Art holds a prominent place in society, reflecting cultural values, beliefs and identities. Yet even with all that considered, in the Middle Kingdom, it’s not that simple and art has traveled a rocky road.
Traditionally drawing on Chinese heritage, paintings (often inspired by poetry) and calligraphy were not only an important part of the artistic backdrop of China, but an imperative export for the country.
Since then, moving into 21st Century China, art and photography have become political and pack a powerful punch, mainly thanks to China’s underground artists who continue to create work with subversive and challenging meanings.
Art In Chinese Culture
In China, art has a prominent place in history with one of the highest forms of Chinese art being landscape painting. The time from the Five Dynasties Period up to the Northern Song Era (907–1127) is known as the “Great age of Chinese landscape painting”. Rolling hills, rivers and peaceful natural panoramic view are just a few things we might expect of these traditional paintings. Up in the northern regions of Mainland China, artists such as Jing Hao and Guo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains, using strong black lines and sharp, dotted, brushstrokes to suggest rough stone.
During Mao Zedong’s infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the production and publishing of art suffered. Art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and exhibitions ceased. Many artists and intellectuals were exiled or imprisoned, resulting in a number of traditional Chinese arts almost disappearing from the map altogether.
Luckily, for the sake of art, once the dark days of Revolution had come and gone, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were even set up between groups of foreign and Chinese artists and China’s artistic clique slowly but surely began to experiment with new subjects and techniques.
We now enter modern-day China, a global and more open-minded society in which art has now become controversial, political and creative, culminating in one not to be underestimated and highly accoladed underground art scene.
Nevertheless, instead of the traditional intricate cartoons and simple narratives we may be familiar with in the Chinese manga strips, China’s artists are now creating works that are of increasingly significant socio-politico importance due to their direct depiction of political comments.
The Rise Of Chinese Comics
When we think of Chinese comics, Manhua (漫画| ) might be at the fore of your mind. Nevertheless, instead of the traditional intricate cartoons and simple narratives we may be familiar with in these comic strips, China’s artists are now creating works that are of increasingly significant socio-politico importance due to their direct depiction of political comments, often smack dab denouncing decisions from higher up leading to the present-day problems occupying the minds of China’s laobaixing (aka John and Jane Wang).
Badiucao [巴丢草 in Chinese; this article refers to the man as simply “B”], originally from Shanghai and now residing in Melbourne, is regarded as one of China’s most prolific and well-known political cartoonists — though very little is known about his real self given his pen-name has been adopted to protect his real (and “dissident”) identity. How very Banksy. B uses pop culture and references to get his point across, manipulating images taken from Communist Party propaganda in order to make subversive political statements. Often decked out in that revolutionary red.
His work is celebrated across various Chinese criticaster websites and among those Chinese citizens who know how to pierce the Great FireWall. This has meant his reputation and cartoons were able to break through into the broader global community.
Yet just how much social responsibility does Badiucao take, given his unknown identity?
Two Dimensional Characters And A Three Dimensional Identity
It’s not that uncommon for artists everywhere to hide their real names; we see the hiding of identity amongst musicians and writers alike — take musical genies such as Sia or Daft Punk, we have yet to see their faces. What’s more in this particular B case, according to China’s most famous cartoonist himself, he does this as to protect his family and friends back home in China and to avoid harassment while living in Australia. We guess it all makes sense.
It is safe to say his work is pretty controversial; cartoon images of Chinese leaders are banned on Mainland China, hence even a glimpse of one of B’s ultra-accurate caricatures packs a powerful punch with Chinese netizens. The Chinese government in July 2017 censored Winnie The Pooh and most recently (in May 2018) banned Peppa Pig from children’s gazes across the Mainland — as Peppa is apparently an “unruly slacker”… Right.
One doth thinks Badiucao’s work too falls under the contentious bracket.
MATE’s prints and pictures attempt to define modern and urban China under Xi Jinping’s rule in 2019, where art faces the challenge of breaking censorship to exist.
The Socio-Politico Power Of Art
Art holds a heavy socio-political power, as the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words. Such is true for MA TE (折|zhé is his Chinese pen name), a young artist who has created a unique style of photography using a mix of both black and white and colours. MATE finds a balance between poetic and powerful imagery, contrasting traditional Chinese motifs with modern ideas of life in the Far East.
His prints and pictures attempt to define modern and urban China under Xi Jinping’s rule in 2018, where art faces the challenge of breaking censorship to exist. “Forbidden Tradition”, as shown above, depicts two Peking opera stars gently kissing. This image is somewhat controversial, especially after Chinese state media regulators have laid out new rules for videos that “display homosexuality” to no longer “be allowed” in 2018.
MA TE’s work plays into present social issues and speaks of a modern China, ever struggling between lifelong traditions and the unknown changes that loom.
Sexuality and gender are key themes in the photographs of Lin Zhipeng, ever portraying his view of youth culture and lifestyles in contemporary China.
Last, but by no means least, there’s Lin Zhipeng, a professional Chinese photographer originally from Guangdong Province, who is currently based in Beijing. Sexuality and gender are key themes in his photographs, ever portraying his view of youth culture and lifestyles in contemporary China.
Even as a professional, Lin still asks his friends to pose for him and doesn’t work with professional models, adding a real and raw feel to his powerful pictures. His photos are not glamorous or dramatic and they often feature a playful and fun feel to them. Similar to MA TE, Lin’s artwork speaks of the East catching up with the West; perpetually continuing the progressive struggle of bridging cultures.
The underground art scene across Mainland China is booming with music, movies, art and the way they are produced and understood, all changing at the speed of a swift brush stroke. With this change coming around, we are able to view the world differently, not through rose tinted glasses, but wearing creative, artistic ones.
In communist capitalist Xi Thought China, the pursuit of art has never been and never will be an easy undertaking. Internet censorship is the main hurdle, but despite the odds Chinese artists continue to make their messages clear and get them across in a not to be mistaken unambiguous way. Out with the old, in with the new. From sub to super.