This article was originally published at 32nd World Congress of Art History (Melbourne, 2008).

The European art modes such as Realism, Romanticism, Modernism have always been concerned in Chinese modern art history with the issue of searching for national modernity. However, the dominant trend during the twentieth Century in China was Realism.

As part of Enlightenment program, European Arts were introduced in China in the early twentieth Century by some literators and artists who had taken their studies in Japan or France. Among them, Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren, 1881-1936) played a major role.

· Lu Xun and Modern Woodcut Movement

In 1929, Lu Xun translated Japanese art historian Itagaki Takao’s book On Historical trends in Modern Art, which included contents from Neo-Classicism to Modernism. [1] Influenced by Alois Riegl’s ‘Kunst wollen’ theory, the writing emphasized the Characteristic of Age and Nation. The cover Page of this book is a print of the painting by the French social realist Millet (1814–1875) The Sower. It would be an exaggeration if the peasant on the picture were to be interpreted as a social activist spreading the seeds for the revolution. [2] However, it was Lu Xun who indeed spread the seeds of social realist art in China.

On Historical Trends in Modern Art by Itagaki Takao, translated by Lu Xun

On Historical Trends in Modern Art by Itagaki Takao, translated by Lu Xun

As the founder of The Modern Woodcut Movement of the 1930s and 40s, Lu Xun introduced European printmaking techniques to Chinese artists, especially through German Expressionist and social activist printmakers such as Käthe Kollwitz and Frans Masereel to Chinese artists. He thought the New Wood-cut was an effective tool for exposing the social problems of China.

Because of his radical leftist point of view, Lu Xun later became a cultural icon for the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Zedong once called Lu Xun ‘the chief commander of the revolution in Chinese culture.’ In a propaganda wood-cut during the Cultural Revolution by Li Yitai, for example, Lu Xun was placed in an environment with clues to his intellectual interests. A portrait of Karl Marx was on the cover of one of the books on his desk, and Kollwitz’s print of Black Anna from The Peasants’ War (1902-03) series hung on the wall.

Artists influenced by Lu Xun focused on the inequality suffered by the lower classes. With Lu Xun’s encouragement, the art of woodblock printing spread quickly among China’s young artists. Under the threat of Japanese invasion, woodcuts, was not only used as a propaganda tool for social justice, but also as a weapon of national salvation. Li Hua’s, Roar, China( 1935) is a good example.

China, Roar! by Li Hua, 1935; Collected by National Art Museum of China, Beijing

China, Roar! by Li Hua, 1935; Collected by National Art Museum of China, Beijing

Although Lu Xun was never an official member of the Communist Party, his sympathy for the working class fitted well with the revolutionary message of the party. In 1937, after Lu Xun’s death, the Lu Xun Academy of Arts was established at the Communist base of Yan’an. Woodblock prints were particularly suited for propaganda purpose because they were relatively cheap and easy to copy. In Yan’an, artists adopted folk art styles, including folk prints and window paper cuts, because their political mandate was to reach out to the masses. Although Lu Xun had suggested, as early as the 1930s, that artists investigate China’s own traditional materials as a source for creating woodblock art with a modern identity, a decisive turn to folk form only happened to Chinese woodblock prints in Yan’an after 1942, when Mao Zedong’s new cultural policy directives were announced. Gu Yuan’s Rent Reduction (1943) represented this more distinctly “Chinese” look and gained great popularity among peasants. The simple and powerful image became an icon of Chinese socialist realist art after PRC established.

· Social Realism in the Academy

Western-style painting became a required part of China’s national education curriculum in 1902. Until 1930s, Artists who studied in Japan and Europe brought back to China the full range of modernist trends ranging from post-impressionism to fauvism and surrealism. The French-trained artist such as Lin Fengmian, Pang Xunqin and Liu Haisu are the most well-known and influential ones.

Xu Beihong is an exceptional case among artists trained in Paris, who insisted on Realism. He studied in Paris under the conservative artist Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929), whose belief in drawing as the basis of painting determined Xu Beihong’s own approach to art. For him, it was the academic tradition of French art which could offer something completely different from the Chinese literati art tradition, and hence become a new way modernizing Chinese art. When he sent back to China, Xu Beihong was appointed to head the art department of National Central University in Nanjing, where he promoted academic realism in the late 1920s, and opposed other modernist art practice.

A lively debate erupted over the roles different styles of oil painting might play in a modernizing China in 1929, which finally ended up with a victory for realism. At the time Japan’s emerging power threatened China, realism was believed to be more useful for awakening the national spirit. After the Japanese invasion in 1937, many artists were forced into an eight-year exile in China’s impoverished inland. For the refugee artist, there was not much choice of subjects other than social commentary. Jiang Zhaohe’s Homeless People (1943), not only demonstrated the desperate situation faced by normal Chinese people and Chinese society but also represented well how social realism transformed Chinese traditional painting.

Jiang Zhaohe' s Homeless People(detail), 1943

Jiang Zhaohe’ s Homeless People(detail), 1943

Socialist realism became an official art style after The People’s Republic of China was established. Except from what the model learnt from the Soviet Union, it combined at least two traditions newly developed in China: the modern woodblock prints tradition, and the academic social realism tradition. However, socialist realist art went astray from earlier social realism because it became intensely propagandistic and out of reach from social reality, especially during the Cultural Revolution. The group sculpture, Rent Collection Courtyard (1963), was the best example. The super-realist theatrical tableau, which reminds people of the dismal, horror-struck life under past feudalism, was not based on a real story but fabricated to delivery the party’s ideological message.

· Chinese modern art: Anti-Social Realism?

After 1978, under the reform policy, modern Western art was introduced again. Chinese artists started to celebrate the late arrival of freedom, but most of them still rooted their work in the realism. He Duoling’s The Wakening Spring Wind (1981), for example, which learned from the American artist Andrew Wyeth, symbolized a fresh start for both Chinese arts and popular consciousness. Luo Zhongli’s Father(1980), in a photo-realist style, portrayed a poor peasant instead of a heroic figure of typical socialist realism in the past. It took social realist art back to its original approach from the perspective of Marxist Humanism. Zhang Qun and Meng Luding used surrealism in their work The New Age—apotheosis of Adam and Eve (1985), as the title clearly indicates: the work symbolized the enlightenment of the new age.

Father by Luo Zhongli (1980)

Father by Luo Zhongli (1980)

Since 1985, the modern art movement in China intensified and socialist realism was under direct and severe attack by some artists. Wang Guanyi, for example, used surrealism in a painting titled Post-Classicism Series, No.1 the Death of Marat (1986), to satirize the old style. The artist revisited the subject of the French Neo-classicist David to indicate the death of the revolutionary style of social realist art, and the death of socialist ideology after a century’s revolution.

The most extreme work came from Huang Yongping’s Dadaist act in 1987, when he pulped two art history books in a washing machine for two minutes, one was Wang Bomin’s History of Chinese Painting and the otherwas Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting. The result, a shapeless pulp heap, was exhibited on a discarded wooden box. In effect, the artist attempted to destroy the canonical status of the two art histories. For him, there was always a link between traditional Chinese thought and the Dadaists, both of which emphasized uncertainty, chaos and paradox, as against the essentialism implied by both Chinese Socialist Realism and Western modernism.


[1] 板桓鹰穗(Itagaki Takao)《近代美术史潮论》(on Modern Art Wave) first edition,1929, 1957, shanghai xinbeishuju.

[2] To the Marxist art historian T. J. Clark, Millet’s paintings challenged the dominant values and institutions of the Second Republic, see Clark, T.J. The Absolute Bourgeois, Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 , Thames and Hudson, London,1973, pp.72-98.

[3] Mao Zedong, ‘Xin minzhu zhuyi lun’(1940) , Mao Zedong Xuanji, 1952,vol.2. p. 663.

[4] For 1920s and 1930s woodblock prints, , also see ,Andrews, Julia F. and Kuiyi Shen. A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China. New York, Henry N. Abrams, 1998.

[5] Lu Xun, ‘Quanguo muke lianhe zhanlanhui zhuanji xu,’ Zhangwang ed., Lu Xun lun meishu, Dalian Dazhong Shudian,1948.

[6] For the change after 1942, see Luo Gongliu, ‘Luyi muke gongzuotuan zai houfang’,in Banhua, 1960, vol.23.

[7] See Xu Zhimo, ed, Meishu zhanlan 10, April 1929, cited in Shao Dazhen, ‘Chinese Art in the 1950s: An Avant- Garde Undercurrent Beneath the Mainstream of Realism’, Clark, John, ed. Modernity in Asian Art, Wild Peony, 1993.

[8] See Clark, John, ‘Realism and Revolutionary Chinese painting’, JOSA, vols. 22& 23, 1990-1991.

[9] See Clark, John, ‘Academicism in Chinese oil painting and a nascent avant-garde in the 1980s’, Duro, Paul, ed., Perspectives on Academic Art, Occasional Papers III, The Art Association of Australia, 1991.

To be continued

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

About the writer

Shao Yiyang

Shao Yiyang

Shao Yiyang is Associate Professor of Art history and Theory, head of the World Art Studies at Central Academy of Fine Art, Beijing. She received her Ph.D in 2003 in art history and theory from the University of Sydney, and master’s degree at the University of Western Sydney respectively. She is currently the leader of the major research project on visual culture studies committed by the Culture Ministry of China. Her teaching and research focus on Western art History, theory and Chinese modern/contemporary art. She has published widely on contemporary art and theory in Chinese in recent years including a book hou xian dai zhi hou( Art After Postmodern). Her writing on Chinese modern art were presented at the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art, CIHA Melbourne, 2008, and the 29th Art history conference organised by Verband deutscher Kunsthistoriker (Association of German Art Historians)in Regensburg, 2007.

Selected Publications:

Hou xian dai zhi hou( Art After Postmodern), Shanghai Renmin Chubanshe, 2008

Chinese Modern Art 1980s & 1990s,,USA, 2005

“Chinese Art and Education in 1980-1990s”, (translated into German), in Peter J. Schneemann und Wolfgang Brückle (Hg.) Kunstausbildung, Aneignung und Vermittlung künstlerischer Kompetenz , Vereinigung der Kunsthistorikerinnen und Kunsthistoriker in der Schweiz, Bern, München 2009

“Why Realism?”in Anderson, Jaynie (ed), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence : The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art (Comite International d’Histoire de l’Art, CIHA) The University of Melbourne, 2008

“Art Exhibitions Since 1949”,in Pong, David,ed. Encyclopedia of Modern China. vol 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Detroit,. 2009.

“Art History and Visual Culture”, in Meishu yanjiu, Beijing. 2008

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