AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Category: Visual Analysis (Page 1 of 2)

Xu Bing: “1st Class”, 2011

In a line of works titled “Tobacco Project” Xu Bing symbolized humanity’s relationship with tobacco across art works including a book of tobacco slogans printed on tobacco leaves. This specific installation is a mock- tiger rug made of over half a million ‘1st Class’ brand cigarettes, carpet, and adhesive, and Xu Bing named it accordingly “1st Class”. 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, “1st Class’ is a larger than life tiger skin symbolizing “human prowess: it confirms our superiority by transforming one of nature’s fiercest predators into a lifeless skin beneath our feet.” (Ravenal, 2011) The oversized quality of the skin is no coincidence, as Xu Bing aims to invoke a slightly remorseful self-reflection. The size also doubles as a way to make one artwork into two: a massive collection of cigarettes and separately  an oversized tiger rug, and the oversized tiger could additionally signify an especially dangerous or threatening animal. As a tiger rug is associated with “luxury, status, and domination” Xu Bing forces the viewer to think about the correlation between these traits and humanity’s relationship with smoking cigarettes. Ravenal writes “The beauty of the tiger-skin pattern, its allusions to the dangerous thrill of the hunt, and the uncanny allure of the massive display of cigarettes ironically glamorize the addictive pull and risks of smoking.” (Ravenal, 2011) The monochromaticity of the tiger is clearly not made to look realistic, but it is rather an artistic decision to switch the oranges and blacks of normal tiger skin to white and orange (with orange stripes over a white background, keeping the color scheme as that of the cigarettes). However, from other viewpoints some of the tiger skin looks like a darker brown color, and this is because from standing on the other side you can see down the end of the cigarette, creating a darker sort of stippled look. This may emulate two different views of or opinions on cigarettes; those who enjoy them for the taste and/or feeling, and those who are suffering from addiction or physical health problems manifested from smoking.

1st Class (rear view, detail)

Zhan Wang “Urban Landscape – San Francisco”

“Urban Landscape – San Francisco” is a visually stunning installation. It was installed by Zhan Wang (China, b. 1962) and is constructed using a large amount of stainless steel household cooking objects. Pans with spoons and serving utensils outline the city. The inner city features tall towers of pots and pans of different shapes and sizes which perfectly emulate skyscrapers. Knives and other similar objects highlight the lanes of the city roads. The background is illuminated in part by Wang’s famous stainless steel rock sculptures. 

The piece is critical in nature. The intention of the piece is to show the potential of change in  beautiful cities. He is able to travel the world and create beautiful cities that are disassembled after some time. Growing up in China, Wang explains that the places he loved in his city were constantly demolished along with all the memories from those places.

“As someone who has lived all his life in Beijing, I have seen this regime demolishing non-stop. They don’t let you choose a place and make it special and meaningful; sooner or later, they will take it down. By trying to reach a level of western-oriented modernization, we are destroying the continuity of our own tradition.” – Zhan Wang



Art Basel. “Urban Landscape – San Francisco, 2008”. 2015. https://www.cafa.com.cn/en/News/details/8330204.

Execution by Yue Minjun (1995)

This piece by Yue Minjun has clear inspiration from the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 where the military opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds. As with the majority of Minjun’s works, everyone is depicted with a massive grin. I see this a representing how the people under the CCP had to always appear happy with the state of their country even this wasn’t true because if you expressed your dissatisfaction you would be killed. As stated in an interview in 2015, Yue Minjun says “In my work, laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us. In short, life. It makes you feel obsolete, which is why, sometimes, you only have laughter as a revolutionary weapon to fight against cultural and human indifference”. Knowing this, it can be interpreted that with nothing the victims of the Tiananmen square massacre could do nothing but smile. I also find it interesting that the people who are supposed to be the shooters are also smiling, possibly showing that the military had to shoot because if they did not prove their loyalty to the CCP, they could just as well share the same fate. To Minjun, Laughter is almost like a form of mockery of the CCP for how ridiculous their actions are and to show that despite being powerless, the victims can still demine their killers with one final act.

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.


Figure 1. The Monument to the People’s Heroes. Photograph by Chang-Tai Huang. Source: Mao’s New World, Figure 62

The Monument to the People’s Heroes and Hua Tianyou’s bas-relief

The May 4th Movement of 1919 is a bas-relief by Hua Tianyou, carved into the The Monument to the People’s Heroes, located in the Tiananmen Square. The monument is made mostly out of granite and marble, and is 124.5ft tall, which overshadows the Forbidden City when seen from the front. This monument consists of three parts, the words “Eternal Glory to the People’s Heroes” written in Mao Zedong’s characters in the front, an epitaph in the back drafted by Mao and written in Zhou Enlai’s beautiful calligraphy engraved in gold to commemorate the fallen martyrs of the revolution, and beneath it, eight huge bas-reliefs portraying eight major revolutionary episodes in chronological order. Premier Zhou Enlai took a personal interest in this project, and with his group of architects, sculptors, and historians, made this piece into a perfection. From a political standpoint, this monument is much more than a communist monument, but rather an indication of a turning point, remembering the past and moving on to a bright future that Mao has built .Later on, served as the center for large-scale mournings, such as the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang, which eventually sparked the anti-communist Tiananmen Square protests, thus becoming the center of the anti-communist movements.

The bas-relief that Hua Tianyou worked on depicts the events of the May 4th movement, which was an anti-imperialist movement that students of the University of Beijing started.This eventually resulted in the abdication of the emperor, and thus the fall of the Qing dynasty. Hua’s bas-relief carving consists of 25 students in midst of the protest, with one of them wearing a gown and standing on a low stool, possibly preaching the wrongdoings of what the Qing government did in the Treaty of Versaille. Encircling him are several students calling for support and distributing leaflets and curious students avidly listening to the preacher. Female figures in this bas-relief plays a huge role in which it emphasizes the fact that women also took part in this movement, depicting that they are as enthusiastic with their male counterparts and also breaking away from their traditional roles. The entrance to the Forbidden City in the background, to make the bas-relief more lively, shows the viewers that the event took place where the viewer is standing, allowing them to feel history at first hand.



Hung, C.-tai. (2017). Chapter 10: The Monument to the People’s Heroes. In Mao’s New World Political Culture in the early people’s republic. essay, Cornell University Press. 

Monument to the peoples heroes. Architectuul. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://architectuul.com/architecture/monument-to-the-peoples-heroes

Ai Weiwei “Sunflower Seeds”

Ai Weiwei “Sunflower Seeds” 

Porcelain, ink


“Sunflower Seeds” by Ai Weiwei consists of 100 million handmade, individually painted porcelain sunflower seeds. When piled up, these handcrafted sunflower seeds look like a mound of unrecognizable shapes. Once examined up close, the sunflower seeds can be recognized. This installation was first displayed at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. 

The idea for this artwork came from what Ai Weiwei witnessed as a child in China during Mao’s rule. When Ai’s community would gather together following Mao’s order, everyone would eat sunflower seeds because they were so nervous. Ai Weiwei’s father was a counter-revolutionary and would be called on stage at these meetings and have to endure insults. The sunflower seeds were eaten in order to calm him down and gave everyone an outlet to soothe their nerves.

The production of the sunflower seeds took place in a city famous for its porcelain, Jingdezhen. The pieces of stone are first broken down with iron hammers and then pulverized into a powder. The powder is mixed with water until it is fully skimmed, leaving a thick paste behind. Before the mixture becomes too hard, it is divided into small bricks and then sent to porcelain factories in order to refine the powder even more. The porcelain is mixed with clay and then hand-pressed into sunflower-shaped molds. The seeds are then painted with black ink. Ai Weiwei makes a comment about the importance of having many different painters: “Each one is different, you show it through your own control of the brush and your breath and your own body gestures. You pick a seed up and you put on ink, more ink or less ink, lightly or thickly painted. Then you turn it over and place it down. It’s such a beautiful act” (Ai 2014:104). The differences between each sunflower seed is what Ai embraced.

This installation involved thousands of individuals who worked together in order to produce something bigger. The importance of this piece is that the little seeds create a form bigger than itself. Ai Weiwei wanted the viewers to question everything about this piece. He wanted people to wonder and look closer to figure out the meaning and process behind this work.

Works Cited

Weiwei, Ai, and Anthony Pins. Spatial Matters: Art Architecture and Activism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press , 2014.



Qi Baishi, Stealing the Wine Vat

Qi Baishi, Stealing the Wine Vat, before 1957. Ink and wash painting. (Smithsonian) 

Stealing the Wine Vat is a painting by Qi Baishi and he used ink and wash painting. The image Baishi painted is very simple; a man is sleeping on a wine vat and has dropped his ladle. The painting is organized such that the image is in the bottom left and there is writing at the top right of the painting. The painting has no setting, and the scene is in stasis because the man appears to be deep in sleep. The relationship between the painting and the viewer is a comical one because the story that is depicted is a well-known comedic story in Ancient China. The image is ​​35.9 x 25.8 cm which is pretty small showing that the image may not be of a grand event, but instead a normal moment in time. The proportions of the painting are also true to life because the man doesn’t look much bigger than the vat of wine or ladle. The painting references a scene from a story in Chinese history where an official named Bi Zhuo, “was so drunk that he stumbled into a neighbor’s house and continued to drink from an urn of wine. Inebriated, he fell asleep next to it.” (Smithsonian: 1) The characteristics of the painting follow Qi’s style of playfulness and realism in art. Many of Qi’s works were designed to entertain the viewer with the whimsical side of art. Rather than making art about controversial or heavy topics Qi’s art inspired lightheartedness in the viewer. The realism in this painting contributes to this theme as well because Qi was amused by this story so he decided to tell the story as close to his imagination of it as possible. One of the reasons Qi was so successful is due to his accurate portrayal of events that many people witness because they relate easily to his style and point of view. 



“Home.” n.d. YouTube. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://asia.si.edu/object/F1998.67/.

“Valuable Spring (Youth)” – Feng Zikai

Feng Zikai’s “Valuable Spring (Youth)” is a beautifully composed ink painting on paper. Feng Zikai created lighthearted imagery of youth and children throughout his career from 1898-1975. These images all shared the simplistic but intentionally brushstroke style as seen above. This image was part of a series of many other springtime images where children and youth play and appreciate nature. Feng Zikai, titled the “artist of children” (Laureillard 2014: 47) frequently spoke about the importance of looking at the innocence of children as the proper way to live, stating that “they should be a source of inspiration for a better world.” (Laureillard 2014: 57).

“Valuable Spring (Youth)” utilizes simplistic brushstrokes to create whimsical characters that seem to capture the innocence of children and their view of the world. His caricatures would not hold much detail, but enough to convey the emotions of childlike joy. Feng Zikai depicts a young boy and girl, watering a growing tree with leaves gently blowing in the breeze. His brushstrokes are placed in a way that creates a natural movement that seems to perfectly represent the trees swaying in the breeze. The children are tending and nurturing the growing tree, and are shown to have gentle and upbeat expressions. They are also working together to complete the task of watering the young tree, which ties this image’s story together. There is an innocent connection between the figures, using their strength to enhance the world with nature. This image uses the concept of rebirth and nativity to make a statement about how we as people should be able to connect to nature and our childhood joy.

Feng Zikai had felt that innocence was lost as children grew up, and corruption would take that place. He believed that adults should view the world as a playground, a marvelous world to discover and kindle, just as children do. He also attempts to bring Buddhist ideology into his work instead of heavily political topics. Rather than creating works circling politics, he created works like these to display the meaning of being human. He depicts the connection between nature and humanity, creating imagery that was able to be enjoyed by a vast quantity of Chinese people, and ultimately stays relevant today.


Image source:



Laureillard, Marie. Regret of spring: The child according to Feng Zikai. 2014.
Accessed April 20, 2023. https://hal.science/hal-00983929/document.

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.

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.

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