Visual Culture in Communist China

observing, analyzing & re-presenting the art of twentieth century china

February 8, 2019
by hammerl
1 Comment

Fu Baoshi: The Past in the Present

Fu Baoshi belongs to a fascinating period of Chinese history that saw continual struggle, widespread devastation, and profound identity loss. As a child, Fu witnessed the collapse of Chinese Imperialism and endured its repercussions. What he saw was factionalism during the Warlord era, Communist rebellion, foreign occupation, and finally the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Along the way, China experienced drastic changes, which subsequently placed heavy burdens on the shoulders of its people. Under the Communist movement, feudalism became collectivization, the bourgeoisie became enemies of the greater public, and students of traditional Chinese culture faced immense scrutiny and ridicule. Fu Baoshi exists for the most part as an exception however, embodying a unique style that features a blend of traditional Chinese values with modern progression.

Under the Communist Party in China, culture started to look to the present and future and began to divert away from traditionalism. At Mao Zedong’s Yan’an talks, the art of the future was outlined. Mao discouraged the practice of traditional Chinese art and placed emphasis upon the adoption of socialist realism and how it should propagate and advance Communist ideals by exposing those that oppress the common man. Following this forum, students of traditional culture faced immense downward pressure. Although Fu Baoshi had studied the traditional values of Chinese art, and studied abroad in Japan where he drew a lot of Western influence, his work developed a distinct style that coupled tradition with advancement. Julia Andrews from Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1947-1949, would describe his individual methodology as either revolutionary realism or revolutionary romanticism. This unique style carries profound importance in the context of Fu’s life because it allowed for some adherence to traditional Chinese culture to stay alive and be maintained in the face of what was essentially a Communist overhaul of Chinese culture.

Fu Baoshi, Gottwaldov, Czechoslovakia, Album leaf; ink and color on paper, 1957



February 8, 2019
by librem
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Chen Yifei: Transition away from Propaganda

Chen Yifei was born in 1948 and studied art in high school. During the Cultural Revolution, many political leaders, including Mao, took a liking to his work and contracted him to create many works to further the political cause of the party. For example, in 1949 he was commissioned, along with another painter, to create a work depicting a student who had tragically died in a flood while attempting to save timber from being washed away (Andrews 1994; 346). It was decided by top members of the Cultural Revolution that he would be depicted as a national model for selfless sacrifice. As Chen grew older, he moved away from creating such political pieces and became more Westernized — often painting musicians, dancers, or landscapes. I would like to create an exhibition that shows, through his work, this transition away from political propaganda. I would also like to place each painting in the context of the political climate at the time. Correlating the time period with the changes in Chen’s subjects will allow me to analyze how the historical events at the time influenced Chen’s ideology and his motivation for creating art. Toward the end of his life he became increasingly commercial, opening restaurants and creating a successful fashion line with another painter/designer (Tsui 2010; 189).

I would like to highlight one of Chen’s works, Thinking of History at My Space (1978), as the pivotal work in this transition. It is a self portrait that depicts Chen staring at a mural which shows times of adversity in Chinese History. It gives the feeling that Chen understanding the political influence of his work and debating on whether or not it is moral and he should continue. Finding the connection between Chen’s artistic/ideological changes and the historical events of the time period will not just teach us about Chen’s evolution, but about the evolution of Chinese art and politics as a whole.

Chen Yifei. Thinking of History at My Space. Oil on canvas, 1978.

Image source:

Long Museum. Accessed February 07, 2019.



Long Museum. Accessed February 07, 2019.


Andrews, Julia Frances. Painters and Politics in the Peoples Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.


Barboza, David. “Chen Yifei, 59, Painter and Entrepreneur, Dies.” The New York Times. April 14, 2005. Accessed February 07, 2019.


Chen, Yifei. Chen Yifei: Paintings & Drawings. London: Marlborough Fine Art (London), 2001.


Tsui, Christine. China Fashion Conversations with Designers. Oxford: Berg, 2010.

February 8, 2019
by elderl
1 Comment

Feng Zikai; Personal, Political, and Satirical.

The theme of my exhibition is to explore the different types of cartoons that Feng Zikai created. He was known to categorize his works into three different subjects: satirical, subtle social and political critiques, or purely to evoke a sense of nostalgia and intimacy with a specific scene. I plan to have two of each of these topics within my exhibition. I will choose two pieces of social critiques that represent different historical events within Feng’s life. He particularly felt strongly against the Great Leap Forward, and made works to depict the horrors of this time. Another political time frame which Feng created works about was the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the negative impacts that his war had on Chinese society. I will discuss the implications and symbolism within each politically-driven cartoon, and why Feng chose to create works about those specific historical events. I will discuss the satirical cartoons in a similar manner, and will include an explanation of the satirical symbolism.

The nostalgic and simple scenes without incorporation of political references will be chosen based on the significant events in Feng Zikai’s personal life and beliefs. Feng was a Buddhist artist, and this belief system was shown in his works. He sought to show the connection between art, play, work, and children. Children were used frequently, due to Feng’s belief in all needing a “childlike heart.” Only with this heart could one see the world for what it truly is, and act justly. This idea was significantly influenced by his Buddhist religion.

Also for each artwork, I will describe the similarities and differences that each piece has to that of traditional Chinese art. Notably, the medium and canvas layout are typically the same, but subject matter and technique are different. I will write about how the differences enabled Feng to showcase his views and speak to the modern people of China.

Feng Zikai. A China Dream poster. Ink on Scroll. Qufu, Shandong. Image Source:


Hung, Chang-tai. War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945. Los Angeles: The Regents of the University of California, 1994.

Lin, Qi. Feng Zikai exhibitions offer insight into painter’s life.

Feng, Zikai. “A China Dream poster.” Feng Zikai.

February 8, 2019
by steegsta

For All Eyes Only: A Public Gesture

Zhang Dali is a multimedia conceptual artist who is provoked by the Chinese social and and cultural changes that have occurred since the economic reforms that began in 1979. He is a rebellious soul who participated in the protests in Tiananmen Square among many students and members of the lower to middle class in 1989. During these protest, known commonly in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, many participants were killed by armed forces. For his role in the protests he was exiled from the country. During this time he studied Western art history in Europe. It was here that he first became familiar with graffiti and the idea of creating artworks in public spaces. When he returned to China years later, he began creating Graffiti on public walls, specifically the demolished walls of traditional communities which were being destroyed and rebuilt to fit the ideology of post-Mao China’s reforms.

He began by spray painting a logo, which he describes as “A stylized self-portrait based on the shape of my own skull. This logo by itself is not the work; it only becomes a work after it is placed in specific context.” (Zhang) These silhouettes were often accompanied by words such as AK-47 and 18k, referring to the AK-47 machine gun and the violence perpetrated by the reforms as well as a high karat value of gold, representing a rise of materialism emerging in the subsequent culture. These become recurring symbols in his catalogue. Zhang describes his work as a form of dialogue saying “Eventually people will establish some sort of relation with it… It doesn’t matter to me, as long as it is seen and instigates some sort of reaction.” (Zhang)

This exhibit will display various mediums, however will focus on Zhang Dali’s graffiti as well as photography of these works. The gallery will evolve to show some of his more formal artworks such as paintings and sculptures considering the same goals his graffiti was meant to reach. These will be juxtaposed by other graffiti artists such as Shepard Fairey who recreates Chinese and Soviet communist propaganda posters to also comment on social issues in Western culture.



Lago, Francesca Dal, Song Dong, Zhang Dali, Zhang Wang, and Wang Jianwei.

“Space and Public: Site Specificity in Beijing.” Art Journal 59, no. 1 (2000): 75-87.




February 8, 2019
by famularm

The Nude: An Invasion of Chinese Identity

Pan Yuliang, “The Dreamer,” c. 1955, ink and color on paper. Source: (

Whether it be seeking to evolve itself through modernization, consulting with western culture, or refining politics for the good of the majority, China’s ideological stability had shifted throughout the vast majority of the twentieth century. Modernist artist Pan Yuliang, deemed by art historian Phyllis Teo as “The Misunderstood “Mistress” of the West,” channeled these western influences that served to emphasize issues of gender politics within the country. By introducing an immense number of female nudes to the art world of Chinese culture, Pan’s works serve as an introduction to feminism in Communist China. However, it is the concept of the nude form that my exhibition will focus on. As Pan’s work begins as a starter point, I plan for my exhibition to survey the human body.

As nude art is a basis for much of western art, the trend rarely reached the east. When the concept of nude art reaches China, the body takes on a new narrative, a narrative that attempts to question the established orders of gender, politics, and culture. I plan to explore different works of art that frame the body in a new realm. How can the nude body be politicized? With themes of ideological domination, whether it be from the government or the patriarchy, subjectivity, feminism, and male chauvinism, I hope to show how something so simple as the human body can be something so revolutionary. Is it the Western characteristic of the nude art that causes China to resent it so much or is it something else? With a lack of sexual liberation in Chinese culture and an attempt to block out a female narrative, China’s complicated history with the nude brings to light apparent issues in their society. Why to this day is the concept of nudity still a forbidden zone in Chinese culture? By surveying art and theory surrounding the time before and during the Cultural Revolution, I hope to frame Chinese nude art as something that transcends western nude art.

February 8, 2019
by cachonq

The People’s Heroes Monument: Under Socialist Rule

The People’s Heroes Monument in Tiananmen Square is located in Beijing, China. The monument contains bas-reliefs around the base which represent important historical events throughout China’s history. Some of these events are the Wuchang Uprising, Nachang Uprising, Successful Crossing of the Yangtze River, May 30th Movement, etc. Although these bas-reliefs are beautiful pieces of art, they follow a common idea with the involvement of socialism in China. The monument “was a

Picture of The People’s Heroes Monument. Arian Zwegers 1995.

cultural production that addressed present political needs: affirming the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), rewriting China’s turbulent history according to a carefully scripted Marxist text, and establishing the regime’s control over the nation’s collective memory”(Hung 2001, 1). The monument itself is a fascinating representation of the heroes who fought for national independence, however there is the political side of the monument which correlates to the ideology of socialism. The bas-reliefs are social realistic which is important to note while looking at the progress and transformation Mao Zedong established in China.

Each of the bas-reliefs with their own representation of an important event in China’s history can be carefully analyzed to the core of their meaning and the connection to socialism. It is important to acknowledge the monument’s purpose to honor those who have died, however what would there be a different perspective if part of its creation was to be a tool for the government? During the rise of the communists, “all artists in China were compelled to adhere to the party line of art. During the 1950s, this meant adopting Soviet-style “social realism,” an overtly didactic art style that promoted communist ideas”(Hyer and Billingsley 1).

Henry Tsang, Canada
From Beijing to Oka Installation, 1990.

I will analyze the monument as a whole, which includes the encryption of Mao’s hand writing at the top and the social realistic bas-reliefs surrounding the base. Upon finding the full underlying or obvious meanings of each element on the monument, in what ways do they tie with the socialistic ideologies Mao established in the progression and transformation of China?






Hyer, Eric A., and Dodge Billingsley. “Art & Politics in Mao’s China.” Kennedy Center.

Hung, Chang-Tai. “Research Report. Revolutionary History in Stone: The Making of a Chinese National Monument.” The China Quarterly 166 (2001)

February 8, 2019
by agadzhad
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Image result for Tang Yin art

Tang Yin, Whispering Pines on the Mountain Path

Image result for Pu ru pines

Pu Ru, Scholar Under a Pine Tree


My exhibition will showcase landscape paintings of Pu Ru. Pu Ru was one of the few artists who continued to work in traditional Chinese style in the 20th century. He was a praised painter and calligrapher. He was heavily inspired by Ming dynasty artists such as Tang Yin. After the Manchu dynasty was overthrown, the artist left the Beijing palace and moved to the monastery in the mountains, where he spent fifteen years studying. Later he fled China and moved to Taiwan, where he continued his artistic and academic work. However, he often remembered the Western Hills monastery with nostalgia and later in his life repeatedly referred to it in his paintings. In my exhibition, I want to explore the relationship between traditional Chinese art and how Pu Ru interprets it. I want to showcase different and similarities, as well as works that served as an inspiration to the artist.



February 8, 2019
by westerhk
1 Comment

Yu Hong: Expressing Identity in Political Turmoil

Title: Yu Hong: Expressing Identity in Political Turmoil

Yu Hong, “Simple Hands” 190 X 110 acrylic on canvas, 2003.

For my exhibition I would like to showcase Yu Hong’s unique ability to represent current political issues in a powerful way. Yu Hong repeatedly creates pieces that comment on the negative societal ideas of women in China. I want to include pieces from her whole life since she has painted herself amongst these pressures. Additionally, in the 1990’s Yu created a series that depicted people in melancholic states. I think this is important to include in the exhibit because it is her remark on the harsh living conditions in China. Due to the rapid development of China throughout this time period, many people were not taken care of by the government. Yu successfully depicts this issue in her artwork by displaying people hunched over and hopeless about the future.

Additionally, Yu created the series Witnessing Growing Up, in the early 2000’s. I think this series is important to include since it depicts her personal account of what growing up during Communist China and the Cultural Revolution was like. Additionally, she added her daughter in the pieces to comment on human development and how children can be blissfully unaware of the harsh realities around them (Piëch, 2003). I think this series is important for the exhibition because it displays Yu’s desire early on to create images that represent current day issues.

Lastly, I would like to include some of her more recent work that she created in 2013, a series called Wondering Clouds. In this solo exhibition she explores the female perspective while remarking on social groups of the time. Through her painterly strokes she is able to create a fantasy, dream-like world amongst the clouds. She paints people from her own life and places them in a dynamic manner as they run through the heavens. Throughout all of the different series I will mention her unique stylistic brush strokes that appear highly realistic from afar. This engages the viewer and creates a different experience for when they come closer to the painting. Most of her oil and acrylic paintings evoke intense emotions and utilize full range of color. Yu is a pioneer for contemporary female artists of her time, paving the way for other women to be recognized and successful artists. 


NOWNESS. 2013.

Piëch, Xenia. “Yu Hong’s Witness to Growth: Historic Determination and Individual Contingency.” Academia. September 2003.

““Wondering Clouds” – Solo Exhibition by Yu Hong Unveiled …”

February 8, 2019
by potters

Zeng Fanzhi: Masking the Masses


My exhibition will display Zeng Fanzhi’s distinctive Mask Series, produced in the 1990s. In 1991 Zeng graduated from Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, following the upheaval of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. This was a time of social unrest as students protested in the streets in fear for their futures, as a result many had their futures taken from them. At the same time, Zeng was able to spend some time in Europe where he grew fond of the formal and stylistic aspects of German Expressionism. German Expressionism was a movement that came to be through feelings of frustration as there were strict guidelines for what was and wasn’t accepted in German art. “Instead of stiff, straightforward compositions, they loaded their canvases with vivid, clashing shards of color and pared-down, grossly distorted forms. The works that resulted were raw, deeply emotive, and shocking.” From this Zeng took to his canvas in a rather painterly and emotional response creating some of the most iconic pieces in Chinese art. Zeng refused to abide by the standards of Socialist Realism making his work so prominent, similar to that of artists in Germany who were acting out against the bourgeois and conveying mass anxieties.

The exhibition will contain images from Zeng’s Mask Series, each providing a new narrative. Zeng’s large scale paintings will be presented in a rather basic manner so the audience can fully take in and confront the figures painted. The images will be facing opposite one another, as to figuratively allow the masked figures to converse. Zeng’s playful color palette allows the audience to feel hopeful upon first glance, though further inspection will clarify these thoughts as we see the obvious loss in individuality as the figures are all more-or-less fashioned the same, wearing masks, wearing red kerchiefs. The way in which Zeng breaks past the confines of Socialist Realism and critiques it is shocking as he creates discourse in many areas surrounding identity, ideals, reality and Western influence. Zeng’s work resonates with many people all over the world due to its dual qualities, which is why it is so significant.

Annotated Bibliography:

  • Andrews, Julia Frances., and Kuiyi Shen. The Art of Modern China. University of California Press, 2012.

This book delves into the history of China and the art that followed it in the 20th century. It gives detailed analysis and interpretation of many works, revealing the advancement of Chinese art in a rapidly changing society. It is very useful for it’s insights on politics and Western influence.

This source is an interview with Zeng Fanzhi, where he talks of the various themes in his work. Zeng comments on his personal emotions, how they correlate to his paintings and the dialogue he creates in his images between the East and West. This will assist in my research as the information comes from the artist himself, helping me to understand his methods further.

  • Shiff, Richard. Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask. Hatje Cantz, November 30, 2010.

This source is an exhibition catalog containing artworks from all of Zeng’s series. The catalog also includes an essay by Richard Shiff named “Every Mark Its Mask.” In this essay Shiff dissects Zeng’s images looking closely at his process and technique and examining concept and sensation. As I am looking at Zeng’s Mask Series this essay will be significant as Shiff explores issues of identity and masking.

This source is information from publications about Zeng and his works. Inside contains an essay by Lorand Hegyi called “The Visual Epos of Zeng Fanzhi.” This will be key in gaining a well rounded understanding for Zeng and his works. A quote I enjoyed read “Zeng’s paintings manifest an idiosyncratic combination of deconstructivist methods and picturesque painted stories, so that the creation of the painting, as such, becomes the actual narrative.”


February 8, 2019
by lifrakj

Qi Baishi: Beauty Through Simplicity

Qi Baishi was an artist that transcended the turmoil of his country and was deeply connected to his Chinese roots.  Qi Baishi did not start his career in art until he was 27, only liking to draw as a child, but was very poor.  He wasn’t a masterful and skilled painter until he was in his sixties where he a very individualistic style.  Some of his most famous artworks are his drawings of crabs and shrimp, mainly very simple but they have many more profound meanings.  In his earliest artwork of a crab, it seems very simple, but each stroke has a specific sense to the painting.  This Scuttling Crab painting was created around the time the May Fourth Movement and the country was facing many issues at the time.  In the following years, there was death and famine, as well as warlord power.  This simple painting wasn’t meant for only the rich, and those could understand, but many could appreciate its beauty.  His shrimp paintings are very different yet so simple in comparison to other artworks at the time.  Each shrimp is like a single Chinese character, formed by the same repetitive stroke, but at the same time, each one is just that much different to give it individuality.  Mao Zedong named Qi Baishi the people’s artist in 1953, which is due to the paintings that were simple, but held beauty.  Qi Baishi had a deep appreciation for nature, and that’s where almost all of his drawings and paintings come from.

This idea of simplicity was very important for China at the time and of course Qi Baishi, who enjoyed to paint, almost like a child. He didn’t want just those who could afford to understand the painting to see and appreciate it, but for all to recognize the beauty he was creating.

Scuttling Crab. 1919. Hanging Scroll. Ink on Paper.

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