Visual Culture in Contemporary China:
Paradigms and Shifts

By Xiaobing Tang

Reviewed by Wendy Larson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2016)

Xiaobing Tang, Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts. Cambridge University Press, 2015, 276 pages + xii, $39.99 (paperback)

Xiaobing Tang, Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 276 pages + xii, $39.99 (paperback)

Following his pioneering study on Chinese woodcuts, Xiaobing Tang now has come out with a monograph on visual culture in China from 1949 on. The much broader scope includes chapters that address woodcuts, painting, cinema, pop art, and fine art. The project also produced a 2011 exhibition of 114 contemporary woodblock prints at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) in Ann Arbor, curated by Tang.

The book has several goals. The first is to locate, document, and analyze the many efforts to create a modern Chinese identity through visual culture. With this broad twentieth and twenty-first century goal in mind, Tang connects the objects of his study with social transformation, historical events, and ideological trends. A second is to demonstrate and interpret the extensive engagement in visual culture with revolutionary precursors, to the point where the relevance of the socialist past to contemporary society must be recognized. Thus Tang recognizes socialist culture as a meaningful legacy while emphasizing its continuing relevance. And finally, Tang aims to dismantle Western stereotypes about Chinese culture as monolithic, authoritarian, and based on government brainwashing, in the process revealing the complexity and diversity of the field.


Liang Yongtai’s Where No One Has Been Before (从前没有人到过的地方). Source:

Chapter 1 is an extended discussion of what Tang calls the socialist modern, and its relationship to print making. One idea Tang attacks is the common notion that culture is determined by politics, arguing that it is more revealing to see politics as a response to cultural issues. His primary point—that the socialist revolution aimed at substantial and profound cultural transformation—is important, and often is overlooked as the excesses of ideology take center stage. The first step in cultural change is the transformation of the artist through his or her own efforts, as woodcut artist Jiang Feng reported at the All-China Congress of Literary and Art Workers in 1949. This realigning of subjectivity was aimed at learning how to value and create art for the majority of people rather than for aesthetic connoisseurs, and involved the negotiation between revolutionary ideas and indigenous practices. One important movement revolved around the popular nianhua, or New Year’s prints, which melded art and politics. A robust conversation about the value and decline of woodcut prints, led by printmaker Li Qun and others, faulted the field for not keeping up with society, duplicating Western forms, and failing to create a unique Chinese character. Overall, the early 1950s was characterized by passionate intellectual argumentation about the way to bring a socialist vision to visual arts, and about the relationship between art and life. One fascinating controversy focused on Liang Yongtai’s 1954 woodcut print Where No One Has Been Before. In a heavily romanticized rendition, Liang depicted the K-shaped Faux Namti Bridge, which was built by the French Batignolles Construction Company in 1908. The gorge in Liang’s print is full of wildlife and lush plants growing in an alluring valley, which Li Hua criticized as a failure to follow the principles of socialist realism. Others disagreed, pointing to the need for a range of visions.

Chapter 2 emphasizes painting, with an extended analysis of Wang Shikuo’s The Bloodstained Shirt (1959), a detailed charcoal sketch that was a study for an oil painting. The drawing evokes the new and powerful subject position for Chinese peasants, who took on a heroic role in the collective struggle on land reform. Tang does an excellent job teasing out the complexity of the painting, skillfully weaving in and out of the social debates of the times. The piece revolves around the passionate public “speaking bitterness,” in which peasants were encouraged to speak out about their suffering and fear under the violence and power of landlords. As Tang explains, this act was crucial in the formation of a new symbolic order in which peasants became the agents of history. The need to produce a moving but unambiguous depiction brought some anxiety to the painter, who termed his methodology gaikuo, or the inducing and summarizing of the specific characteristics of an event or phenomenon. The centering of the bloody shirt in the middle of the painting provided forensic evidence of the landlord’s ruthlessness. Before completing the painting in 1959, Wang created a number of studies that considered options for all parts of the work, carefully considering the possibilities and their significance. Many of these fascinating drawings are included as images in the book. The notion of the typical character—developed in the Soviet Union and influential in Chinese literature from the 1930s on—for Wang was a powerful concept that helped him create lifelike characters. Again, the crux of the socialist vision was to bring historical agency to those to whom it had been denied.

In the next chapter, Tang examines four rural films and their representation of women, with the aim of showing how films set in the countryside continuously express socialist cultural aspirations and a commitment to the disadvantaged. Here a theme that was noticeable earlier becomes slightly more pronounced: Tang notes that by the early 1990s, Chinese directors realized that only films about rural culture and “obscure customs” would be welcomed by international film festivals abroad, suggesting that the West had undue influence on their decisions (106). The remarks come from Xie Fei, Zhou Xiaowen, and a study by Yingjin Zhang, but this evidence alone does not convince me that the international demand for rural exoticism heavily influenced the choice of topic in Chinese films (137, Note 4). Also, wasn’t there also a pervasive socialist bias in favor of the countryside as a site of authenticity and significance, a bias that did not quickly dissipate after the end of the Cultural Revolution? The first film is Li Shuangshuang (Lu Ren, 1962), dating from the “idealist phase” of the genre (106). The film’s uplifting representation of the political activism of the main character—a woman who fights against a good-willed but reluctant husband for release from household drudgery—was enthusiastically received in the early 1960s. The second film is In the Wild Mountains (Yan Xueshu, 1985), which features a pair of peasant couples who swap their spouses, bringing to the excitable Guilan a husband who is more entrepreneurial and willing to take risks, and to her former husband Huihui a woman who is happy with a stable rural life. Yet neither couple is perfect, and the film veers away from the clear ideological vision expressed in Li Shuangshuang, moving toward ambiguity. Women from the Lake of Scented Souls (Xie Fei, 1992), the third film, recounts the life of Xiang Ersao, who is married to an abusive man but has a secret relationship with a truck driver. When she suggests that they run away together, the driver demurs, and Xiang understands her dilemma and the hopelessness of her life. Although she initially tricks a young woman into marrying her disabled son, she eventually overcomes the cycle of violence and releases the woman, which suggests hope for a better future. The final film, Ermo (Zhou Xiaowen, 1994), again features a strong-willed woman who focuses her energy on selling enough noodles and blood to buy a large color television set. Although Ermo gets her TV—what Tang calls a “gigantic metaphor for Ermo’s blocked desire”—she is so exhausted that she falls asleep watching, never noticing that the screen has gone static (132). Intriguingly, each film features a truck driver—in two cases with suspicious moral values—highlighting the importance and danger of rural connections to the city. Overall, Tang emphasizes the way in which through “juxtaposition and recombination, we witness how these past creations acquire a new look and exhibit new meanings,” suggesting that despite the dated manner in which it appears to contemporary viewers, the clear socialist vision of Li Shuangshuang should not be casually dismissed (137).

The artist considered in Chapter 4 is Wang Guangyi, a “Chinese Andy Warhol” who made a global name for himself with his political pop art (141). Wang’s work, especially his early 1990s series Great Criticisms, has generated an active debate. Tang’s goal in this chapter coincides with that of critic Huang Zhuan, who has worked to rescue Wang’s paintings from simplistic analysis. The question hinges on how to interpret Wang’s pairing of socialist imagery and Western consumer advertising such as Coca-Cola signage: is this combination only facile and derivative, or does it lay claim to a historical memory and cultural identity that demands that the value of the socialist past be recognized and engaged? Tang argues that Wang’s aesthetic is a thoughtful response, and agrees with the artist that the goal of this art is to revive the socialist spirit. Yet as Wang contradictorily explained in 1990, “Cultural elements from two different time periods therein cancel each other’s essential content in a relationship of irony and deconstruction, and an absurd but total emptiness emerges”—a nihilistic reading on which critics quickly pounced (149). While it is interesting to consider the artist’s interpretations of his own work, the paintings themselves seem to allow many possibilities. Indeed, critics are all over the map, some finding an affirmation of an historical occurrence, some a despicable and kitschy combination of consumer and ideological practices, and yet others a profound pessimism (150). Tang favors thinking of the socialist images as a “stubborn, unresolved remainder in the contemporary system of meaning or visual order” (152). Although it is certainly true that, as Tang argues, the Cultural Revolution and socialism in general generated a shared public experience, whether Wang’s paintings bring back images of the anonymous Red Guard artists as “a competing, if also equally significant, universal visual language” with the intent of puncturing the current visual order is arguable (159). Also, it is not clear that his sculpture group The Materialists (2001-2) expresses “all the possible purity as well as complexity of the socialist visual experience” (Wang’s words, quoted approvingly by Tang, 163). Although it is possible to interpret the paintings of Mao Zedong behind red and black grids as expressing a clear respect for the helmsman, it may be equally possible to view Mao as finally caged.

One thing that interests Tang is the way in which, he contends, Wang Guangyi turns revolutionary history into a cultural identity that contrasts with the “remote and tranquil aesthetic tradition” that most Westerners expect (167). As with Chapter 3, which made me wonder if Tang himself is completely convinced that the four films about headstrong women should be grouped together as expressing a persistently socialist vision, here Tang also hedges his bets, pointing out that despite his proclaimed desire to resuscitate socialist culture, Wang Guangyi also has argued that the art market, with its big money, is a good thing. Tang ultimately discounts this declaration, however, instead stating that Wang is fighting the commodification of art. His comment about Western expectations takes a hard-nosed turn in Chapter 5, which is on how not to read a Chinese blockbuster, i.e. as a typical Westerner. Here he repeatedly and passionately criticizes the refusal of Americans to move past stereotypes about China, commenting that “class after class of American college students have viewed Chinese films as course assignments,” apparently not with any critical or informed perspective, but rather learning to accept what they see as the real China (176). While most of Tang’s critique is aimed at the general well-educated public, as the classroom example suggests, he also includes China and film specialists among the duped. First and foremost, they have been brainwashed by the dissidence hypothesis, which repeats Cold War mentalities by valorizing anti-government artists such as Ai Weiwei or films banned in China. Thus Americans are not interested in Chinese blockbusters, especially those with government support, since they regard these films as merely propaganda or entertainment. Once again supporting his contentions with work from film scholar Yingjin Zhang, who chides Western audiences for seeking only their own fantasies in Chinese film, Tang aims to demystify those fantasies and force us to rethink our viewing habits. His raw material for this deconstruction is The Founding of a Nation (Huang Jianxin, 2009), which features some 170 stars and was released on the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. Tang’s language becomes mocking in this chapter, as he blasts “trigger-happy Cold Warriors patrolling the blogosphere” (181); condemns “Miss Lee,” a Taiwanese editor working in Beijing, who agonizes over whether she should see The Founding of a Nation or Final Destination 4, which Tang contends will “be less demanding, more vacuous, and therefore more reassuring to her sense of self” (183); and comments that “the greatest abomination to the vaunted universalization of Western liberal democracy, of course, has been China” (184). Proclaiming that Americans find China to be “odious”—a word repeated more than once—Tang sets The Founding of a Nation against Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) which, he implies, is uncritically lauded in the US. This is strange, however, since a simple Google search will turn up plenty of critique focusing on the film’s thin plot, cardboard characters, cheesiness, and excessive patriotism.[1] From the New York Times to Times Magazine to (in the Conclusion) a hapless reviewer of the woodcut exhibition Tang curated, nobody gets it right: as he moves on to documentaries, he hopes to “help Western viewers to develop a mental bifocal, a way of seeing Chinese documentaries in dialogical relation to other visual and cinematic images that form the context or environment of those documentaries” (203). Tang quotes Orville Schell, “a veteran China expert,” to show that he is on the right track: “’China is veritably humming with energy, money, plans, leadership, and forward motion, while the West seems paralyzed’” (206).

Chapter 6 and the Conclusion expand Tang’s critique of the “gratifying narrative” of dissidence (212). But for the moment, I will postpone further discussion of Western failure, and move on to the topic of how printmaking was revived. The debate circled around the question of whether prints, which are reproducible, can be considered authentic fine art, and if so, does that status endanger printmaking’s socialist orientation toward the masses. As what was once considered a truly revolutionary and democratic art form, does printmaking betray its principles if it submits to the consumer art market? According to Zhong Changqing, printmaking should retain and expand its connection with contemporary culture and reality—in other words, value its revolutionary heritage—rather than plunge heedlessly into the art market. Other critics, such as Gao Tianmin and Chen Qi, tried to explain the downward slope of printmaking, faulting printmakers for their agreement to the domination of art by politics and society, their obsession with technicality, and their rejection of new aesthetic concepts. Tang introduces three printmaking artists, Liu Qingyuan, He Kun, and Chen Qi. Whereas Liu’s black-and-white aesthetic renews the avant-garde aesthetic of the early twentieth century, again claiming pride of place for a public vision, He Kun, a star of the Yunnan School, cultivates a distinct cultural vision with regional characteristics. He Kun won prizes in China before turning his attention to the UK and working in collaboration with the Puer city government to create an artist’s village. Tang comments that “He Kun’s ambition has been to turn his artists’ village into a vacation complex that will include a five-star hotel, a golf course, a lake circled with bike paths, and a world-class printmaking studio” (239). Chen Qi is famous for his complex techniques in water printing, with his 2009 work 1963 gaining fame with nine shades of water-based black ink on ninety-six paper-covered plywood panels. While some see an unwelcome refined literati sensibility in his work, others find an appealing contemporary version of a Chinese philosophical aesthetic.

In the conclusion, Tang movingly describes his work with printmakers in China, his two-month hands-on experience making woodblocks at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and his curating of the 2011 Multiple Impressions: Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Prints at the UMMA in Ann Arbor. Clearly the study of woodblocks is more than an academic topic for Tang: engaging with woodblock prints both intellectually and experientially is a form of profound personal commitment. It also is another moment for Tang to counter the “narrow and ossified American notion of China and the rich and dynamic reality in that once remote country” that he locates in a very short review by Katie Whitney in the Ann Arbor Observer.[2] While Tang notes that Whitney, to whom he refers as “our reviewer,” seems to intuitively grasp the variety and diversity of the show and thus ascend to a “new recognition,” he argues that she nonetheless follows the dissidence hypothesis, seeking out works with a political leaning or simply assigning political meanings where they do not exist (254). For example, she locates a political undertone in Li Chuankang’s A Family of Four (2004), seeing “’a brave Chinese artist who turns a sympathetic eye toward Tibet’” and thus reducing the print to “geopolitical terms that make sense to her” (256). Yet Tang goes much farther, derisively stating that Whitney “desperately needs to claim a moral high ground from where she can order things to her liking and create an object in her own image. In short, she is not so much interested in what China is or is becoming, as she is obsessed with what China is not. Only when she is reassured that China is different will she feel confident to speak, although when she does speak, she will insist that the Chinese should be just like us” (256).

It is challenging, of course, to submit oneself and one’s culture to interpretation and analysis, and the desire to set people straight can be overwhelming. Those of us who extensively study culture understand the difficulties of encountering—repeatedly and pervasively—stereotypes and reductive stupidities about both our own culture and about any culture with which we have a deep engagement. Many of us feel worn down as we constantly battle resistance to nuance and the tendency to simplify complicated realities. We may also sympathize with Tang’s desire to defang knee-jerk tendencies to acclaim any anti-state activity and to criticize the refusal of audiences to recognize any market-based self-promotion in the likes of Ai Weiwei or (in my opinion) Wang Guangyi. Tang successfully argues that socialist culture is important, continuing, and complex, and he is sincere is his desire to debunk the mythologies of the West about China, and demand that Westerners recognize their simplifications. He goes too far, however, in expressing contempt for those who do not see things as he does. An appreciation for radical difference usually is hard-won, and comes only with years of deep interaction with other cultures, if it comes at all. It certainly cannot be taught in a single class or several classes, nor is its absence limited to the United States or to Western culture in general.

Despite my sympathy for many of Tang’s points, therefore, I find several aspects of his monograph disturbing. The scorn—expressed in terms such as “our reviewer”—that Tang holds toward anyone who, in his opinion, does not show the correct attitude toward and understanding of China and Chinese visual culture could be tempered by some recognition of valid differences of opinion. The position of native informant—while possibly deriving from a long history of engaged scholarship in feminist and race studies—does not go well with the sarcasm through which Tang expresses his anger. Publishing an academic book that will most likely be read primarily by China scholars when your main goal is to counter mainstream discourse seems counterproductive—the New York Times, the New Yorker, or any number of other venues might be a better fit. On the other hand, if he wants to criticize university professors—as the example about classroom learning suggests—perhaps Tang should have developed a sustained critique of those at powerful universities who do not understand China in the same way he does. It might be interesting to see him comprehensively take on the approach toward socialist culture in David Der-wei Wang’s recent book, The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists through the 1949 Crisis (2014), rather than disparage a few paragraphs in the Ann Arbor Observer.

Tang’s book offers a great deal of information about Chinese visual culture after 1949. This valuable material is complemented by strong interpretation and analysis. He is at his best when he takes the time to do deep and socially-contextualized analysis, as in the case of The Bloodstained Shirt, discussion of which is enlivened by a powerful grasp of the debates of the times. However, in addition to the problem of disrespect for his audience, another complication is that although Tang at times mentions contradictions that may undercut his main points, he does not adequately interpret their significance. On the one hand, he notes the failures of contemporary artists to more profoundly embrace powerful revolutionary values from the past, but on the other, he does not want to analyze that failure. The rush toward the international film and art markets and the wealth and privilege that they bring is readily sought by the figures Tang studies, a fact that should at least raise questions about their socialist desires. The alternative of rejecting capitalism and staying true to revolutionary values does not appear to be welcome in contemporary consumer society, and even in the case of regional visions such as that of He Kun, wealth-building in the form of fancy hotels and golf courses proceeds unabated. A second problem is that Tang’s goal of carving out and zeroing in on the enduring legacy of socialism causes him to be excessively adamant in supporting a single interpretation. For example, he goes too far in his reading of Wang Guangyi’s work as supporting a socialist perspective, leaning on the author’s words as if they present the truth of the art. I fully understand Tang’s desire to flesh out the values and passions of both socialism as a historical and contemporary discourse and of China as complex cultural entity, but this focus becomes overwhelming, encouraging him to repeat unhelpful one-liners from those whose viewpoint is the same as his (as the quote from Orville Schell indicates). Along similar lines, Tang argues too fervently for the value of recognizing and studying mainstream culture, condemning those who seek out the images “one will not find on television,” the addressing of “the spectrum of life the government usually stakes off as taboo: prostitution, bureaucratic corruption, rural protests against land expropriation, the impoverished elderly and mentally handicapped, a compromised education system, religious fervor, homosexuality, and just sexuality period” – these words are from work by Abé Markus Nornes, Tang’s colleague at Michigan (203). While praising Nornes’ “astute on-site observations,” Tang actually is quite critical, branding his work as yet another example of the dissidence hypothesis, a “constant search for any and all signs of unrest and discontent, for the purpose of convincing us that the underground and the suppressed tell about the real China” that is fundamentally misguided (204). Although I agree that excessive focus on dissidence can be both self-comforting and misleading, Tang comes very close to telling us that we should ignore any signs of unrest and discontent, and focus on happy mainstream productions—exactly the opposite of what he suggests for our engagement with American culture, where he finds mainstream culture to be dead wrong. And Tang does not recognize or interpret the fact that not only Westerners, but Chinese scholars in and out of China also are interested in dissident culture.

I find a similar tone in the fascinating novel In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (2014), which takes as a theme the emotional alienation of deep cross-cultural interactions, in this case between third and first worlds. As a topic of fictional exploration—even one that is to some extent autobiographical—the bitter, slow-burning fury that can result from cultural loss and dislocation brings a thought-provoking intensity to the narrative. As I reflected on both the novel and the anger lacing Tang’s book, I wondered if they suggest the limits of a cosmopolitan and global vision of cultural interaction and understanding. Cultural consolidation around local values and rejection of the other appear to be strong under globalization all over the world. Perhaps Tang’s anger, and his willingness to express it so pungently in an academic book, should make us wonder if we have overestimated the possibilities for true cross-cultural understanding. Perhaps the global imaginary of a seamless world that respects difference has failed to recognize that culture demands some degree of allegiance, and when confronted, the sense that one’s culture is “right” and that outsiders cannot possibly understand it is difficult to avoid. Perhaps our hopeful cosmopolitan vision has wantonly ignored the rootedness of human beings, their commitment to certain views of their lives in the world, and their desire to sustain their way of life, rejecting other narratives. If that is true, then it may be best to ignore the tone of Tang’s writing and focus on the scholarly analysis, or to retreat to generosity and admit that indeed, we don’t understand China and appreciate his help. Or, more abstractly, maybe we should simply accept the limits his book indirectly expresses and recognize that more or less, we are all in the same boat.

Wendy Larson
University of Oregon


[1] The first film was followed by Independence Day: Resurgence in 2016, also directed by Emmerich. Both films have been reviewed critically.

[2] The short review can be read online at