanted to shine light on the situation and began creating artwork that explored human rights issues. One of Ai’s first exhibitions titled, According to What?, focuses on the political and historical context of China and how the rest of the world can find common ground using their own context. Ai Weiwei approaches contemporary art by centering attention on the context instead of the concept. Ai deemed it important for the viewers to understand where the artist was coming from or going through when the artwork was formed. 

Works Cited

Ai Weiwei. According to What? Prestel Verlag, 2012.

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