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Socialist Realism was introduced into China in the first half of the twentieth century, and gradually became the main, overarching creative method of the revolutionary era, leading art, literature, theater, and other creative fields for decades. It is often seen as a highly politicized creative model that is the product of socialist, and particularly communist, political views. Over the past three decades, contemporary artists and art discussions often attempted to cast it off as an external form, positioning themselves in opposition to it in order to declare their independent, rebellious, free, and contemporary stance in their artistic practice. Many artists and critics have also engaged in a conscious rethinking of their socialist heritage within their artistic practice, either distancing themselves or avoiding it altogether, unwilling to admit Socialism’s direct connection to contemporary times as an artistic tradition or ideology. Such an independent, rebellious, and free stance appears to be the foundation of the contemporary legitimacy of art. At the same time, we have not engaged in adequate observation and discussion of its internal logic. The current ambiguity of articulation concerning contemporary issues in art criticism in China is largely due to the delay in carrying out deep research and analysis of this historical process. In this paper, we propose to address the subject of socialist realism as a fundamental issue, exploring the historic practice and complexity of its formation.

The Origins of Social Realism

Engels predicted in 1859 that socialist literature would possess profound conceptual and predictive abilities, as well as a perfected artistic form. He believed that realism “implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.” That is to say, art reflects generalized reality rather than solely and simply a mimetic reproduction of a particular reality. It is a depiction that presupposes historical development and class struggle so as to “lay claim to a place in the realm of realism.” Socialist Realism is socialist first, not realist. The intellectuals, writers, and artists who were entrusted with the duty of changing and educating the working class had to accept communist utopia as the ultimate truth as well as the inevitability of the revolution. Once both were accepted, then romanticization, with its embellishment and exaggeration of heroes and various beautiful imaginings, would not be fabrication but an actual reflection of a reality to come.

Wu Yinxian, Hainan Province, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

As a creative method, Socialist Realism was not just a Soviet invention promoted by the Communist Party. Early in the twentieth century, progressive intellectuals introduced realism into the field of literature, its sense of intimacy attracting many authors engaged in the fields of literature, drama, and art. For some, realism in China allowed for an escape from Western invasion and appealed to Chinese national values, including its culture. Others saw Western modern art as reflecting the modernization of the nation and a way to help overcome its feudalist structure. These complex, intertwined sentiments of admiration and hatred for Western nations—as both industrialized states and colonialists—filled the Chinese intellectual realm. Socialist Realism appeared within this context and appealed to Chinese artists’ aspirations for the modernization of art. For intellectuals, it had a sense of presence in reality, and this in itself already proved quite alluring. Meanwhile, it fit with their deep desire to integrate their own ideals with their pursuit of change in reality and progress for the nation. An early definition of Socialist Realism accounted for this precedence, stating that Socialist Realism emerged

between 1932 and 1934 in the discussion of creative methods among artists and writers in the Soviet Union, proposed by writers and theorists and agreed upon by Stalin. Though the Socialist Realist creative method was established in the 1930s, its basic traits had already taken shape in the creative practices of some writers before it was theoretically defined.

In Russia, the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 established Socialist Realism as the main creative style for Soviet literature, noting that the artist must not just understand life as an “objective reality” but also a reality within the developments of the revolution. On this occasion, Maxim Gorky stated that Socialist Realist literature was directly connected to the proletariat, and its ascension in world history as an independent political force. Hence, British Chartist poetry, German proletarian poetry, and the French literature of the Paris Commune were to be located as the beginnings of this new literary form, which had to wait until the first Russian revolution to be able to affirm itself as the mature phase of this proletarian revolution.

Dong Xiwen, Thousand-year Old Earth has Turned Over, date unknown. Watercolor. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

The Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art

The Communist Party of China was established in 1921 as a branch of the Communist International founded by Lenin in 1919, with initial funding and guidance from the latter. A fracture arose when the Central Committee, controlled by personnel sent over by the Communist International, demanded that the Chinese Communist Party’s struggles use Soviet tactics and directly serve the Soviet Union. When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union was too preoccupied to manage the affairs of the Chinese Communist Party and its Red Army, controlled by Mao Zedong and other local cadres. Mao Zedong took this opportunity to attack the internationalists within the party, led by Wang Ming, and coin a local Marxism—a “proletarian party” free from the control of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of China was transformed from a subsidiary organization of the Communist International into a tight-knit, autonomous party with a solidified role for art and literature in its political policies.

After these developments, the Chinese Communist Party carried out party-wide Marxism-Leninism pedagogic movements in 1942, 1950, and 1957 to solidify Mao’s absolute leadership. As an important component of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, Mao personally hosted the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art from May 2 to 23, 1942. Over a hundred art and literary workers as well as officials from various departments of the party attended. The objective was to resolve the theoretical and practical issues that Chinese proletarian art and literature had encountered in its development, including the relation of the artwork to the overall work of the party, its public and its dissemination, as well as the unification of content and form, of praise and exposure. Mao Zedong’s opening and closing remarks that May were combined and officially published on October 19, 1943 in the Yan’an newspaper Liberation Daily, marking the beginning of the new era of integration between new Chinese literature and the worker-peasant-soldier masses.

In the Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art, Mao proposed:

The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. They are the only source, for there can be no other.

This exposition has determined our later narrowness as we view contemporary art. Like Mao’s absoluteness in the orthodoxy of the Communist Party’s ruling and ideology in China, there is a tendency to exclude any different perspective and to recognize only one legitimate form, approach, and value, giving no space at all to diversions and differences. In the case of defining what is realist art for the Chinese art world, we often fall into the same logic of singularity, taking the biased view that content is the only testament to the continuation of the creative traditions of realism, while overlooking creations that engage in experiments with other aspects of a broader sense of realism.

Meanwhile, we narrowly define reality as that reality which exists before the eyes and in the lives of the masses. Despite the fact that the reality depicted by Socialist Realism actually includes subjective ideas and faces the so-called reality of communist ideals, Socialist Realism as a creative approach is far less definite than we have estimated and previously understood. Bureaucracy and censorship, as well as the resulting artistic views that arose in the 1940s around the principle that art should serve politics, have proven much more stable. After several decades of security, the various operations—from policies on art to art patronage projects, the Artist’s Association, the National Fine Arts Exhibitions, sponsorship, the censorship regime, and the art museum system—formed an unshakeable inertia. The art and discussions of art cultivated within this system have come to occupy more widely disseminated fields such as textbooks, mass media, and museums.

The Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art stressed:

All our literature and art is for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants and soldiers; it is created for the workers, peasants and soldiers … Once we have solved the problems of fundamental policy, of serving the workers, peasants and soldiers and of how to serve them, such other problems as whether to write about the bright or the dark side of life and the problem of unity will also be solved. If everyone agrees on the fundamental policy, it should be adhered to by all our workers, all our schools, publications and organizations in the field of literature and art and in all our literary and artistic activities. It is wrong to depart from this policy and anything at variance with it must be duly corrected.

This talk was established as the sole source for artistic and literary creation. It resulted in top-down orders that colluded to limit artistic creation to a narrow framework at the service of ideology, and determined that the ensuing artworks should, in content and form, be easy to disseminate. In the Talks, Mao particularly emphasized the “question of who art and literature is for,” pointing out that literature “consists fundamentally of the problems of working for the masses and how to work for the masses.” The reading public was endowed with intangible political rights and critical authority. Consequently, publications established sections for “letters from readers,” turning readers into important writers of art criticism, making for a unique critical method in magazines such as Fine Arts (Meishu).

Wu Yinxian, Hainan Province, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian and the Beginning of Realism in China

Let us look back again on the early days of realism’s introduction into China. Its artistic properties held a strong appeal for the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the day. As the revolution progressed and the Communist Party further defined Socialist Realism, it gradually evolved from an artistic style into an ideology with clear viewpoints. It was the clothing of ideology, as well as ideology itself. This transformation of its role was total, because it began expressing powerful exclusivity and producing confusion. In order to fit with the political mode it represented, it not only expressed the ideology it represented, but also became that ideology itself, consolidating the mechanisms of that ideology. It put on its poker face, equating itself with correctness and singularity, through which it gained absolute authority. This is why the question of right and wrong began to emerge in these creations, with political views, goals, and functions coming to occupy the leading position in these creations. Creation itself began to follow political guidance. Its boundaries grew increasingly visible, and like a talisman, they came to regulate and define the range of artists’ thoughts and creations.

Today, most accounts of people like Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen go only as far as the political foundations of their creations, treating their work the same as that which purely served ideological ends. Few of Wu Yinxian’s contemporaries or successors had such a rich early education in Eastern and Western art, nor did they establish their later work on an artistic foundation—instead treating photography as a political task, an operation for the expression of political intentions. Even today, most photography services are run by photojournalists or even sports photographers. To summarily relegate the work of such artists as Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen to the category of ideological tools is to fall into the same absolutist and simplified approach to understanding as is applied in Socialist Realism.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the literary and art workers streaming into Beijing from the liberated zones brought revolutionary artistic ideas to the capital. In the spirit of the times, Socialist Realist painting came to carry the idea of the “nationalization of oil painting” advocated by many artists in the early days of the People’s Republic, allowing this European art form to constitute the most convincing medium for its entry into the realm of Chinese art at the service of political ends. The artists steeped in early Western modernism found political momentum for turning what they learned abroad into something Chinese. Placed on important platforms, they were, on the one hand, considered within the ideological framework. On the other, they were also able to refine and ponder artistic practice itself.

Dong Xiwen, Jia Ling River in Chong Qing, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

Dong Xiwen, for instance, became a household name in China in the 1950s and ’60s for his oil painting The Founding of a Nation. Although he did not study abroad in Europe, Dong spent time in French-ruled Vietnam, where he studied at a French art academy. Between 1943 and ’45, Dong researched and copied the art of Dunhuang, whose depictions of the human form he “highly praised, … seeing the artists’ great ability to render smooth flesh and elastic color tones with simple lines and colors as worthy of admiration.” From the murals at Dunhuang he absorbed the aesthetics of traditional painting, and learned the traditional modeling techniques that were to constitute his aesthetics:

Through his research of the murals, Dong Xiwen deepened his understanding of the traditional art of his people, laying the foundation for his reverence for ethnic culture. It was this reverence that led him, when studying foreign oil painting, to consciously infuse oil painting with the forms and spirit of Chinese art, giving oil painting a Chinese style and artistic spirit.

Though there was overlap between Dong Xiwen’s pursuit of the “nationalization of oil painting” and the Communist Party’s demands that literary and artistic creation fall into the service of politics, the artist’s individual practice was not always entirely in accord with the nation’s political standards. In “Self-Examination,” published in Fine Art Research, Dong Xiwen confronted the influence of Western art forms and problematized his previous emphasis on style, individuality, and emotion. He wrote,

Though I criticize recent European painting schools such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, when I saw the original works, I was full of uncontrollable excitement. When the “double-anti” campaign began … I suddenly saw the capitalist artistic path I had taken over a decade ago, and that I still continued to follow. In the relationship between conceptuality and form, and on the question of political standards and artistic standards, I used the emphasis on formal appeal to dilute the primacy of the former. These capitalist views on art, still strong today, are clearly at odds with Chairman Mao’s path for literature and the arts, and Socialist Realism’s creative path.], Beijing Academy of Painting. Originally published in Meishu Yanjiu [Fine Art Research]] vol. 2 (1958): 256–257.]

The late historian Gao Hua wrote that China’s real proletarian cultural narrative was spread to China from Moscow and Japan. The narrative of class struggle emphasizes imperialism’s suppression of and encroachment into China and the Chinese people’s painful memories of it, while also providing an idealist vision for changing society. In theory, it is called communism, but in practice, it is actually “Soviet,” and that was basically the case for the left wing for ten years (1927–1937). Into the 1930s, the left wing added another appealing banner: “resisting Japan for national survival,” infusing the leftist revolutionary narrative with nationalist elements. From that perspective, the left occupied moral high ground in two places: anti-imperialist patriotism and egalitarianism.

Before 1949, leftist culture occupied a large space in Chinese intellectual consciousness precisely for these two reasons. China also had its own background, the tradition of “writing as the carrier of the truth,” a tradition of changing society through literature. In the early twentieth century, there was just such a movement for literature and art’s intervention and participation in social reform. The years 1927 to 1937 were China’s “red thirties,” a decade of literature and art intervening in society and social reform, when many writers and artists entered more directly into the social revolution. Born to a scholarly family in Shuyang County, Jiangsu Province, Wu Yinxian enjoyed a rich artistic upbringing. In 1919, he was accepted into the Shanghai Professional Academy for Fine Arts, a school founded by Liu Haisu, where he received standard training in the fundamentals of painting. During his studies, he bought an old American Brownie camera at a secondhand market, and began to use photography and film to document the suppression of the poor by the rich, the warlords, and the Japanese invaders.

In March 1933, the Chinese Communist Party Cultural Council established an underground film group run by Xia Yan, Qian Xingcun, Wang Chenwu, Shi Linghe, and Situ Huimin. They began contacting progressives in hopes of producing an anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist film for the masses and making use of realist expressive methods. In an atmosphere of unprecedented anti-Japanese sentiments and a surging patriotic movement, they firmly established the Communist Party’s status as the spokesman for the growing dissatisfaction.

In 1935, after Wu Yinxian and Xu Xingzhi’s work was displayed at the Photography and Painting Exhibition, Xia Yan approached Xu Xingzhi, suggesting that both photographers move from Unique Film Productions to the Diantong Film Company to film the movie Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm, with a script by Tian Han. Wu Yinxian accepted, and worked as the film’s cinematographer. Set against the backdrop of the Mukden Incident of 1931, it tells the story of an intellectual’s progression from hesitation to awakened struggle and revolution through the story of wandering poet Xin Baihua, reflecting the popular will to resist the Japanese invasion. Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm was Wu Yinxian’s first work as a filmmaker, and was also:

An important part of Wu Yinxian’s transformation. He began the shift from being a patriotic youth with a sense of justice and national awareness to gradually realizing that only by throwing himself into the torrents of the people’s movement could he carry out his responsibilities to his people and society.

In the filming process, Wu Yinxian “pondered Xia Yan’s words, and came to feel the weight of his responsibility.”

After this, Wu Yinxian filmed Street Angel and the documentary Long Live China, which criticized China’s social inequality and praised the Chinese Revolutionary Forces in their efforts to resist the Japanese and save China. Nationalist Party censors derided Long Live China as “communist propaganda,” and destroyed all the negatives and copies—no footage of this film survives today. In the summer of 1938, Deputy Communist Party Military Commissioner Zhou Enlai invited Yuan Mu to travel to Yan’an, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border area, and the Northern China Rear Guard Zone to film a documentary on the Eighth Route Army under the command of the Communist Party. Yuan invited Wu Yinxian, who arrived in Yan’an in the fall of 1938, planning to return to Shanghai after filming on Yan’an and the Eighth Route Army was complete. But he was touched by the life of battle in the revolutionary stronghold, and decided to stay, joining the Communist Party in 1942 and continuing to work in party-related films, reflecting the political, economic, and cultural life in Yan’an. During these eight years, Wu Yinxian merged with his subjects, facing the tests of battle alongside those he photographed. Deeply influenced by Marxism, Leninism, and Maoist thought, he transformed from a progressive leftist youth into a “proletarian warrior who struggled for the photographic endeavors of the party with staunch resolution.” He founded the Northeastern Film Studio, and in the subsequent decades worked in the field and wrote a nearly one-million-word theoretical treatise on photography that became an important manual for the theory and practice of photography.

Wu Yinxian, Untitled, from the series Sailing Boat, 1949–1950. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

In 1955, Wu Yinxian travelled to Beijing to take part in the creation of China’s first higher education institution for film, the Beijing film Academy, where he served as deputy director and directed the photography department. When the Cultural Revolution began, Wu Yinxian and his fellow cultural workers were no longer able to openly engage in education and photography. He was required to take part in labor activities and write reports on his thinking. In 1969, Wu Yinxian wrote a letter to Jiang Qing, hoping to gain the right to continue working:

Comrade Jiang Qing: I would also like to report a personal matter. Though I am old, and unable to carry heavy cameras myself, I am free of disease, have good blood pressure and an overall healthy body. I very much hope to contribute my personal abilities to your filming of the revolutionary model operas, for instance helping the photography comrades, and exploring such aspects as composition, camera movement and lighting. I also hope that through my participation in the filming of the model operas, I can raise my own political awareness, becoming someone who can do more beneficial work for the party in the future.

In the later years of the Cultural Revolution, Wu Yinxian became one of the first academy administrative cadre members to be released from manual labor and suspension from work. At Jiang Qing’s request, the Beijing Film Academy and other art academies were dismantled, and the 57 Art Academy was built, with Wu Yinxian serving as deputy director. Because of this experience, Wu Yinxian was not immediately rehabilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution, unlike many of his peers who had been mistreated during that period, and his position was not restored until he wrote a letter to Hu Yaobang explaining his situation.

In Unstoppable Concern: Intellectual Life and Politics Before and After 1949, Yang Kuisong writes,

In the recent era, Chinese political change has always begun in a violent fashion. Into the twentieth century, it became even more of a violent seizure of political power. Thus, gun barrels, rather than pens, became the main determining political means.

Within this brutal political reality and political logic, Wu Yinxian and other intellectuals and artists had to choose their areas, and to carry out their work in ways that politically benefitted those fields. Their work and values were often covered over by their political standpoints—examined and observed through the logic of revolutionary thinking. Even today, their creative achievements are overlooked and they are shunned according to the revolutionary values that still course through the blood of the majority of people.

Dong Xiwen, Spring Arrives in Tibet, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

Still, Wu Yinxian, who was present at the Yan’an Conference and filmed the proceedings, never forgot in his later practice Mao Zedong’s exhortation to serve the people with art. After Yan’an, he always played a principle role in the party’s film and photography endeavors. His artistic insight, his research on the theory and practice of photography, never became dogmatic, mechanical, or devoid of his own viewpoints. To the contrary, the artist’s early education in Shanghai and his own independent studies retained their relevance.

A look at Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian reminds us that in approaching the creations of this period, we should not overlook the complexity of the creators while looking at the goals and viewpoints of these creations. Even when engaging in creations to carry out political tasks, there was still a dynamism to the art and thinking, and artists were able to exercise a certain amount of subjectivity. Even if the artist as an individual was working to express the political authority he served, his artistic experiences and aspirations still played a role in his work. In their creative processes, their pursuit of diversity in artistic forms and artistic tastes often clashed and contradicted with the powerful constraints placed on art by the political structure of the times, and these real experiences, the struggles and reflections of the artists within this process, and the results that emerged from these competing forces, came to form our experience of the artistic creations of the era. Within the internal party mechanisms for controlling speech and ideas, self-examination and self-criticism are highly effective methods. For instance, in “Self-Examination,” Dong Xiwen wrote,

The political and artistic aspects of art should be unified, nevertheless, political standards should come first, but in the question of conceptual and artistic, political standards and artistic standards, I still place great emphasis on the latter, while merely paying lip service to the former. Though I say that I believe the direction of Socialist Realism to be the correct one, I have always felt that our average artworks are monotonous in style and lacking in form, rarely possessing the personality and emotions of the artist.

Dong Xiwen used writing, teaching in the academy, and presenting artworks to continue progressing and practicing artistic experimentation in this political atmosphere and sense of self-contradiction, and thus added to the formation of artistic discourse. Around the time of the nation’s founding, the goals and directions of artists’ work were the same as those of the ruling party, full of duty and hope for the rise of the nation, and the pursuit of the modernization of art. In later years, even as individual artistic pursuits fell under government suspicion and became the target of criticism, the relationship between these individual artists and the government was an internal one. They never became opposing camps pursuing different political ends. Throughout this time, the government hoped to limit the boundaries of art and ideas, while the artists, in their work, always hoped to gain more, and because of this, they often collided with the limits of government tolerance. This collision was always the result of artistic demands, not political ones. This internal, parallel, but sometimes abrasive relationship can also be used to describe the later relationship between art and government, which was sometimes peaceful and sometimes not so peaceful.

Wu Yinxian, Island Militias, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

The Superstructure for Art and Its Discourse

There are several characteristics and issues in our understanding and description of the creative trends that have taken place in Chinese contemporary art over the past thirty years. First, discussion of art has been profoundly shaped by two narrative types that have occupied a definitive position in modern Chinese history. These two narrative types are the “revolutionary narrative” and the “modernization narrative,” as described by art historian Gao Hua. Gao has made a profound yet simple analysis of the roots and lasting impact of these narratives:

The so-called “revolutionary narrative” arose from the 1920s to 1940s, and is the revolutionary history of the left. Various “organic” or “organized” new intellectuals such as Qu Qiubai, Zhang Wentian and He Ganzhi imported a series of concepts and categories from new leftist theories in the Soviet Union and Japan, constructing a system for leftist forces to apply to understanding the reality, past and future of China, with the core theme being the legitimacy and inevitability of revolution in China.

Socialist Realism represents the expressive methods of this system of understanding and interpretation. Gao believes that the “revolutionary narrative,” owing to its roots in an era of revolutionary struggle, is marked by strong tones of political mobilization. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the “revolutionary narrative” began a slide towards ossification and dogmatism. The “revolutionary narrative” engaged in an excessive pursuit of a “grand narrative,” establishing a standpoint before engaging in research and discussion:

Guided by authoritative descriptions or authoritative documents, it selectively cut and pasted historical material in order to affirm a certain authoritative description, simplifying the complex processes of history into an explanation of “inevitability” while covering over many rich and fresh historical layers.

The other main narrative model in modern history, the “modernization narrative,” was introduced into China in the early 1980s. The end of the Cultural Revolution is often viewed as the starting point for contemporary art, and the continued use of this chronology has led to the oversimplification of its complexity. By placing the beginning of Chinese contemporary art in 1976, and by placing contemporary art together with the universally described loosening of the social atmosphere, liberation of ideas, and the people’s strong desire to escape the past after the end of the Cultural Revolution, contemporary art and the contemporary art field have gradually been turned into symbols, and to a certain extent, this practice has come to hinder creative practitioners and art critics themselves.

This narrative uses the global and universal historical process that is modernization to describe the modernization process that China carried out under strong a influence from other countries, using it to expound upon China’s experiences and lessons from over a century of modernization. This narrative model views China’s recent history through the lens of close connections to the world, and has been applied to Chinese modern and contemporary art, particularly in the description of creative forms and artistic movements from the mid-1980s to the present.

Dong Xiwen, Kazak Shepherdess, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

The weakness of this method is that it magnifies the universal applicability of the European and American modernization process, and fails to place the logic of China’s own modernization process in the proper light. The limitations of this narrative model led to many anxieties in Chinese culture and art circles in the 1990s regarding China and the West, how to construct a self-oriented history, and how to engage in a suitable self-narrative.

We believe that the trajectory of Chinese contemporary art, from creation to discussion, did not take place entirely removed from Socialist Realism, but that it has continued to follow Socialist Realism and the pursuit of modernity as its evolution was shaped by China’s political environment. Describing contemporary art as a “rebellious and progressive” set of ideas and actions is actually in keeping with Socialist Realism’s historical demand to present reality in creative work. In existing accounts, contemporary art’s birth after 1976 was to become the best “witness” to the openness of communist society, where “dissidents and rebels” had become integrated into the reality of society itself.

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To be continued in "From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism, Part II." This text was translated from the Chinese by Jeff Crosby.

Liu Ding is an artist and curator based in Beijing. His artistic and curatorial practice treats objects, events, and discourses of art history and the foundation of historicization both as materials and as the basis for critical reflection. He initiated the research and exhibition project titled Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary Art I, II, in collaboration with Carol Yinghua Lu. He co-curated the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennial, titled Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World. Publications written and edited by him include Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary ArtI, II, Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World, and Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000.

Carol Yinghua Lu lives and works in Beijing. She is the contributing editor for Frieze and is on the advisory board for the Exhibitionist. Lu was on the jury for the Golden Lion Award in 2011 Venice Biennale and the co-artistic director of 2012 Gwangju Biennale and co-curator of the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale in 2012. Since 2012, she is the artistic director and chief curator of OCAT Shenzhen. Lu was the first visiting fellow of Asia-Pacific at Tate Research Centre in 2013.

© 2014 e-flux and the author

The Introduction of Socialist Realism in China

In 1859 Engels predicted that socialist literature would represent a perfected artistic form. He believed that realism ‘implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances’. In other words, art is a reflection of a generalised reality rather than solely a mimetic reproduction of a particular reality; it is a depiction that presupposes historical development and class struggle so as to ‘lay claim to a place in the realm of realism’.1 Socialist Realism is socialist first, not realist. The intellectuals, writers and artists who were entrusted with the duty to change and educate the working class had to accept a communist utopia as the ultimate truth as well as the inevitability of the revolution. Once both were accepted, then romanticism, with its embellishment and exaggeration of heroes and various beautiful imaginings, would not be mere fabrication but a truthful rendering of a reality to come.

As a creative method, Socialist Realism was not just a Soviet invention promoted by the Communist Party. Early in the twentieth century, progressive intellectuals introduced realism into the field of literature; its sense of intimacy attracted many authors engaged in the fields of literature, drama and art. For some, realism appealed to Chinese national values, allowing for an escape from the pervading influence of Western culture. Others saw Western modern art as a modernising force that would help China overcome its feudalist structure. These complex, intertwined sentiments of admiration and hatred for Western nations, at once both industrialised states and colonialists, filled the Chinese intellectual realm in the early twentieth century. Socialist Realism appeared within this context and appealed to the popular aspiration among Chinese artists for a modernisation of art. For intellectuals, it had a sense of presence in reality, and this in itself proved alluring. Meanwhile, it fitted with their deep desire to integrate their own ideals with their pursuit of progress for the nation. An early definition of Socialist Realism accounted for this precedence:

Emerging between 1932 and 1934 in the discussion of creative methods among artists and writers in the Soviet Union, proposed by writers and theorists and agreed upon by Stalin. Though the Socialist Realist creative method was established in the 1930s, its basic traits had already taken shape in the creative practices of some writers before it was theoretically defined.2

In Russia, the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 established Socialist Realism as the main creative style for Soviet literature, noting that the artist must not just understand life as an ‘objective reality’ but as a developmental stage of the revolution. On this occasion, Maxim Gorky stated that Socialist Realist literature was directly connected to the proletariat, and its ascension in world history was an independent political force. Hence, British chartist poetry, German proletarian poetry, and the French literature of the Paris Commune were to be located as the beginnings of this new literary form, which had to wait until the first Russian revolution to be able to affirm itself as the mature phase of this proletarian revolution.

The Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art

The Communist Party of China was established in 1921 as a branch of the Communist International founded by Lenin in 1919, who provided the initial funding and guidance. A fracture arose when the Central Committee, controlled by personnel sent over by the Communist International, demanded that the Chinese Communist Party’s struggles use Soviet tactics and directly serve the Soviet Union. When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union was too preoccupied to manage the affairs of both the Chinese Communist Party – controlled by Mao Zedong and other local cadres – and its own Red Army. Mao Zedong took this opportunity to attack the internationalists within the party led by Wang Ming, and coin a local Marxism – a ‘proletarian party’ free from the control of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of China was thus transformed from a subsidiary organisation of the Communist International into a tight-knit, autonomous party with a fixed role for art and literature in its political policies.

After these developments, the Chinese Communist Party carried out party-wide Marxism-Leninism pedagogic movements in 1942, 1950 and 1957 to solidify Mao’s absolute leadership. As an important component of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, Mao personally hosted the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art on 2–23 May 1942. Over 200 art and literary workers, as well as officials from various departments of the party, attended the conference. The objective was to resolve the theoretical and practical issues that Chinese proletarian art and literature had encountered in its development. These included the relation of the artwork with the overall work of the party; strategies for dissemination; and how to approach the unification of content, form, praise and exposure. Mao Zedong’s opening and closing remarks from the conference were combined and officially published on 19 October 1943 in the Yan’an newspaper Liberation Daily, marking the beginning of a new era of integration between new Chinese literature and art (wenyi in Chinese) and the worker-peasant-soldier masses.

In the Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art Mao proposed:

The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. They are the only source, for there can be no other.3

This exposition determined the narrowness with which we view contemporary art today. Like Mao’s absoluteness in the orthodoxy of the Communist Party’s ruling and ideology, in present-day China there is a tendency to recognise only one legitimate form, approach and value to art and exclude any alternative perspectives, giving no space at all to diversions and differences. In the case of defining what a realist art in China would look like, we often fall into the same logic of singularity. We take the biased view that content is the only testament to the continuation of the creative traditions of realism, while overlooking artworks that engage in experiments with other aspects of a broader sense of realism.

Meanwhile, we narrowly define reality as that which exists before the eyes and in the lives of the masses. Despite the fact that the reality depicted by Socialist Realism actually includes subjective ideas and faces of the so-called reality of communist ideals, the definitude of Socialist Realism as a creative approach is far lower than that which we have estimated and previously understood. From the 1940s, the principal that art should serve politics remained stable, shaping both bureaucracy and censorship in the arts. After several decades of security, various operations, ranging from policies on art to art patronage projects, the Artist’s Association, the National Fine Arts Exhibitions, sponsorship, the censorship regime and the art museum system, formed an unshakeable inertia. The art and discussions of art cultivated within this system have taken permanent residence in mainstream formats such as textbooks, mass media and museums.

In the Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art Mao stressed:

All our literature and art are for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants and soldiers; they are created for the workers, peasants and soldiers … Once we have solved the problems of fundamental policy, of serving the workers, peasants and soldiers and of how to serve them, such other problems as whether to write about the bright or the dark side of life and the problem of unity will also be solved. If everyone agrees on the fundamental policy, it should be adhered to by all our workers, all our schools, publications and organisations in the field of literature and art and in all our literary and artistic activities. It is wrong to depart from this policy and anything at variance with it must be duly corrected.4

This talk was established as the sole source for artistic and literary creation. It resulted in top-down orders that colluded to limit artistic creation to a narrow framework at the service of ideology; it also determined that the ensuing artworks should, in content and form, be easy to disseminate. In the lecture, Mao particularly emphasised the ‘question of who art and literature is for’, pointing out that literature ‘consists fundamentally of the problems of working for the masses and how to work for the masses’. The reading public was bestowed with intangible political rights and critical authority. Consequently, publications established sections for ‘letters from readers’, turning readers into important writers of art criticism, making for a unique critical method in magazines such as Fine Arts (Meishu) (figs.1–2).5

Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian and the Beginning of Socialist Realism in China

Let us now return to the early days of the introduction of realism in China. For the intellectuals, writers and artists of the day, its artistic properties held a strong appeal. As the revolution progressed and the Communist Party further defined Socialist Realism, it gradually evolved from an artistic style into an ideology with a clear viewpoint; it became the clothing of ideology, as well as ideology itself. This transformation allowed the genre to express powerful exclusivity and produce confusion. In order to fit with the political mode it represented, it not only expressed the ideology it represented, but also became that ideology itself, consolidating its mechanisms. It put on its poker face, equating itself with correctness and singularity, through which it gained absolute authority. This is why the question of right and wrong began to emerge in realist creations, because political views, goals and functions had come to occupy a principal position within the work. Creation itself began to follow political guidance. Its boundaries grew increasingly visible and, like a talisman, they came to regulate and define the range of artists’ thoughts and creations.

Today, most accounts of people like Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen go only as far as the political foundations of their creations, treating their work with the same regard as work that serves solely ideological ends. Yet, few of Wu Yinxian’s contemporaries or successors had as rich an early education in both Eastern and Western art as he, nor did they establish their later work on an artistic foundation. Rather, they treated photography as a political task, an operation for the expression of political intentions. Even today, most photography services are run by photojournalists or even sports photographers. To summarily relegate the work of such artists as Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen to the category of ideological tools is to fall into the same absolutist and simplified approach to understanding that is applied to Socialist Realism.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the literary and art workers streaming into Beijing from the liberated zones brought revolutionary artistic ideas to the capital. Within the spirit of the times, Socialist Realist painting came to represent the notion of the ‘nationalisation of oil painting’ advocated by many artists in the early days of the People’s Republic, which allowed this European art form to constitute the most convincing medium for its entry into the realm of Chinese art at the service of political ends. The artists steeped in early Western modernism found political momentum for turning what they had learned abroad into something Chinese. This political platform allowed artists to refine and ponder artistic practice whilst remaining within an ideological framework.

The Chinese nationalisation of oil painting is best captured by the success of Dong Xiwen’s painting The Founding of a Nation,which resulted in him becoming a household name for much of the 1950s and 1960s. Although he did not study in Europe, Dong Xiwen spent time in French-ruled Vietnam, where he studied at a French art academy. Between 1943 and 1945 Dong Xiwen researched and copied works by artists from Dunhuang, whose depictions of the human form he ‘highly praised … seeing the artists’ great ability to render smooth flesh and elastic colour tones with simple lines and colours as worthy of admiration’.6 From the murals at Dunhuang he absorbed the aesthetics of traditional painting and learned the traditional modelling techniques that were to constitute his aesthetics:

Through his research of the murals, Dong Xiwen deepened his understanding of the traditional art of his people, laying the foundation for his reverence for ethnic culture. It was this reverence that led him, when studying foreign oil painting, to consciously infuse oil painting with the forms and spirit of Chinese art, giving oil painting a Chinese style and artistic spirit.7

However, while there was an overlap between Dong Xiwen’s pursuit of the ‘nationalisation of oil painting’ and the Communist Party’s demands that literary and artistic creation fall in the service of politics, his individual practice was not always entirely in accordance with the nation’s political standards. Dong Xiwen confronted the influence of Western art forms, as well as problematising his previous emphasis on style, individuality and emotion in his work. He wrote:

Though I criticise recent European painting schools such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, when I saw the original works, I was full of uncontrollable excitement. When the ‘double-anti’ campaign began … I suddenly saw the capitalist artistic path I had taken over a decade ago, and that I still continued to follow. In the relationship between conceptuality and form, and on the question of political standards and artistic standards, I used the emphasis on formal appeal to dilute the primacy of the former. These capitalist views on art, still strong today, are clearly at odds with Chairman Mao’s path for literature and the arts, and Socialist Realism’s creative path.8

The late historian Gao Hua wrote that China’s real proletarian cultural narrative reached China from Moscow and Japan. The narrative of class struggle emphasises imperialism’s suppression of and encroachment into China and the Chinese people’s painful memories of it, while also providing an idealist vision for changing society. In theory, it is called Communism, but in practice it is actually ‘Soviet’ and that was essentially the case for the left wing from 1927 to 1937. Into the 1930s, the left wing added another appealing banner: ‘resisting Japan for national survival’. This infused the leftist revolutionary narrative with nationalist elements. From that perspective, the left occupied the moral high ground in two places: anti-imperialist patriotism and egalitarianism.

Before 1949, leftist culture occupied a large space in Chinese intellectual consciousness precisely because of these two points.9 China also had its own literary background: the tradition of ‘writing as the carrier of the truth’ and changing society through literature. In the early twentieth century, there was just such a movement for the intervention and participation in social reform in literature and art. The years 1927 to 1937 were labelled China’s ‘red thirties’, accounting for a decade when many writers and artists entered more directly into the social revolution. Born to a scholarly family in Shuyang County, Jiangsu Province, Wu Yinxian enjoyed a rich artistic upbringing. In 1919, he was accepted into the Shanghai Professional Academy for Fine Arts, a school founded by Liu Haisu, where he received standard training in the fundamentals of painting. During his studies, he bought an old American Brownie camera at a second-hand market, and began to use photography and film to document the suppression of the poor by the rich, the warlords and the Japanese invaders.

In March 1933, the Chinese Communist Party Cultural Council established an underground film group run by Xia Yan, Qian Xingcun, Wang Chenwu, Shi Linghe and Situ Huimin. The film group began contacting progressives in the hopes of producing a film for the masses; one that was anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist in theme and was made using realist expressive methods. In an atmosphere of unprecedented anti-Japanese sentiments and a surging patriotic movement, they firmly established the Communist Party’s status as the spokesman for nascent dissatisfaction in China.

In 1935, after Wu Yinxian and Xu Xingzhi’s work was displayed at the Photography and Painting exhibition, Xia Yan approached Xu Xingzhi, suggesting that both photographers move from Unique Film Productions to the Diantong Film Company to film the movie Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm, based on a script by Tian Han. Wu Yinxian accepted, and worked as the film’s cinematographer. Set against the backdrop of the Mukden Incident of 1931, the film tells the story of an intellectual’s progression from hesitation to awakened struggle and revolution, through the story of wandering poet Xin Baihua, reflecting the popular will to resist the Japanese invasion. Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm was Wu Yinxian’s debut as a filmmaker. It also represented:

An important part of Wu Yinxian’s transformation. He began the shift from being a patriotic youth with a sense of justice and national awareness to gradually realising that only by throwing himself into the torrents of the people’s movement could he carry out his responsibilities to his people and society.10

In the filming process, Wu Yinxian ‘pondered Xia Yan’s words, and came to feel the weight of his responsibility’.11

After Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm, Wu Yinxian filmed Street Angel and the documentary Long Live China, which criticised China’s social inequality and praised the Chinese Revolutionary Forces in their efforts to resist the Japanese and save China. Nationalist Party censors derided the documentary Long Live China as ‘Communist propaganda’ and destroyed all the negatives and copies. No footage of this film survives today. In the summer of 1938, Deputy Communist Party Military Commissioner Zhou Enlai invited Yuan Mu to travel to Yan’an, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border area, and the Northern China Rear Guard Zone to film a documentary about the Eighth Route Army under the command of the Communist Party. Yuan invited Wu Yinxian, who arrived in Yan’an in the autumn of 1938, planning to return to Shanghai after the filming of Yan’an and the Eighth Route Army was complete. However, he was touched by the life of battle in the revolutionary stronghold and decided to stay, joining the Communist Party in 1942 and continuing to work in party-related films, reflecting the political, economic and cultural life in Yan’an for eight years. During this period, Wu Yinxian merged with his subjects, facing the tests of battle alongside those he photographed. Deeply influenced by Marxism, Leninism and Maoist thought, he transformed from a progressive leftist youth into a ‘proletarian warrior who struggled for the photographic endeavours of the party with staunch resolution’.12 He founded the Northeastern Film Studio, and in the subsequent decades worked in the field, writing a theoretical treatise on his practice that became an important manual for the theory and practice of photography.

In 1955, Wu Yinxian travelled to Beijing to take part in the creation of China’s first higher education institution for film – the Beijing Film Academy – where he served as deputy director and directed the Photography Department. When the Cultural Revolution began, Wu Yinxian and his fellow cultural workers were no longer able to openly engage in education and photography. He was required to take part in labour activities and write reports on his ideas. In 1969, Wu Yinxian wrote a letter to Jiang Qing, hoping to gain the right to continue to work. He wrote:

Comrade Jiang Qing: I would also like to report a personal matter. Though I am old, and unable to carry heavy cameras myself, I am free of disease, have good blood pressure and an overall healthy body. I very much hope to contribute my personal abilities to your filming of the revolutionary model operas, for instance helping the photography comrades, and exploring such aspects as composition, camera movement and lighting. I also hope that through my participation in the filming of the model operas, I can raise my own political awareness, becoming someone who can do more beneficial work for the party in the future.13

In the later years of the Cultural Revolution, Wu Yinxian became one of the first academy administrative cadres to be released from manual labour and academic work suspension. At Jiang Qing’s request, the Beijing Film Academy and other art academies were dismantled and the 57th Art Academy was built, where Wu Yinxian was installed as deputy director. Because of this experience, Wu Yinxian was not immediately rehabilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution, unlike many of his peers who had been mistreated during that period. In fact, his position was not restored until he wrote a letter to Hu Yaobang explaining his situation.

In Unstoppable Concern: Intellectual Life and Politics Before and After 1949, Chinese historian Yang Kuisong wrote:

In the recent era, Chinese political change has always begun in a violent fashion. Into the twentieth century, it became even more of a violent seizure of political power. Thus, gun barrels, rather than pens, became the main determining political means.14

Within this brutal political reality and political logic, Wu Yinxian and other intellectuals and artists had to choose their area of expertise, and carry out work in ways that would politically benefit those fields. Yet the value of their work was obscured by their political standpoints, and was often examined and observed through the logic of revolutionary thinking. Even today, the creative achievements of Wu Yinxian and his peers are overlooked, their work shunned according to revolutionary values that were still held by many in China.

Still, in his later practice, Wu Yinxian, who was present at the Yan’an Conference and filmed the proceedings, never forgot Mao Zedong’s exhortation to serve the people with art, and, after Yan’an, he always played a principle role in the communist party’s film and photography endeavours. His artistic insight, as well as his research on the theory and practice of photography, never became dogmatic, mechanical, or devoid of personal opinion. On the contrary, the artist’s early education in Shanghai and his own independent studies remained relevant in his work throughout his career.

By looking at Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian, we are reminded that we should not overlook the art created during this period of intensified political control. Even when engaging in political work, artists were able to exercise a certain degree of subjectivity in the delivery. Even if an artist was working to express the political authority that he or she served, individual artistic experience and aspiration were still factors in the formation of their work. For example, many artists working during that period deployed a diverse mix of materials and artistic styles – choices which often clashed with the strict constraints placed on them by the government. The struggle that emerged from this context, between the competing forces of government censorship and personal aspiration, came to shape the experience of art during this era.

Within the internal party mechanisms for controlling freedom of speech and ideas, self-examination and self-criticism are highly effective methods that the Communist Party initiated and repeatedly used throughout its practice. Party members were constantly subject to reports on their behaviour given by their colleagues, neighbours and even family members, and, they were often forced to make written confessions or publicly denounce their own wrongdoings or shortcomings. For instance, in My Self-Examination, Dong Xiwen wrote:

The political and artistic aspects of art should be unified, nevertheless, political standards should come first, but in the question of conceptual and artistic, political standards and artistic standards, I still place great emphasis on the latter, while merely paying lip service to the former. Though I say that I believe the direction of Socialist Realism to be the correct one, I have always felt that our average artworks are monotonous in style and lacking in form, rarely possessing the personality and emotions of the artist.15

Dong Xiwen used writing, teaching in the academy, and presenting artworks to continue progressing and practicing artistic experimentation in this political atmosphere and sense of self-contradiction, and thus added to the formation of artistic discourse. Around the time of the nation’s founding, the goals and directions of artists’ work were the same as those of the ruling party: full of duty and hope for the rise of the nation, and committed to the pursuit of the modernisation of art. In the later years, even as individual artistic pursuits fell under government suspicion and became the target of criticism, the relationship between these individual artists and the government was strictly internal. They never found themselves in opposing camps pursuing different political ends. Throughout this time, the government hoped to limit the boundaries of art and ideas, while the artists, in their work, always hoped to gain more, and because of this, they often collided with the limits of government tolerance. This collision was always the result of artistic demands, not political ones. This internal, sometimes abrasive, relationship can also be used as a model to describe the later relationship between art and government, which was at times peaceful and at other times less so.

The super-structure for art and its discourse

There are several characteristics and issues in our understanding and descriptions of the creative trends that have taken place in Chinese contemporary art over the past thirty years. First, according to historian Gao Hua, art discourse has been profoundly shaped by two narrative types that have occupied a definitive position in modern Chinese history: the ‘revolutionary narrative’ and the ‘modernisation narrative’. Gao Hua has made a profound yet simple analysis of the roots and lasting impact of these narratives:

The so-called ‘revolutionary narrative’ arose from the 1920s to the 1940s, and is the revolutionary history of the left. Various ‘organic’ or ‘organised’ new intellectuals such as Qu Qiubai, Zhang Wentian and He Ganzhi imported a series of concepts and categories from new leftist theories in the Soviet Union and Japan, constructing a system for leftist forces to apply to understanding the reality, past and future of China, with the core theme being the legitimacy and inevitability of revolution in China.16

Socialist Realism represents the expressive methods of this system of understanding and interpretation. Gao Hua believes that because the ‘revolutionary narrative’ is rooted in an era of revolutionary struggle, it is marked by strong tones of political mobilisation. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the ‘revolutionary narrative’ began to slide towards ossification and dogmatism. The ‘revolutionary narrative’ engaged in an excessive pursuit of a ‘grand narrative’, setting a standpoint before engaging in research and discussion:

Guided by authoritative descriptions or authoritative documents, it selectively cut and pasted historical material in order to affirm a certain authoritative description, simplifying the complex processes of history into an explanation of ‘inevitability’ while covering over many rich and fresh historical layers.

The other main narrative model in modern history, the ‘modernisation narrative’, was introduced to China in the early 1980s. The end of the Cultural Revolution is often viewed as the starting point for contemporary art, and the continued use of this chronology has led to its oversimplification. By placing the beginning of Chinese contemporary art in 1976, and thus aligning the history of contemporary art together with the well-rehearsed accounts of that historical moment - the loosening of the social atmosphere, liberation of ideas and society’s strong desire to escape the legacy of the Cultural Revolution – contemporary art and the contemporary art field have gradually been turned into symbols. To a certain extent, this practice has come to hinder creative practitioners and art critics.

This narrative uses the global and universal historical process of modernisation to describe the modernisation process that China carried out under strong influence from other countries, using it to expound upon China’s experiences and lessons that span over a century. This narrative model views China’s recent history through a global lens, a lens that has been applied to the observation of Chinese modern and contemporary art, particularly in the description of creative forms and artistic movements from the mid-1980s to the present.

The weakness of this method is that it magnifies the universal applicability of the European and American modernisation process, and fails to acknowledge the specificity of the logic of China’s own process. The limitations of this narrative model led to increased anxiety in Chinese culture and art circles in the 1990s regarding the relationship between China and the West, provoking questions such as how a self-oriented history is constructed and how a suitable self-narrative can be engaged.

We believe that the trajectory of Chinese contemporary art, from creation to discussion, did not take place entirely removed from Socialist Realism, but rather that it has continued to follow Socialist Realism and the pursuit of modernity as its evolution was shaped by China’s political environment. Describing contemporary art as a ‘rebellious and progressive’ set of ideas and actions is actually in keeping with Socialist Realism’s historical demand to present reality in creative work. In existing accounts, the birth of contemporary art after 1976 was to become the best ‘witness’ to the openness of Communist society, where ‘dissidents and rebels’ had become integrated in the reality of the society itself.

Socialist Realism after the Cultural Revolution

In the 1940s, as Socialist Realism took form, was affirmed, and began to emerge following the establishment of the Communist Party’s leading position in China, its language naturally drew from the realism that was spread throughout the Chinese mainland in the 1920s and 1930s. After 1949, as Mao came to understand cultural policy and released several statements on the matter, realism was gradually transformed into revolutionary realism. After it was incorporated into the revolutionary romanticism of the time, it was no longer a realism that was naturalist in tendency. Rather, it gained spiritual connotations, and provided a blueprint for the political vision of Socialism.

In this school of realism, artists grasped the methods of placing compelling, realistic details at the service of great political lies. The resources and dissemination mechanisms of art production were strictly controlled at one single source, rendering the creative motivations, education, and desires of the individual incomparably insignificant. The devastation wrought on intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution was recorded in ‘scar art’ and ‘scar literature’.17 In this period, hundreds of new magazines emerged, as well as thousands of translated texts and periodicals, while some selected foreign films and television programs were screened.

The second emergence of realism in China took place after the Cultural Revolution. This time, realism emerged as a resistant stance — or perhaps, it would be more accurately described as having emerged in the form of dissatisfaction with the increasingly empty realism that had taken shape since the founding of the nation and the Cultural Revolution. This realism depicted a more accurate reality, a reality as it was witnessed. It tended to magnify and observe certain details within reality. Crucially, it did not depict the altered reality found in Communist propaganda discourse and materials.

For instance, in Luo Zhongli’s 1980 painting Father, the face of an aged farmer is depicted in painstaking detail, magnified to almost the same size as the large portrait of Chairman Mao that adorns Tiananmen Gate. On the surface, this artwork appears to be staunchly resistant to the regime; during the time of the Cultural Revolution, when the painting was executed, only portraits of leaders were allowed to appear in such a large size, not portraits of average citizens. Thus, the scale of the work provoked a common misreading: that it represented a depiction of suffering labourers in a critical rethinking of the Cultural Revolution’s ‘red, bright, and luminescent’ depictions of labourers. Yet, when we look closer at the details, we notice that a pen is sticking out from behind the farmer’s ear. When Luo Zhongli began the painting, he wished to purely express a situation in nature. But after keenly grasping the message that the government leaders wished to convey – of a new generation of educated Chinese citizens – the artist immediately added this pen, successfully depicting the type of workers, peasants, and soldiers that the government of this new era hoped to mould. The addition thus allowed the work, despite its unconventional size, to conform to the government’s new campaign and allowed the artist to escape blame or suspicion for his decision to paint a portrait of a peasant in the same dimensions as the portrait of the leader hanging on Tiananmen Gate. As a direct result of Luo’s addition of the pen, Fathergained easy entry into that year’s National Fine Arts Exhibition, winning the grand prize and becoming possibly the most recognisable image in modern Chinese art history.

Stars Art Group

In 1986, Gao Minglu summed up the artistic trends he had observed as the ‘85 Art Movement’. He wrote an essay on the matter, which he presented at the 1986 National Oil Painting Exhibition.18 In the essay, he stated:

In rational painting, the figures are very mechanical. You cannot determine who they are. It is almost as if they have no relationship with reality. There was an appeal for ‘modernisation’ at the time, the pursuit of a sense of transcendence, a desire for entry into international modernisation. This desire led to an affirmation of their own cultural identity, an affirmation that was, to a certain extent, abstract, rather than concrete. At the time, whether in oil paintings, ink paintings, or sculptures, there was always an emphasis on this internationality, modernity, and one’s own cultural identity. This was their basic affirmation of identity, and it made it so that the painter had to engage in surrealist methods of expression. There are so many art forms in the West. Why did these artists choose rational painting? They emerged from the old realist education, but this expressive form was more connected to the artists’ pursuits, particularly to the cultural appeals of the cultural ferment of the 1980s and a new generation of cultured people.19

This appeal for artistic and cultural modernisation has been the embodiment of Chinese intellectuals’ sense of duty to nation and society since the early twentieth century. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the state loosened ideological control, and interaction with international society on all levels was reactivated.

The Stars Art Group of 1979-80 emerged in a period of relative transparency and openness in the Chinese government following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Most participants in these events:

Had similar family backgrounds, being either the children of high-ranking cadres (as they say in Beijing, ‘children of the big courtyard’) or hailing from intellectual families. Though many of their families were impacted by the Cultural Revolution, from a certain perspective, they can be said to have enjoyed certain ‘privileges’ as a class, one such privilege being that, when compared to average people, they could more easily gain knowledge from their families, and often enjoyed advance access to various publications and news that were new or perhaps tightly controlled or even ‘banned’.20

On 27 September 1979, while the Thirtieth Anniversary of the People’s Republic National Fine Arts Exhibition was being held at the National Art Museum of China, the Stars took over a fence along a small garden on the museum’s east side, ‘Covering it in hangings of over 150 artworks by their twenty-three members, including oil paintings, ink paintings, pencil drawings, woodcuts, and woodcarvings’.21

According to Wang Keping’s account in The Story of the Stars, some large woodcarvings were placed on the ground, and some paintings were hung on trees. The poets of the literary magazine Today also wrote short poems, which were attached to the paintings. On the third day of the ‘Stars Art’ exhibition, some thirty police officers cordoned off the east wing of the museum where their artworks were being kept, and replaced the artworks on the fence with an announcement that was jointly signed by the Dongcheng District police precinct and the Urban Management Bureau. They confiscated the artworks and forbade the Stars from continuing their exhibition.

The artists held a meeting in the museum with Liu Xun, the chairman of the Artists Association, who was appointed to represent the Beijing government. The artists requested the return of their artworks and a public apology from the government. The artists marched on 1 October, and later descriptions tend to cast the Stars exhibition as a political incident. But in fact, during the discussion and planning of the protest, most of the members of the Stars group chose to back out, and artist Huang Rui, one of the core members, was very hesitant about protesting, ‘artists should succeed through art’, he stated. Among the original twenty-three Stars, only eight participated in the protest. Huang Rui recalls,

You could call it a peaceful protest, because we followed the police’s directions. We only walked along Chang’an Boulevard for three hundred meters and then moved to the street behind Chang’an, walking past the three front gates—Hepingmen, Qianmen, and Chongwenmen. At Chongwenmen we turned the corner and arrived at the City Council building. We delivered our petition and dispersed … We never imagined we would achieve our goal. Not only were our paintings returned, we were allowed to continue the exhibition in Beihai Park. With the help of the protest, the first Stars exhibition was restored.22

The aftermath of the Stars Art Group

This event is often viewed as the origin of contemporary art in China. Furthermore, because of both the manner in which the exhibition closed and the artists’ subsequent resistance, it has often been considered an act of resistance against the government and its authority; in short, an act full of political awareness. But this projected ‘resistance’ corresponds to the misconception of resistance as reflection. In wide-spread discourse about contemporary art practice in China, resistance is often tantamount to reflection. Simplistic gestures of defiance and resistance were mistaken as critical reflection, when in fact these gestures represented an emotional release borne out of individual experience, which were often lacking analytical observation, contemplation and a rational understanding of structural problems. This reading of resistance as reflection has been used to analyse the actions of the Stars group, seemingly ignoring the fact that the artists of the Stars Art Group did not consciously take to the streets as an act of political resistance. The entire incident arose out of their hope to present their creations, and the fact that they had encountered an obstacle. They took to the streets hoping to foment public opinion and to create sufficient pressure which would result in the removal of this obstacle, and thus allow them to exhibit their work.

The ruling party has always managed to grasp the standards of what kind of art is possible and has allowed certain artistic gestures of defiance to be exhibited. This is clear in the case of the first Stars exhibition. Here, after resistance and negotiation with the Artists Association, the artists were given the opportunity to stage a second exhibition. Moreover, the Stars Art Group was officially registered with the Artists Association in the summer of 1980. The Second Stars Art Exhibition was held on 20 August of the same year, and caused a sensation. Each day, roughly five thousand viewers visited the exhibition, and the influence of the group spread across the country. The next year, the Stars, with the help of Artists Association chairman Jiang Feng, held an exhibition in the National Art Museum of China. Originally scheduled to run for three weeks, the exhibition was extended by an extra two weeks. ‘Visitors totalled 160,000, with seven to eight thousand attending each day’, Huang Rui recalls.23

Poet and critic Zhu Zhu writes:

It is very meaningful that the rebellious stance of the Stars was not ‘anti-centrist’ but actually oriented towards the centre. Just as its name implies, though the Stars encompassed an independent spirit and a will to self-expression, in terms of rhetoric, it was still linked to ideology, forming a kind of ‘response to the sun’ hierarchal relationship. Its determination to enter into the walls around the National Art Museum shows the psychological or subconscious reverence and infatuation with the patriarchy. In any case, entry implied recognition by the system or by authority, the realisation of their self-value. For them, the National Art Museum was a Bastille waiting to be destroyed, as well as a shrine of their dreams.24

On one hand, after the end of the Cultural Revolution the state was willing to relax controls on art and culture. This reduced pressure on artists and breathed new life into all manner of cultural activities. The traditional concept of ‘officialdom as the natural outlet for scholars’ continued to influence rulers and intellectuals. Intellectuals used criticism and newly opened channels in art and literature to appeal to the government: they demanded that the government further engage in modernising reforms similar to those they had carried out in the economic realm in the hope that these appeals would help shape a foundation of a system that they could approve of and serve. However, on the other hand, while the central party leadership, with Deng Xiaoping at the helm, promoted cultural and social openness and the development of the economy, it had no choice but to confront the explosion of individual desire that followed the opening of the economy with regulations.

To control the pace of reform, radical and conservative factions rose and fell within the reform movement. Under these circumstances:

Central authorities carried out a series of activities: between 1979 and 1980, moving against Beijing’s ‘Democracy Wall’ and the calls in Shanghai periodicals promoting the use of true democracy to carry out reform of the system; from 1980 to 1981, moving against bourgeois liberalist tendencies in the literature and art worlds; from 1983 to 1984, moving against ‘spiritual pollution’; from 1985 to 1986, moving against ‘unhealthy tendencies’, etc. In all of these interventions and policy fluctuations between tolerance and suppression, Deng Xiaoping occasionally recognised the conservatives’ worries about ideas and social instability, and occasionally affirmed the reformers’ view that self-expression was indispensable to reform.

Hans van Dijk, an artist who came to Nanjing to study Chinese in the 1980s, provided unique insight into the shift in Chinese cultural policies after the end of the Cultural Revolution. In his essay ‘Painting in China after the Cultural Revolution: Style Developments and Theoretical Debates’, he writes:

Deng Xiaoping’s reform efforts brought society into a period of relative freedom. At first, his cultural policies appeared to be a major transition for the world of literature and art. After over 30 years of dogmatism and cultural isolation, the Chinese literary and art scene was about to be released from the socialist dogma that art should serve politics.

But, he continues:

This essay proposes, however, that in reality, Deng Xiaoping intended for art to continue its traditional role of legitimising the nation-state, and to continue defining China’s ‘state identity’, though by means that differed from the Mao era.25

Van Dijk believed that Deng differed from Mao because the national heritage that had been deemed ‘feudalist’ and ‘elitist’ under Mao had, under Deng, been revived and put to use as a pillar for creating and supporting a new sense of national self-confidence. In the 1980s, as modern Western art and philosophical ideas were introduced into China, young artists began to avoid artistic experiments that had been banned by the government, thus forming an artistic movement with independent ideas. The conflicts that subsequently arose with the government highlighted the political tasks and roles that Deng wished to assign to art.

Wang Hui once wrote that the liberalising policies of the 1980s served to liberate China from the constraints of the past and the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, whilst also revealing the bias of a worldview created by state ideology:

For the generation that grew up after the Cultural Revolution, their guiding knowledge was knowledge about the West, particularly America (and as before, it was knowledge with another kind of bias). Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe—these once familiar societies and cultures—were virtually outside of the popular range of knowledge. In reflections and writings on the Vietnam War in the 1980s, the dominant position was not thinking on war and new international relations, but rethinking of the Cultural Revolution, to the point that vilifying the Cultural Revolution became the crux of this reflective morality.26

Descriptions of these two perspectives have come to form both the backdrop and conceptual foundation for the emergence of contemporary art in China. On the one hand, Chinese contemporary art practitioners benefited from the state’s initial position of openness. However, on the other hand, they were constrained by the central government’s subsequent wavering stance on openness. In fact, the two positions maintained a certain level of unity regarding expectations and goals: the state’s openness was not unidirectional, and its suppression was not continuous.

Contemporary Art in China

Most observers of Chinese contemporary art believe that:

Beginning in 1979, the art world spontaneously split into two camps – official and non-official art. The former continued with traditional Chinese painting, woodcutting, and oil painting rooted in Russian Socialist Realism. But in the non-official art circle, experiments in all manner of artistic forms became central. These experiments were all, to varying degrees, influenced by Western modern art.27

But, as we have discovered, in the early days after the end of the Cultural Revolution there was no clear divide between official and non-official art. Rather, official art actively reflected on the great pressure placed on artistic creation by the politics and ideology of the Cultural Revolution. Attempts were also made in various directions to restore freedom in artistic creation and thinking.

For example, Gao Xingjian’s 1982 play Absolute Signal was originally a story about the troubles of an unemployed youth. However, in order to pass the censors, the subject was changed and the play became a tale about saving an unemployed youth. The subject matter of unemployment was an unwelcome one for the government and its censoring mechanism. In China then and in the present, theatre, films, publishing and museum programmes, are strictly monitored by the Cultural Ministry of the Central Government – their respective municipal governing bodies must receive approval from the authorities before public presentation. Otherwise, any work, be it a play, exhibition or film, risks being suspended and the possibility of those involved being fined and deprived of future rights for expression. When Absolute Signal was eventually shown, it gained liberation in form by making ground-breaking experiments in language, acting, set design, lighting, and directing. Similarly, some of the members of the No Name Group and the Stars Art Group chose to paint landscapes, still lives, and abstract paintings in order to carve a space for contemporary artistic practice within these accepted forms. But long-term constraints left these formal experiments and breakthroughs without fundamental conceptual momentum, so that in the end, they became either empty or impossible to carry further.

The book Research on the Beijing School of Painting in the 20th Century explains that whilst after the end of the Cultural Revolution many artists went into a creative frenzy and collective awareness, organisational aspects did not keep up with the pace of change. At the time, the Art Bureau of the Ministry of Culture was already established, and the Beijing Municipal Fine Art Photography Exhibition office was still organising exhibitions. But these organisations were limited in scope, and, when coupled with a lack of cohesive official character and administrative system, they were unable to adapt to the rapid changes taking place. These various groups were just beginning to prepare for restoration and reconstruction. This context forms the backdrop to the emerging phenomenon of artist-led art groups, which were spontaneously organised in order to satisfy the desire to hold more frequent exhibitions and exchanges.

The emergence of artist groups in this period can be traced back to the New Spring Painting Exhibition held at Beijing’s Zhongshan Park in January 1979. This exhibition was arranged by Yan Zhenduo, Li Yuchang, and other young oil painters, and invited the Beijing oil painters Liu Haisu, Wu Zuoren, Liu Xun, Wu Guanzhong, Jin Shangyi, Yuan Yinsheng, and Liu Bingjiang, as well as some amateur oil painting enthusiasts who still held other jobs, such as Zhong Ming and Wang Leifu. The exhibition featured works by a total of 36 artists. The artists chose their own work, and censorship was not exercised: they set up the exhibition together, rotating work shifts and adopting a non-hierarchical exhibition arrangement. The atmosphere was relaxed and harmonious.

Jiang Feng, who had just been rehabilitated, wrote the foreword to this exhibition, in which he raised several issues: there should be ‘no censorship system for exhibitions’, artists should be able to ‘freely form artist groups’, they should ‘promote the diversity of style, medium, and subject matter among artworks’, artworks ‘can be marked for sale’ and exhibitions should be ‘self-funded, with no need for government sponsorship’.28 The questions Jiang raised in this text represented the shared sentiments among artists of the time, and some of the suggestions became a reality afterwards. In particular, Jiang’s statement about ‘freely forming artist groups’ received an immediate and enthusiastic response among young painters. The painters who took part in this exhibition began by establishing the Beijing Oil Painting Research Group. Many artist groups and research groups followed soon after in Beijing. Some thirty such groups have been documented, with membership approaching one thousand people. Twenty five of these groups were in frequent contact with the Beijing branch of the Artists Association.

A group of realist paintings executed in 1989 can be seen to represent a third wave of realism, one that differed from both Socialist Realism as well as post-Cultural Revolution realism that engaged it in dialogue. The realism that emerged during this period did not magnify reality, but instead sought to directly depict it. As a result, it also expressed the negative, disoriented sentiments of life. The rock music, literature, and artistic creations that emerged after 1989 extracted fragments of reality from homes, streets, parks, buses, and corners, recreating the most common, public level of reality using the most direct, naked, and unadorned language. It was as if all of our lives could enter the painting, the song or the story. Song Yonghong and Liu Xiaodong were among the artists who engaged in this direct depiction of reality in life. They turned their observations of life on the streets, the most mundane scenes of family life and common and uneventful scenes of their friends, passers-by and family members into the content of their paintings. Song Yonghong once described the original intent behind his 1990s series that openly depicted sex in this way:

Whether in life or in art, reality only leaves us with random fragments. No social event or artistic form, or the values they represent, can produce a profound and lasting effect on our minds. Thus, boredom becomes the truest perception of our current state of existence. So in my work, there often appears a cold, mocking, voyeuristic attitude of the onlooker, uncovering those countless boring, nauseating yet inauthentic amusing scenes within common social settings, revealing the trivial, despicable and ridiculous behaviour in everyday life.29

What we are proposing is that our dissent and the object of our opposition might actually come from the same source. In other words, what we might see as disconnected from our reality belongs to the same trajectory as us.

What we are reflecting on is the lack of diversity in the narrative perspectives presented within the field of Chinese contemporary art; a situation that is mirrored in the lack of diverse perspectives in the research of this nation’s history. The bias of the world-picture drawn by state ideology is embodied by the magazine Fine Art. Published between 1954 and 1966, the magazine was funded by the newly founded China Artists Association.30 In the first issue, an essay on the ‘new Chinese painting movement’ was published. In the magazine’s early days, while Socialist Realism was deeply embedded in the ideology, Fine Art promoted various forms of mass art, such as New Year prints, panel comics, and propaganda posters. As a result, the magazine played a major role in establishing accepted forms of art in the new China. Before the Cultural Revolution, each issue contained: discussions on Socialist Realism, selective introductions to Asian countries with similar ideologies and viewpoints; in-depth essays on art forms found in the Soviet states; and sustained attacks on the capitalist tendencies of European art. To this day, our understanding of the artistic and cultural trends in the world, including Asia, remains indebted to Fine Art, and, as a result, remain very one-sided, even deficient.

Criticising the Cultural Revolution has become the moral crux for the legitimacy and creation of art criticism within China. Yet this vilification has remained on the level of image reference and intuitive emotional release; it lacks any rational, critical, or spiritual resources for the analysis and discussion of the profound and lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution. It is often described as a stoppage or a break, and is rarely analysed and discussed as an expressive form and organisational component of China’s modernisation process. Likewise, our impression is generally to treat artistic creation dating from the founding of the party to the Cultural Revolution, and the creations of the Artists Association after 1949, as the total sum of all content produced during this long period. Because of the repeated emphasis on the connection between art and politics, for a long time this subject has been isolated due to certain abstract moral viewpoints. In fact, we have chosen to actively avoid it. It has gotten to the point where we are unable to fully penetrate the trajectory of the modernisation of art in China.

We have continuously failed to discover the internal logic and basis for modernisation within China’s own history and traditions, instead attributing the development to our rapprochement with the West. As a result, we have failed to establish ourselves as an active subject that is responsible internally and independently for our own history. We often describe ourselves and our transformation entirely in relation to external influences from the West. Through the repeated emphasis of both the advanced status of the West and our own backwardness, we are unable to squarely face a modernisation process that strays from this linear developmental model. Furthermore, we cannot confront the fact that the isolation, failure, and regression of the Cultural Revolution actually played a role in the modernisation process. We have grown dependent on this allegorical view and experience of history, which is itself reliant on an oversimplified stair-step progression. In fact, China was projected along a track of its own modernity during the decades before and after the Cultural Revolution. This perspective, proposed in this working paper, allows us to view China in a way that transcends the framework of a strictly national modernisation, reactivating the subjectivity in the perception and understanding of a national history of art within an international, global scope – even though this subject is itself full of contradictions and shortcomings. In practice, we have never been able to admit the fact that we have our own subjectivity.

Globalisation and the rethinking of Socialist Realism

Since 1989, Europe has never stopped thinking about the phenomena, challenges, and possibilities brought by globalisation in the field of art. Globalisation is not something that is about to take place, nor is it an external phenomena. It is an accepted reality that has already become a part of people’s work and life. However, this acceptance is not passive. It is something that is constantly rethought, discussed, and criticised. Thinking about globalisation has become a dominant line of thought in discussions of artistic creation and art theory.

Conversely, the East-West dichotomy model of thought from the Cold War continues to persist today. Wang Hui writes:

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