Welcome to the World Wide Web Home page of Road to East Asia
Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 2, January-February, 1997
After the Communist Party took over China in 1949, social realism figured prominently in art. Chairman Mao Tsetung explained that it is the duty of an artist to instill revolutionary ideas in the masses and denounced intellectual art as elitist (Andrews, 27-29). During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), dissident artists were threatened with years of rehabilitation through physical labor. Young artists were taught to draw representative portraits from life models to glorify the working class and to espouse socialist doctrine. They used sketchy charcoal-like brush strokes and natural colors. At school, students painted book illustrations and often propaganda posters (Lim, 9-11).
After Mao's death, Beijing has haltingly begun to restore artistic freedom to the Chinese people (Kao, 195). The new opportunities to observe and experiment with Western ideas have sparked a shift from traditional Chinese art forms. A more diverse juxtaposition of Western and Chinese styles in light of techniques and subject matter is evident. The paintings by women in particular demonstrate the direction the Chinese people are taking in their search for an identity in the modern world.
The lotus flower and the spiral--two popular symbols in traditional paintings--have taken on new meanings in the new works by the so-called "mid-generation" artists, born in the 1940s and 1950s. In the Buddhist tradition, the lotus flower stands for fertility and continuity, thriving on nature's life-giving earth, water, and air. The lotus may also represent the assumed fragility and subservience of women to men in a Confucian society. A concubine named Yaoniang, for example, was praised for being able to walk on lotuses with her bound feet, three inches long and shaped like the crescent moon (Verschuur-Basse, 5).
Yang Yanping, for one, retains traditional subject matter, such as lotus plants and landscapes, but her expressions are reminiscent of early Western, feminist, natural images of the 1960s and 1970s (Lim, 11). She has developed a technical style which includes crumpling, tearing, splattering, and bleeding paint through several sheets of paper in order to achieve a sense of depth and illumination. She employs rich and blended colors in her paintings, such as the work Peony, to create a sense of pensive sadness and humnaity in her plants. These images attempt to give women a connection to nature in a uniquely feminine way as they try to find their place in society.
As for the spiral, or the sphere, it is often found within stylized plant forms to symbolize life's continuity (Weidner, 15-16). Irene Chou, inspired by the American poet A.E. Housman (Lim, 20), uses it to represent love and serenity instead. She blends the traditional art of ink and brush painting with the powerful slapping of paint to create images reminiscent of abstract expressionism of the West. Traditional symbols, such as the stylized plant and the moon-shaped sphere, convey what she calls "the universe of my heart" (Lim, 24).
Zhou Sicong, another "mid-generation artist," received her training during the Cultural Revolution. Now she paints socially oriented pictures, such her Miners series in an expressive, abstract yet realist style. She suggests that "our experiences have given us our special character" (Lim, 12).
The Chinese have developed a knack of adopting Western techniques (photo-realism, social realism, impressionism, abstract expressionism, and post-modernism) and making them their own. Nie Ou uses an almost cartoon-like social realism with the post-modern purpose of providing humorous social commentary in such works as Napping (1991) and Drinking (1990). Other women painters take a more personal approach to contemporary issues, and they must deal with the fear of persecution, which may account for the vague and mysterious works. Other artists are living in exile. Yang Yanping, now in the U.S., must balance her own need for personal expressions with the demands of galleries and the American avant-gard circles. Collectively, these women artists have continued to exalt symbolic and ethereal mystery -- a hallmark of Chinese paintings.
Andrews, Julia F. Painters in the and Politics in the people's Republic of China, 1949-1979. Los Angles: University of California Press, 1994.
Lim, Lucy. Six Contemporary Chinese Women Artists. San Francisco: Chinese Culture Foundation, 1991.
Mayching, Kao. Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Strassberg, Richard E. and Waldemar A. Neilsen. Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People's Republic of China. Pasadena: Pacific Asia Museum of Art, 1988.
Verschuur-Basse, Denyse. Chinese Women Speak. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1996.
Weidner, Marsha, et al. Views from Jade Terrace: Chinese Women Artists, 1300-1912. Rizzoli: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1988.