Issue #129 Emotional Patterns in Art in Post-1949 China, Part I: Community of Feeling

Emotional Patterns in Art in Post-1949 China, Part I: Community of Feeling

Su Wei

Wu Dezu (1923–91), a sketch for the comic book Huangsong Mountain, 1948, 12.8 x 10 cm. Courtesy of Wu Xiaochuan.

Issue #129
September 2022

On Labor Day 1957, at the start of the Anti-Rightist Campaign in China, the writer Shen Congwen (1902–88) looked out of the tenth-floor window of the Shanghai Mansion Hotel where he lived, toward the Waibaidu Bridge. He drew two sketches showing a bustling crowd on the bridge contrasting sharply with a lonely boat in the corner of the image. The caption reads:

The tide is falling slowly.
On the bridge walks a red flag brigade.
The boat is still asleep, sleeping like a baby in the cradle, listening to the mother sing a lullaby.
The higher the voice, the calmer the child, as the child knows their mother is by their side.


The boat is dreaming, floating amid the sea.
It was a sea of red flags all along, a sea of singing, a sea of drums.
(In the end, it does not wake), (as seen at six o’clock).1

The complex emotions demonstrated here are vividly explored in Shen’s unfinished, posthumous essay “Abstract Lyricism.”2 Although Shen may have desired to join the bustling crowd in welcoming ideological transformation, he was unable to anchor his previous artistic career in the new revolutionary era. And Shen was among numerous Chinese artists who, after 1949, experienced a tumultuous transition between two eras.3

In any given period, and in any given place, the history of art is rooted in a dialectic between transformation and stasis. In the latter half of the twentieth century, “Revolution” (变) became mainstream, powerfully shaking the “stasis” of Chinese art and rewriting the rhythm of the times. Unlike the frustrated march toward progress during the May Fourth period of 1919, socialist visual art and literature thirty-plus years later produced an “art” dislocated from space and time. Participants in these post-1949 movements reappropriated cultural and pictorial resources from traditional art and the Republican Period; they translated modern experience from the West, from Japan, and elsewhere to the Chinese context; they adapted themselves to the political dictates of the new era and the ever-changing, ever-reincarnating requirements of utopianism.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, past, present, and future intersected in the world of Chinese art. Through this process, realism was established as the highest creative principle. It comprehensively and strictly delineated art production and discourse while also indirectly contributing to the country’s modernization process. With an integrated organizational structure and linguistic form, socialist modernization in China sought to unite the individual and the collective, all forms of production with the state, individual nature and universality, and the private and public realms—all through core ideologies of struggle and national progress.4 This process transformed the discourses of progress, equality, human rights, and the value of the individual. It also placed all the local forces that were moving and sculpting this change—including art—into a dynamic dialectic of continuity and discontinuity.

Under socialism, the concepts and practice of realism continuously changed.5 Contemporary research on visual art through the socialist period mostly focuses on the relationship between political regulation and artistic creation, defined in terms of domination and subordination. For example, while taking an artist’s career as a starting point for mapping the artistic world might reflect the late-seventies concern with transitioning away from realism, doing so also precludes any interrogation into the dynamism of socialist-era art. On the one hand, the art-politics binary—or more precisely, the preference for “pure art”—has liberated people’s desire to pursue artistic freedom of expression. On the other, progressive ideas on art have also relegated the period of socialist realism to the archive. In both cases, the impact of the socialist period is closely connected to our own era and to contemporary Chinese artists’ and thinkers’ cultural and psychological makeup.

1. Emotion as an Entry Point

In the past twenty years, art institutions across China have held many exhibitions and debates seeking to revisit and re-excavate art of the socialist period. This practice of re-historicization, most often driven by art-market forces, seeks to develop a local orientation as globalization faces increasing difficulties. Most institutions choose to revisit an artist’s entire career rather than focus solely on their work between the 1950s and the 1970s, ensuring a sufficient sense of history and avoiding political risks. Doing this also allows for a relatively balanced, humane perspective on an artist. Regrettably though, many exhibitions remain colored by an underlying assumption that history is characterized by a teleology of progress, effectively reestablishing the myth of the artist. In the absence of a self-imposed requirement that the “capillaries” of history be scrutinized and excavated, the so-called “human,” “lyrical,” and “artistic” aspects of an artist’s creative works are individually extracted and emphasized.6 This approach also avoids embarrassment and awkwardness over the radicalism and painful, violent experiences of the period. Although recognition of the artist as a creative individual is important, refusing to investigate the multidimensional nature of relationships and cultural interactions between the system and the people is tantamount to failing to attend to the pulse of history. Such practices can only result in an alienated past becoming an imaginative resource decoupled from history and present alike.

Under the foundational guidelines of realism, socialist art practice was premised on highly unified organizational action. However, this premise did not eliminate heterogeneity in artistic creation and debate. In the new era highly unified collective actions tended to concentrate the struggle of multiple forces, the contention of multiple discourses, and the various experiments and strategies adopted by differing creative individuals. In excavating the diverse strata of dynamics, limitations, sensibilities, and symbolic vocabularies of art in this period, we can more deeply understand the following issues: What is the position of the autonomy of art relative to the state, public, and artistic tradition? At a discursive and institutional level, what is the process of negotiation between official limits of acceptance and the desire to make room for the creative impulse? And finally, what forms express the rare ability to transcend these limits?

We can use emotion as an entry point to discuss these questions of motivation, positionality, and appeal. In the 1920s and ’30s, the artistic practice of relying on faith and ideology to resolve life’s difficulties brought the perplexity, confusion, and difficulty of personal emotion into the theoretical framework of the new world. After this, Chinese artists gained motivation to move onward in life through meaningful collective action. Given the severe dilemmas China faced after 1949, how did the emotions of its people respond and compose themselves according to the urgencies of changing times? How did emotion participate in the process of molding a new political self-consciousness? Does emotion still have the potential to move towards the present, amid pulls of compulsion and illusion, ideas and truth?

The broad internal dimensions of realism in the art of the period are not only closely connected to the rationale of the post-1949 new Chinese regime, but also include a strong compulsion toward the confession of feelings. Therefore, in terms of actual conditions, the study of emotion in art should not be limited to Chinese modernism and to Chinese traditional ink painting, both of which were utterly repudiated during the 1950s–70s. Emotion and sentiment in both art forms are recognized as the natural expression of the creator’s inner feelings and are not seen as the result of “making a conscious effort” (刻意为之) for the audience. In a broader sense, emotion in visual art is akin to what T. J. Clark identified as “lyric” in modern art and abstract expressionism: “the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own” and “those metaphors of agency, mastery and self-centeredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject.”7 This form of emotional illusion was eliminated during the socialist period.

Conceptually speaking, the fundamental requirement for visual artists during the 1950s–70s was that they eliminate their own feelings and work to serve the public in a plain and easily comprehensible fashion. The logic of removing the individual is, on the one hand, a critique of bourgeois literature and art, forcing artists to break away from the fabrics of modernism and the Chinese artistic tradition. At the same time, however, this requirement also highlights the issue of sincerity in art. That is, it demands that artists also reform themselves in body and soul to meet the creative requirements of the new age, effectively reinscribing into the politics of art innate emotion as an underlying requirement. This internal contradiction in the emotional landscape of artwork highlights the problem of subjectivity at different historical moments: “The objectivity of realism thus somewhat paradoxically elevates the subject (as an independent platform of observation) while censoring those emotions and prejudices that we usually think of as an individual’s subjectivity.”8 In actual creative and institutional practice, the elevation of the status of the subject is reflected in a high degree of tension between the individual and the system. Emotions are located between the connected individual and the projected collective and given the semblance of historicity.

Wang Qi (1918–2016), Returning Late, 1955, color woodcut print, 15.5 × 23 cm. Courtesy of Wang Wei.

2. Starting from Uncertainty

In December 1962, the printmaker Wang Qi gave a report on the issue of form in art (艺术形式) to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Central Academy of Drama. In autumn of 1963, he gave the same report at the invitation of the Jilin chapter of the Chinese Artists’ Association in Changchun. The association printed his report as a pamphlet titled “On the Exploration of Art Forms” and distributed it to art workers, which incited a huge response across the Chinese art world. At the time, the political atmosphere was relatively relaxed, and Wang Qi used his report to discuss the unity of so-called “form” and “content,” with the aim of reigniting the contention over form that had been put on hold after the brief implementation of the Hundred Flowers policy in 1956–57. In doing so, Wang Qi aimed to launch an internal debate on realist art in the socialist context.

On his way back to Beijing from Changchun, Wang Qi climbed Changbai Mountain for a visit and recorded this journey in his diary. In this reflection, Wang Qi discusses the theoretical ambitions of art, ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign alike, but also briefly gives way to an intoxication with the beauty of nature:

In the evening, as we were sweetly sleeping, suddenly someone woke up saying that there was a car passing by that could take us to the foot of Changbai Mountain. We hurriedly got dressed and climbed aboard. Under the hazy moonlight, I feasted on the vision of the forest at night, the stalwart and beautiful soaring red pines inspiring me to boundless reveries. There were many beautiful, stirring images brought forth in my mind. It was dawn by the time we arrived at the foot of Changbai Mountain, and we took rooms in a simple inn. The next day a few of us set out together and walked from the foot of the mountain to its peak. There was a meteorological observation post on top of the mountain at an altitude of 2500 meters, standing at one side of the Heavenly Lake. Looking out from the other side of the Heavenly Lake was the border with North Korea. It is said that there was a volcanic eruption in this place 150 years ago, and so the mountains around the Heavenly Lake are full of rocks of various shapes and colors, most dazzling in their appearance. Such spectacularly colorful natural scenery is included in my paintings; I leave nothing out. There are some three or five staff working at the post, and their working conditions are quite tough. Food and water must be supplied from the foot of the mountain. Nevertheless, they warmly welcomed us and treated us to lunch. We took a siesta on the mountain, and then slowly headed down. While walking on the meandering road near the foot of the mountain, we discovered the claw marks of a tiger in the soil still damp from earlier rain and it was apparent to us that the “Lord of the Mountain” had passed through this place. We tapped with wooden sticks to make noise as we quickened our pace down the mountain, till we found a military truck parked on the side of the road. Only then did we regain a feeling a safety.9

The “spectacularly colorful” natural scenery overwhelms the sight of North Korea—a fellow socialist country set paradoxically on the other side of a national border. The author enjoys a brief respite from politics at the top of the mountain, but seems to sober up again on the way down. The image of the tiger, and the sense of uncertainty it symbolizes, bring him back to reality.

As an artist and an art theorist, Wang Qi was an intellectual who enjoyed special treatment from the state. The emotions he reveals when surrounded by nature are naturally different from those expressed by intellectuals condemned as rightists or transferred to impoverished mountain regions for self-reform. The account he gives does not reveal sentiments of dissatisfaction with the present, yet his memory seems to break free from the confusion of political struggle and return to a corner of his own inner world.

Wang Qi’s “On the Exploration of Art Forms” was criticized by He Rong, the editor of Fine Arts magazine, in a 1964 issue. Titled “What Class Viewpoint Is This? Questions on Wang Qi’s ‘On the Exploration of Art Forms,’” He Rong’s article used the theory of class struggle to repudiate Wang Qi, labeling him an admirer of “Cezanne, Gaugin, and Matisse.” Yet He Rong had published a series of three articles in Fine Arts in 1959 with the titles “Landscapes, Birds, and Blossoms,” “Nature, So Beautiful: A Further Discussion on Landscape, Birds, and Flowers and Blossoms,” and “The Peony Is Good, So Is the Lilac: Landscape, Birds, and Flowers and Blossoms, Part Three.” As the lead editor of the Fine Arts magazine group, he used these three articles to question “subject determinism” in the field of Chinese painting, at a time when the Great Leap Forward was being widely criticized and ultraleftism was under attack from inside and outside the Party. An attempt was made to correct the creative method of the Great Leap Forward and the ultraleft style flooding the art world. However, in 1964 Mao severely criticized the Party department in charge of literature and art, and the Chinese art world began introducing corrective measures. He Rong thus had to take up his pen and join the cause of class struggle within the artistic world.

After 1949, the Chinese art scene was left in a complicated situation: it was operating under almost total political constraint, and its own production and circulation mechanisms were constructed in a comprehensively ideologized and systematized fashion. The art scene was attempting to integrate and reconstruct China’s twentieth-century art history, revolving around the aesthetic discourses produced by historical moments such as 1919, 1937, 1942, and 1949, and subordinating them to the twin themes of revolution and post-1949 innovation. At the same time, socialist art, alongside the fields of literature, drama, and film, was expected to help construct a revolutionary national narrative, even as it displayed its own particular complexity in debates over the transformation of tradition and the critique of modernism. Such an art scene, composed of several generations of artists who had different training and creative backgrounds, was now expected to collectively navigate a highly organized political landscape. Artists were required to digest and translate their pre-1949 visual experience and ways of thinking in order to transform themselves into the socialist “new man” (新人).

The complexity of such a landscape meant that art history through the 1950s and ’60s was characterized by great tension and uncertainty. Uncertainty triggers various emotional artistic expressions, which ultimately lead to a multidimensional, complex artistic practice. Yet the uncertain cultural position of the artist in the Chinese socialist context produced a disempowering bind in which artists could obtain neither recognition of the autonomy of art from explicit state regulations, nor a clear, solid institutional position from which to speak. Instead, they had to accept the comprehensive leadership and discipline of operating within a collective socialist practice, while at the same time remaining clearly aware that art must also be “avant-garde” and oriented toward the future, not merely a stable practice based on a given reality. In other words, uncertainty is related to the self-knowledge of the artist. This self-knowledge is formed dynamically in the present and amid history, and, because it is self-contradictory, is deeply implicated in emotions. It involves feelings about a particular reality and one’s own situation within it.

The problem of uncertainty arises at a point of unevenness that cannot be fully hidden by state rationality and the collective power it mobilizes. Today, decades later, this shadow has not completely vanished. Persisting through changing times, it now perhaps inspires another form of belief in power. The emotional structure of the post-1949 period is characterized by a search for the possibility of accommodation and breathing space within the operations of the dominant cultural framework and its ideological tenets.

Wu Dayu, Untitled 175, crayon on paper, 39.4 × 27.8 cm, c. 1950. Courtesy of Shixiang Space and Li Yuhan.

3. “Never Enough” and “Never Finished”: The Constant Reincarnation of Emotion

As a painter who flew the flag of modernism in China, Wu Dayu (1903–88) had been active in the art scene of 1930s Shanghai, but struggled to find a place in the new order post-1949. Before Wu Dayu’s reputation was restored by his student Wu Guangzhong (1919–2010) in the 1980s, his abstract works could not be accommodated within mainstream art and had completely vanished from public view. In the 1960s, Wu Dayu wrote the following reflection:

Feeling is the air in which art lives. What I mean here is that if there is no feeling in a painting, it is like a fish taken out of water, and displayed as a specimen. The popular New Year Painting (年画) method used in those days suffocated the viewer in the format of the picture, leaving them unable to breathe. It not only paralyzed the viewer’s visual sense, but it would also kill the efficacy of the visual sense and the emotional response. Thus, even if the New Year Painting contained a lot of “content and material,” it would never be treasured, could never be transposed to the side of the viewer … Our diplomatic rhetoric is almost all about laying out the facts of history, it is always righteous, it always makes us generous when wrong, it always makes us upright and strong, and it is unavoidable that it perhaps can only excite the audience at one place and in one time. This is because their sensory life is not full enough.10

Wu Dayu did not make a strict separation between sensory feeling (感觉) and emotion (情感). He presupposes here the richness of the creator’s sensibilities (feelings) and holds that this “feeling for life” can be directly “transposed” onto the viewer. Emotion here means the vitality of life, and for Wu Dayu, the state is also a kind of anthropomorphic and emotional entity. He is dissatisfied with the dogma permeating political discourse and with rational statements, and hopes that the country might instead practice a kind of “flexible” emotionality, full of initiative.

Example of the popular New Year Painting (年画) method, author unknown, 1900s.

Wu Dayu’s passage helps us to imagine how artists, whether they were marginalized within the system at the time or not, confronted the entirely new relationships between the state and the individual in the post-1949 landscape. Putting aside some of the ridicule in his reflection, Wu Dayu associates the particular sensory transference that can be produced by art with an anthropomorphized form of the state. On one hand, this shows the state as having become the other to the individual. Wu Dayu anticipated that an emotionally “full” (圆活) state could also be the imagination that the individual projects onto the state, formed and shaped by the deep emotional recognition of each individual. Accumulated through the process of national liberation, such recognition is also a product of the utopian imagination of artists. However, if we look within art and literature circles of the period from this perspective, it is hard to explain the cognitive dissonance and personal tragedy that result from this recognition during times of political violence. There is a massive void between the ideals held by the individual and those of the political reality. Driven by large-scale political campaigns, individuals must not only reform their thinking, but also understand how to bridge such an enormous void to deal with constantly emerging political situations.

If we understand the post-1949 situation in this way, we can see how emotion operates in a more complex fashion than mere political or moral sloganeering. Specific to artistic practice, when emotion becomes a mobilizing force to connect upper and lower classes and bridge the distance between self and other, it gains a richly symbolic, self-projecting, lyrical, ironic, political, and imaginative character. These approaches were gradually revealed in the various forms of collective practice in the Chinese art world, the theoretical debates that were advanced in periods of political relaxation, and the negotiations and confrontations between the individual and the state. When realist art deals with both objective reality and expressive reality, what manner of struggle takes place?11

Controversy in socialist art often sketches the limits of the free space available to discuss these issues more broadly. During the periods of political relaxation—1956–57 and 1961–62—some aspects of artistic debates were not fully realized at the level of artistic practice. In art circles, the 1956–57 period is defined by the implementation of the “Double Hundred” campaign and ends with the expansion of the Anti-Rightist Campaign. At the time, the art world was directly influenced by discussions on whether the socialist realist style exemplified by the Soviet Union could serve as a creative model for China, and debates on the diversification of art and literature in the new China. These debates turned on questions including the modernist heritage of twentieth-century China, the transformation of traditional Chinese painting, and ethnicization and methodologies in the writing of art history. They also brought to the surface a few basic issues in the artistic movements of the new China, including sketching from life, the use of models, the diversity of themes to be represented, the creation of model images, and the relationship between form and theme.

Against the backdrop of the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the great famine that had subsequently engulfed the whole country, the art world benefitted from an adjustment of state policies on literature and art from 1961–62. The proposals and later approval of the three speeches on artistic work given by then premier Zhou Enlai, alongside his “Eight Articles on Art and Literature,” set the tone for the brief adjustment seen in these two years.12 On the premise of the continuation and deepening of the Hundred Flowers spirit of 1956–57, the creative works of this period reflect the pursuit of sentiment, mood, and individual style. They express an admiration for the lyricism of realism, while also being creative products of the newly emerging fields of revolutionary historical art and the transformation of Chinese painting. Aside from this, during both periods the authorities put forward calls to unite intellectuals, including artists, and to encourage freedom and diversity in thought and art. It is also worth mentioning that many exhibitions toured China at this time, and not just from fellow socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and Mexico. Invited by the authorities as “progressive art,” exhibitions from Britain, Denmark, Italy, and India briefly showed the existence of an open space for discussion and exchange.

Zhang Anzhi (1911–90), Mountains in Hunan and Jiangxi Province, 1963, ink and color on paper, 28 × 53 cm. Courtesy of Zhang Chen. 

4. Two Periods of Political Relaxation

Within the Chinese art world, there are relatively few discussions of these two periods of political relaxation that incorporate the “politics” of available historical sources. The 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art is still used as the starting point for art-historical discussions on the evolution of art in the new China. However, the various controversies in fine art and literature circles of the 1950s, and their echoes and advances in the 1961–62 period, had unprecedented depth and breadth. Moreover, they covered a range of foundational issues, such as concept and form in art, tradition versus innovation, modernity versus contemporary reality, representation, and criticism. In other words, the depth and breadth of the discussions undertaken at the time echo the practice of art in the new era and reveal that art and art theory were no longer completely confined to the ambit of “art in the service of politics,” the line established in 1942 at Yan’an.

Therefore, the 1956–57 and 1961–62 periods of political relaxation cannot be seen as merely linked responses to changes in the political situation. These two intervals established the framework, tone, and basic questions for the realist style that still reverberated through China’s art world as late as the 1980s and ’90s. The 1956–57 period was the first time the new China responded to the crisis of legitimacy in socialist art. The principle of socialist realism established in the early 1950s was severely challenged, while at the same time the institutionalization of art was strengthened and the radical collective demands of literature and art, strongly tinged by idealism, collided fiercely with the more critical, truthful school of realism focused on the whole of life. The 1961–62 period, in addition to reigniting the debate over the meta-problem of realist art initiated during the Hundred Flowers movement, also confronted the gradual rise of urban culture, the emergence of desire, private life, and consumption. This combined effect gave the art of this second period a strong tendency to portray the emotions of ordinary people and the details of everyday life.

In 1954, the vice chairman of the Artists Association, Cai Ruohong, published an article titled “Opening Up a Broad Path to Artistic Creation” in the inaugural issue of Fine Arts magazine. The article, intended as programmatic for the art world of the time, clearly asserts the core position of the image in artistic creation. Cai Ruohong uses an ontological approach to describe how artworks function through the “emotional response” triggered by the image, rather than through an effect prescribed by “reason.” The context for this article was the period following the establishment of socialist realism as the highest principle for artistic and literary creation in the new China. At the time, literary and artistic circles were still experimenting with this method. The complete rejection of Hu Feng (胡风) had not yet begun, and the atmosphere of the art world was still relaxed. In the article, Cai Ruohong proposes that “passion” is the most essential feature of art and attempts to keep his discussion within the confines of art itself, to maintain a flexible distance between art and political principle. This article was once again mentioned during the implementation of the Hundred Flowers policies, reminding us of the resurgence of controversies on creative production during this period.13

However, the article was not only a return to the debates about the principles of artistic creation and the nature of art itself. It was also a return to the core issues of the status, role, method, and independence of art in the socialist era: Cai Ruohong’s position on these issues allowed for more creative and critical practice, implicitly displaying a tendency towards re-enlightenment. Unlike the usual sense of “enlightenment,” driven by reason, this re-enlightenment was driven primarily by emotions. The assertion of the “emotional” over the “rational” is not only a perspective on the essential character of art itself but is also a clear statement of the immanence and independence of artistic activity. “Emotion” is thus not so much a metaphorical return to zero. Rather, it is within the limited framework of socialism, through the effort of the bureaucrats responsible for cultural policy, artists, and art institutions, that art workers were able to achieve a limited recognition of the nature of art. This kind of emotional drive can allow artists to complete the transformation from art for “life” (人生) to art for the “people” (人民).

In the artistic tradition of Xu Beihong, the concept of “art for life” requires that individual creative activity be closely connected to public life. In the new institutional framework, however, art was put in service of the people—in the sense of political subjects—resulting in what can be called the complete functionalization of art, the comprehensive subordination of art to the purpose of serving the people. On the other hand, emotion became a space that art practitioners maintained for themselves, wherein they had a certain ability to relax and retreat as emotional production shifted between public and private spheres. Through their work, they were able to both directly draw upon the political and public nature of emotion, but also, to a certain extent—and only to a certain extent—to retain some private emotions and a measure of the heterogeneity that belongs to artists. Hence, the intuitions derived from universal life experience, which had been prioritized in art since the May Fourth Movement, were able to find a foothold in the new era.

5. Unrealized Directions for Realism

The controversy and free space that arose during the periods of political relaxation also opened up a few plausible directions for realism itself. Although these directions remained within the framework of socialist art and were not fully realized in artistic practice, they help us understand the driving force of emotion in individual life experience and creative practice, as well as in specific expressions of collective empathy. Unrealized in practice as they were, identifying these plausible directions for realism is no simple task. They are often found in the extremely complex space of art-political discourse, which itself struggled to enter the space of actual politics. Precisely akin to the great uncertainty of the first thirty years of PRC history from the 1950s to the 1970s, these potential artistic directions are diffuse, converging mainly at exceptional historical moments, when they briefly loosen the bond between state and individual or link collective emotional norms to individual emotional states that cannot be fully disciplined. We can roughly outline these directions for realism according to the following four levels:

1. Affinity and Solitude: The period after 1949 inspired the modern subject to rise to new heights once again. The cultural field, including fine arts, was fully institutionalized and the artist had to negotiate many new relationships between self and collective. How to communicate and integrate the artistic heritage of the 1912–49 Republican period—including the popular tradition of propaganda art that had developed under Kuomintang rule during the War of Resistance against Japan—with the principles of socialist realism derived from the Soviet Union? Once the fog of war and revolution had temporarily cleared, how would the new era define the relationship between the sword and the pen? What were the boundaries between system and individuals? These questions tested artists and cultural workers.

From the perspective of the overall cultural ecology, a series of special events highlighted the twin threads of affinity and solitude. The “thaw literature” (解冻文学) that appeared in the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union was moving away from the extreme left and “no-conflict theory” (无冲突论), provided a powerful set of references for literary and artistic movements during the Hundred Flowers period. The emergence of “manuscript” literature (手抄本文学), including underground novels such as The Second Handshake (第二次握手) during the late stages of the Cultural Revolution, displayed a search for freedom amidst solitude and a culture of taboo. Likewise, the rise of “scar art” (伤痕文学) in the late seventies demonstrated a tension between emotions of sorrow and hope, foreshadowing later reassessments of socialist-period artistic concepts. In the early eighties, Mang Ke (芒克), a poet of the Obscure Poetry School (朦胧诗派), and Ma Desheng, a painter of the Stars Group (星星画会), set themselves against the heaviness prevalent in the art world. Their poetry and painting collection The Sunflower Turns to the Sun (阳光中的向日葵) moved away from an overly emotional symbolic language, reflecting the opening of a dialogue between artistic creators of the 1980s and Western modernism.

2. Everyday Affective Experiences: Beyond labor and production, all of daily life—from trivial issues, leisure time, clothing, and decoration to advertising, children’s literature, and physical exercise—was incorporated into a unified administrative and discursive narrative. However, daily life is not easy to define, nor to completely regulate. Perhaps even the revolution itself, when directed towards shaping the human spirit and the deepest levels of life, cannot be completely regulated by politics. In this sense, daily life and its emotions are not necessarily rebellious nor noncompliant, but inherent to the revolution and its narrative. When such emotions enter a pictorial scene through the objects in a still life or a landscape, they are not intended to convey a concrete reality, but rather an imagined one. They are not intended to deconstruct socialist art and its political connotations, but to identify and appeal to a higher level of reality. The fact that reality cannot be named constitutes a threat to a certainty of meaning, making necessary the creation of another certainty of meaning.

The experience of daily life is the basic criterion and spiritual basis for entering modernist art. In the castrated modernism of China’s socialist era, the anxieties of modernism were explored mainly as a limited historical concept that had not been deeply experienced firsthand. Thus, the idea of daily life was confined to the collective meaning of revolution, and rarely set out to include the true feelings and perceptions of individuals. However, after the 1960s, many artists began to realize that the revolution is not only in the sweat of field and factory, that a Mayakovsky could also emerge from daily life. On the other hand, because the socialist experiment attempted to fill all corners of individual and collective experience, it would inevitably also stimulate a fear of the loss of meaning. This common cultural psychology is often suppressed, and in the brief periods of relaxation, radical utopian value production would arise once again to relieve this anxiety, alongside the rapid strengthening of the patriarchal cultural system and ubiquitous demands for totalitarian power.

3. The Centripetal Urge: The theme of the frontier occupies a unique position in China’s socialist art and literary creation, providing an important footnote to the understanding of “self” and “other,” “center” and “periphery.” In artworks on the theme of the frontier, the dominance of revolution as a subject in socialist art is replaced by the image of the ethnic group and depictions of “ethnic feeling” (民族情感) in a setting characterized by political consciousness. Within a framework of unified political subjectivity, the emotional recognition between different ethnic groups (民族) of China drives the “people” to transcend ethnic differences. Political consciousness is linked to emotion, and emotion thus becomes the bond that maintains all ethnic groups within the same political community.

Xu Beihong and the artists around him paid much attention to the expression of national emotion through art even during the National Central University (国立中央大学) period . The artists sent to the northwestern and southwestern borders of China in the 1930s and ’40s are often mentioned in today’s art history. Artists such as Dong Xiwen (1914–73), Wu Zuoren (1908–77), Ye Qianyu (1907–95), Fu Baoshi (1904–65), and Sun Zongwei (1912–79) were also important creators of frontier art in the post-1949 period. The difference was that, by this time, the frontier had already evolved into a field that spanned both politics and art, a field within which it was very difficult to depart from the will of the state and convey a true image of ethnic diversity. Tibetan-themed paintings were limited to the topics of serf liberation and the Qinghai-Tibet railway. In frontier art such as Hang Zhou’s depictions of festive and lively ethnic scenes, Ye Qianyu’s sparse yet vivid portraits of ethnic figures, or the foreign voices that echo through prints of the “Great Northern Wilderness” (北大荒), there is a clash between the exoticization of others and the portrayal of a national ethnic community. National art has always gained meaning from being constantly refashioned, and the suppressed modernist aesthetic impulse of socialist art seems to find a foothold here; the portrayal of daily ethnic life is completely legitimated, while the voice of revolution continued through drastic reforms to ethnic governance.

4. “The composition of distance”: For Western modernism, emotion is understood more in terms of an unlimited experience of life. When this unlimited experience seeks the depths of the self, however, it inevitably encounters doubt concerning the truth of the self. Here, irony appears as an essential dimension of art. In any quest for the so-called truth of the individual self in post-1949 China, political mechanisms were inescapable. The suppression of any unlimited examination of the relationship between self and world meant that “I” (我) was merely a gear in the radical political order. Irony then becomes a tool to measure the relationship between the system and “I” (我), or to identify the limits to the self within that system.

As a theme, the position of “irony” (讽刺) within art of the socialist period is obvious. Commentators at the time used the “ruthlessness” (无情) of irony to set off the “sentiment” (有情) entrusted to literary and art workers, and—not straightforwardly—to fight for a space for freedom of expression. Only a few strange works from that era remain, which include the images of educated youth in Zhao Wenliang’s work, the rare combinations of sensibility and attitude found in the mid- to late-1970s photography of Shi Zhimin, or the unclassifiable works that flowed from Wu Dayu’s brush. Displaying a kind of misplaced ironic posture, works of this period not only reflect a degradation in realism’s critical modality (or its rare appearances in periods of political relaxation), but also allude to a broader decline in artistic creation during this period.

The unfinished nature of these aspects listed above and their lack of realization in practice does not mean that they are markers of an alternative narrative; rather, they act as proof of the dialectics of continuity and discontinuity in the structures of socialist art. They are internal to the structure of socialist art, but nevertheless, they show a limited ability to transcend. Combing through these threads is not so much about a search for the historical significance of post-1949 art, but rather a search for understanding the unified connotations of socialist art and literature through the combined efforts of narration and imagination.

Continued at “Emotional Patterns in Art in Post-1949 China, Part II: Internality and Transcendence” in issue 131.


“江潮在下落,慢慢的。桥上走着红旗队伍。艒艒船还在睡着,和小婴孩睡在摇篮中,听着母亲唱摇篮曲一样,声音越高越安静,因为知道妈妈在身边。” And:“艒艒船在作梦,在大海中飘动。原来是红旗的海,歌声的海,锣鼓的海。(总而言之不醒),(六点钟所见)。”


The first draft of “Abstract Lyricism” was found among the materials returned to Shen’s family several years after they were censored during the Cultural Revolution, and was probably written between July and August 1961.


See David Der-wei Wang, The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis (Columbia University Press, 2015).


See Hong Zicheng, Contemporary Literary History of China (Beijing University Press, 1999).


The question of the transformation of the concept of “realism” from the 1950s to the 1970s is complicated. There has never been a unified definition of realism among historians or those with personal experience of the period. Caught between the frameworks of “socialist realism,” “the combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism,” “authenticity,” “eulogy versus exposure,” and “critical realism,” realism was forever locked in a binary debate on the relationship between politics and art, content and form, with the debate itself mediated by each cycle of political relaxation and retrenchment. In the early 1950s, “socialist realism” as introduced by the Soviet Union became the dominant creative principle in art circles in China. During the Hundred Flowers movement, some critics suggested that the concept be replaced by other terms, such as “realism in the socialist period.” At the second general meeting of the China Artist’s Association in 1960, it was decided that the following phrase should be deleted from the association’s original charter: “should adopt socialist realism and the critical method.” At the time, the “two combination” (两结合) method was recognized as the best creative method. In the late 1970s, there was significant discussion on the redefinition, remodeling, or even the rejection of “realism.” Collective consciousness and the new trend of the times were the natural carriers of these debates. Instead of “realism,” this essay uses the phrase “socialist art,” but neither of these terms can capture the full connotations and ramifications of the concept.


See Wang Fansen, The “Capillary” Functions of Power: Scholarship, Thought and Mentality in the Qing Dynasty (Beijing daxue chubanshe, 2015).


T. J. Clark, “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism,” October, no. 69 (1994): 48.


Marston Anderson, The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period (University of California Press, 1990), 12.


Wang Qi, Complete Works of Wang Qi, vol. 6 (Hunan Art Press, 2019), 254–55.


Shixiang Space, Beijing, 2020.


For a discussion of objective reality and expressive reality as proposed by scholar Huang Zongzhi, see Wang Hui, Depoliticized Politics: The End of the Short 20th Century and the 1990s (Shenghuo/du shu/xin zhi, Sanlian shudian, 2008).


The three speeches were, respectively: Zhou’s 1959 lecture to the Zhongnanhai Hall of the Purple Light Symposium, titled “Literature and Art Should Learn to Walk on Two Legs”; a 1960 speech to the All-China Art and Literature Work Forum and the All-China Feature Film Creation Conference held at the Beijing Xinqiao Hotel; and a lecture titled “On Intellectuals” delivered to the 1962 Theatre Symposium held in Guangzhou.


See Ma Xianghui, “Emotion, Reason and the Other in Art,” Fine Arts, no. 11 (1956).

China, Socialist Realism
Return to Issue #129

This article was written in Chinese, translated by Hannah Theaker, and is published here with abridgements. The original article is based on the exhibition Community of Feeling: Emotional Patterns in Art in Post-1949 China (Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum, 2019), curated by the author, and will be included in the forthcoming eponymous catalogue to be published by Zhejiang Photographic Press in Hangzhou, China.

Su Wei is an art writer, art history researcher, and curator based in Beijing. His work in recent years focuses on reconstructing the narrative—and radical imagination—of contemporary Chinese art history, and explores the roots of the legitimacy and rupture of contemporary Chinese art history in a global context.


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