Visual Culture in Communist China

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

January 30, 2019
by meyersr
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Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds

Figure 1: Ai Weiwei and his installation at the Tate Modern, hand-painted porcelain. 2010.

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds is an installation made up of 100 million hand-painted porcelain “sunflower seeds”. Altogether, the seeds weigh about 10 tons, and can be configured in two ways. They may either be displayed as a large rectangle, contained by walls on three sides, or as a sculpture, achieved by pouring the seeds from above onto large pile without a structure containing them (Bingham 2010). The installation has been exhibited in multiple galleries in 9 different countries, but originally filled the entire floor of a room in the Tate Modern in London (AiWeiweiSeeds). Initially, visitors could walk through the field and interact with Ai’s installation, however, as the porcelain produced an excess of dust, to which inhalation and exposure are a health risk, Ai and the museum decided it would be best if the installation were not interactive. One of Ai’s goals in creating this project was to depict the idea of ‘Made in China’, as mass production immensely pervades Chinese society (Praun 2012: 4). Ai’s choice to produce the hundred-million seeds in the city of Jingdezhen is significant because historically, this region is known for porcelain production. Each sunflower seed was made by “individual craftspeople in a ‘cottage-industry’ setting, rather than in a large-scale factory” (Bingham 2010). Additionally, the stone used for the seeds was extracted from a specific mountain in the region, which coincides with his devotion to telling a narrative about historical and modern Chinese society. All of Ai’s decisions in the creation of his installation represent the prevalence of Chinese mass production. When speaking about his inspiration for the project, he noted that sunflowers and their seeds are representative of the Cultural Revolution. Since “the sunflower faces the trajectory of the red sun, so much the masses feel towards their leadership” (Ai 2010). Depictions of Mao often included sunflowers to emphasize the idea that his almighty power was like that of the sun’s. Sunflower seeds, then, represented the common people who idolized Mao. Because of this, sunflower seeds supported the political revolution spiritually, as well as materially, as they have always been a common street snack in China. However, Ai described them as more than just a snack, as during the revolution, sunflower seeds satisfied so many in hunger (Debin 2016). The political and historical motifs in this piece are representative of Ai Weiwei, as he constantly strives to depict contentious subjects through his art.

Figure 2: Visitors interacting with Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern, 2010. Photograph by Mike Kemp

Figure 3: Details of Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern, hand-painted porcelain. 2010.


“About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.” Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds. Accessed January 30, 2019.

Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern. “Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds.” October 2010. Accessed January 30, 2019.

Bingham, Juliet. “‘Sunflower Seeds’, Ai Weiwei, 2010.” Tate Modern. June 2010. Accessed January 30, 2019.

Debin, Megan Lorraine. “Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds).” Khan Academy. 2016. Accessed January 30, 2019.

Praun, Tessa. “Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds.” Magasin 3, 2012, 4.

January 30, 2019
by famularm

Pan Yuliang, Ode to Spring, 1930, oil on canvas

Pan Yuliang, Ode to Spring, 1930, Oil on Canvas, Collection of Anhui Museum, 98 x 71 cm. Source: Teo 2016, 60 (Figure 2.9).

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, tempera on canvas, c. 1482. Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence, Italy). Image source: Artstor Digital Library

Pan Yuliang’s Ode to Spring, an oil on canvas created in 1930, embodies themes of female empowerment and comradery with an infusion of Western art, taking inspiration from Renaissance painters as well as the French impressionists. After receiving an education at the École Nationale Supérierure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Pan was inherently exposed to the romantic traditions of the western painters. By using oil paint on canvas to produce the 98 x 71 cm spanning work, Pan pays tribute to the past impressionists as oil on canvas was the main medium of painters like Matisse, Manet, and Monet.

Pan’s image centers around a standing nude female surrounded my five seated women in an ideal natural setting. By employing atmospheric perspective, the viewer feels as if they are in a paradise; one woman in the background playing the flute as another reads a book. Seated to the left of the standing figure are two women engaging in conversation. The standing nude female holds a dove similar to the woman on the right. The centered female is merely covered by a thin drapery. With wispy trees and falling leaves, the natural background mirrors the curves of the women’s bodies. The placement of the nude females unified in a natural setting, signifies that “women are allied more closely to the realm of nature than culture”(Teo 2016, 60). This point if furthered by Phyllis Teo, an art historian from Singapore, elaborating that “Pan’s paintings transmit an allegory of modern women’s desire for autonomy and access to a public sphere, as signified by the outdoor setting, where women could freely pursue knowledge, music and art”(Teo 2016,61). As women formerly had little to no access to an education, Pan’s work emulates an ideal society where women can pursue intellectual desires free from the grip of patriarchal authority.

Teo puts this piece in comparison with the infamous Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, alluding Venus’s stance being similar to that of the centered nude female in Pan’s work. However, what makes these two pieces so different is the difference in actions of the surrounding individuals. While the figures in Botticelli’s work attempt to cover up the nude female, Pan’s figures are on display just as much as the center figure. This public and natural display of the female form adds to the overtones of female comradery, education, and representation in society.


Teo, Phyllis. Rewriting Modernism: Three Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China:  Pan Yuliang, Nie Ou, and Yin Xiuzhen. Chicago: Leiden University Press, 2016.


Sandro Botticelli. c. 1482. Birth of Venus. paintings. Place: Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi.

January 30, 2019
by agadzhad
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Autumn Mountains at Dusk, Pu Ru

Pu Ru (1896-1963) MOUNTAIN HERMITAGE IN SECLUSION 溥儒 隆中高卧圖 (1896-1963) 設色紙本 立軸 一九三三年作 款識: (錄韓愈〈送李愿歸盤谷序〉,文略) 靜遠先生少慕武侯之為人,逢興之亂,獨善自守,不以儒為不肖,命作〈隆中高卧圖〉,其所以寄慨深矣!既成此圖,并書韓文公〈送李愿歸盤谷序〉以觧之。癸酉十一月。西山逸士溥儒并識。 鈐印:「 乾坤一腐儒」、「舊王孫」、「溥儒之印」、「寒玉堂」、「半潭秋水一房山」。 99.2 by 33.2 cm 39 by 13 1/8 in.


Pu Ru
Autumn Mountains at Dusk, 1948
ink and color on paper

Autumn Mountains at Dusk by Pu Ru is a 97 by 33 cm hanging scroll of a mountain landscape. It demonstrates delicate and intricate brushwork intrinsic to traditional Chinese art. The piece features tall mountains, forest, and a secluded pavilion.
The piece has a vertical composition. The lower part of the painting, that shows the objects close to the viewer is very intricate and detailed. The leaves and flowers on the trees are drawn out in thoroughly. However, as we move up, the details are fading away. In the upper part of the painting, the mountains and another house in the distance are floating in the air. The mountains are drawn with bigger brush strokes.
This technique makes those objects look more remote for the viewer and adds a feeling if distance.


There are also two small figures of people going up the hill towards the pavilion. They are facing each other. Judging by their position, the people on the painting are having a conversation. One of the figures is pointing towards something with their hand. However, the figures are very small in relation to the trees and mountains around them. Because of that, at first, the painting looks static. The viewer notices the figures later because due to their size. Pu Ru turns to traditional Chinese art in this aspect, as people are depicted small to show their insignificance compared to nature.

The artist uses warm pastel colors to show the atmosphere of the sunset. The leaves and the grass has a light green color. It is almost transparent as we can see the paper through it. It is not realistic, but it makes the piece look calmer. Yellow-toned paper creates an additional feeling of warmth to the painting. Even though the sky is not painted, Pu Ru still manages to convey the atmosphere of the dusk.



January 30, 2019
by cachonq

Wuchang Uprising Bas-relief

This image is one of the eight bas-reliefs located at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The entire monument consists of marble and granite, however this bas-relief is made out of marble. This bas-relief is honoring those who fought and or died died in the Wuchang Uprising in 1911. The people in this bas-relief consists of soldiers and civilians who appear to be charging forward in the same direction without any signs of hesitation. All of them in the same forward position and urgency provides the viewer a sense of unity and courage.

Henry Tsang, Canada

Most of the men appear to be wearing the same uniform, except for a few. One of the characters has his shirt off while carrying a hatchet in his right hand. The artist of this bas-relief made this character’s muscles stand out to allow the viewer to see the strength, courage, and power of the soldiers and civilians who fought in this rebellion. Another effect of having his shirt off shows that not everyone who fought was a soldier. The hatchet has significant meaning because it requires a lot more effort to fight with a hatchet than a gun, showing the determination and importance this scene had on the people in this image. There appears to be a dragon in the background, which in China is a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. There is also a traditional Chinese building in the background, this was to narrow the scene down to  in “which rebellious soldiers and civilians storm the mansion of the local Imperial Viceroy, inflicting a deadly blow to the last feudal dynasty in Chinese history.” This provides the viewer with a sense of location and time period. The size of this bas-relief is quite large (two meters high), however not to scale size. For it to not be to scale size may have been done on purpose to contribute to it’s appearance of being a historical event. However given how large it is, it can allow the viewer to feel as if they are there with the people during that uprising. Another feature contributing to that feeling of being there for the viewer is that this is a realistic image, with extremely fine detail. Color is not used in this bas-relief. Not having color gives the image a more serious view and historical value.



“ Monument to the People’s Heroes.” Ethnic Groups,

Tsang, Henry. Goya to Beijing – Gallery – H. Tsang/02,

January 29, 2019
by elderl

Feng Zikai, A Chopped Down Tree

Feng Zikai. A Chopped Tree. Ink on scroll. Source:
War and Popular Culture. Chang-tai Hung 1994, 143 (Figure 37).

Feng Zikai was known for his skills as a cartoonist during the rise of Communist China. The layout of his works typically are done in ink on scroll, with a poem captioning on the side. As emulated in this painting, Feng was inspired by Western art; Feng gave up the traditional level of sophistication in the brushstrokes of classic Chinese paintings, rendering his works with simple layouts and clean-cut lines. As seen in A Chopped Tree, there is no use of the traditional ink technique of puddling. The work has minimal shading, with not much more than an outline and a few details to render each object. This emphasizes Feng’s ability to depict simple yet elegant moments in life. While Feng’s main goal was capturing the beauty of a brief tranquil moment in time, he also incorporated subtle critiques of social issues occurring in China into his work (Lin, 2018). A Chopped Tree is an excellent example of this strategy. Without understanding historical context, a viewer could see this ink brush painting as a comfortable moment for reflection. The work shows two people, likely a parent and their child, stopped along a path to look at a tree that has been partially cut down. The parent points upward and has their hand casually draped around the child’s shoulders, displaying comfort and nostalgia. The parent gesturing upwards towards the tree indicates that they are imparting wisdom upon their child. The poem on the side of the painting gives context to the life lesson that the parent is teaching: “A tree has been chopped down, but its instinct for life never dies. When spring comes again, it will grow and thrive.” This painting was made during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). Feng felt strongly against the Japanese threat towards China, and encouraged people to fight back (Hung, 1994). Contextually, this historical time frame gives meaning to the poem; the tree represents the well-being of China, and the part of the tree that has been chopped down represents the negative effects of the Japanese invasion. Though the Japanese have harmed China, when the war is over, China will be able to grow back and flourish, just as before. Feng’s use of a child in this painting represents the hope for redeveloping China in the next generation. The child represents growth and learning from the past. Feng intended for the story of the tree and it’s unyielding determination to grow to encourage the people of China to be determined, and continue the fight against the Japanese invaders.




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.


January 26, 2019
by brownp7

“A History of a Chinese Painting” and “A Concise History of Modern Painting” Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes

Figure 1: Huang Yong Ping. “A History of a Chinese Painting” and “A Concise History of Modern Painting” Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes. Sculpture. 1987. 

Huang Yong Ping founded something called the Xiamen Dada group (Vine 2011: 53), which was focused on criticism of many works and controversies. This led him to become an advocate for the destruction of specific doctrines and texts. His hopes to create art in post modern form was greatly influenced by the ideas of destruction and recreation. This led him to criticize specific art history which then resulted in his idea to create this work of art(Minglu 1998: 160). This work was a sculpture called, “A History of a Chinese Painting” and “A Concise History of Modern Painting” Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes. This sculpture expressed the denial of knowledge before the political turmoil that took place during the cultural revolution. The two books differed in that one was about traditional art, and one was about modern art. He wanted to combine two different histories together that were controversial to each other(Cheng 2018).  He took the two books and washed them in a washing machine, then formed the pieces together into what was considered pulp, and then  placed them on a piece of broken glass that was held up by a wooden trunk. The work is 31x20x20 which means it is not taking up a serious amount of space. The art can be depicted just as well even though it is not necessarily very large because of the interesting composition of it making it stand out. The overall meaning of this sculpture is exaggerated, in the way that was created, but its meaning is realistic to the ideas of the controversies between modern and traditional Chinese art. One interesting thing about this sculpture is that it looks like a destruction of something but its meaning is changed to a “still life in ruins”(Minglu 1998: 62). While viewing this work of art, one cannot see the washing machine that was the basis behind creating this piece, but instead we are left interpreting exactly what Huang Yong Ping went through to create this.


Cheng, Vincent. Conversation with Huang Yongping Asia Art Archive in America.

Kao, Ming-Lu, and Norman Bryson. Inside out: New Chinese Art. Univ. of California Press,1998.

Image Source: Spalding, Jill. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Studio International – Visual Arts, Design and Architecture,

Vine, Richard. New China, New Art = Zhongguo Dang Dai Yi Shu. Prestel, 2011.

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