Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde:
The Modern Woodcut Movement

By Xiaobing Tang

Reviewed by James Flath
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2009)

Xiaobing Tang.  Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 318 pp. ISBN-978-0-520-24909-7 (cloth)

Xiaobing Tang.
Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement 
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 318 pp. ISBN-978-0-520-24909-7 (cloth)

Xiaobing Tang has written the definitive volume on the critically important but poorly understood modern Chinese Woodcut Movement. Although the focus of Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde is on woodcuts, the scope of the work is actually much broader. The first two chapters touch on China’s modern intellectual history, reaching back to the New Culture movement, revisiting earlier debates over the nature of modern artistic expression, and reconstructing the aesthetic and political dynamics of China’s earliest art academies. These two chapters are especially useful, but not merely as necessary background studies for the emergence of the woodcut movement; they address the origin of the avant-garde movement of which the woodcut movement was a part, and in doing so provide a thorough and insightful history of the developments in the Chinese art scene during the late-1920s. This in itself is an important contribution since there are few comparable studies of this period. When the actual woodcut movement appears in chapter 3 the reader is well prepared for the developments after 1928 when Lu Xun and his associates introduce the genre to China and continue to foster its development through the early 1930s. Although the woodcut movement and its populist credentials were already established by 1932, the author identifies the First Shanghai War that tore through the city at the beginning of that year as another incident critical to the formation of the consciousness and aesthetic sense of woodcut artists like Hu Yichuan. The battles, Tang notes, not only enflamed the indignation of the population but also radicalized the art community, with woodcut groups like MK Woodcut Research Society and later the Wooden Bell Woodcut Research Society taking the leading role in re-conceptualizing the politics and populist orientation of art. Woodcut exhibitions would begin to appear in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beiping, and Tianjin over the next few years, with new woodcut societies emerging in Beiping-Tianjin and Guangzhou. But Tang suggests that it was not until the National Joint Woodcut Exhibition, which opened on January 1, 1935, that the movement had gone national.

At this point in Tang’s narrative, questions arise about the movement’s reception outside of the arts community. Tang argues that the woodcut movement can be considered avant-garde because it presented a “radical critique of art as an institution or social subsystem, and it aimed at reintegrating art into the praxis of life” (p. 3). Aiming is one thing, but did it hit its mark? There is no question that the Woodcut Movement comprised a radical critique of art, but in regard to popularization the record is less convincing. We are told that the first National Joint Woodcut Exhibition toured Jinan, Nanjing, and Hankou but are left uncertain as to the impact on the local populace. For Taiyuan we have only Tang Ke’s 1956 recollection that “many citizens of that landlocked city were just as excited to have their first encounter with such a massive show of modern art” (p. 173). In Shanghai, the one place where a populist artist might have hoped to find positive reception, we learn that exhibition organizers were deeply disappointed by the failure to attract a broader audience (p. 175). Likewise the Storm Society and Chinese Society of Independent Artists reported trouble in attracting people to exhibitions, and “found public indifference an awkward situation to deal with.” Tang recognizes that this was a problem but retreats to the position that the National Joint Woodcut Exhibition cemented the movement’s populist orientation and affirmed representational realism as the preferred form (p. 179).

But is popularity important? For many artists of the time, it was not; however, as Tang stresses throughout this book, the Woodcut Movement’s mandate was to create a “visual Esperanto” that would not only represent the subalterns but involve them in a dialogue on art. Furthermore, did this impoverished and politically oppressed group have the resources necessary to make the connection with a mass audience? Tang, for example, shows that in 1934 the Shanghai-based Modern Prints initially printed a run of 500 but owing to technical problems subsequent issues were limited to only fifty copies each. By 1936 we begin to see more concentrated efforts to exhibit prints outside of major cities, and improved printing techniques permitted Field of Woodcuts to print runs of 500 before production was finally cut off by the war. That certainly suggests progress, but given their limitations one has to question whether they ever accomplished their goal of popularization. Tang surely recognizes the limitations of the movement, but then what were the consequences of those limitations? That is a significant question because if the woodcut movement had made a popular breakthrough then one would have to ask why key members of this group, including Jiang Feng and Hu Yichuan, would change their approach to realism after moving to the revolutionary base of Yan’an during the war. If, though, we have a better understanding of the Woodcut Movement’s pre-war limitations, then we are better prepared to understand later admissions that the very artistic principles that had made their work cutting edge in the arts community also made it problematic when presented to the “masses.”[1]

Was the subsequent adoption of a less controversial form of woodcut simply mandated by the communist leadership, or was it developed independently by the artists in recognition of past failings? Answering this question, and thus understanding the next stage of China’s artistic development depends on a clear understanding of the Woodcut Movement’s pre-war reception, and that is something that I hope a future study will address.

Fig.1: Li Hua's woodcut Roar China!

Fig.1: Li Hua’s woodcut Roar China!

All that aside, this is a rich and beautifully crafted book that not only documents a vital phase in China’s modern culture, but calls on its readers to rethink visuality and the nature of revolution and revolutionary art. Tang’s conclusion reiterates a point that he alludes to at several points in the book–the “aural” quality of the Woodcut Movement. The author’s treatment of graphic art and literature is competent throughout the book, but his analysis of Li Hua’s Roar, China! (fig. 1) is especially acute. The iconic image of the naked and blindfolded man struggling against his bonds, Tang suggests, does not metaphorically represent China, but calls–or in fact screams it into being by awakening and empowering its citizens through an expressiveness that goes beyond the visual and compels to viewer to respond in kind. That, in a nutshell, is what the Woodcut Movement was all about, and in bringing the full scope of the movement to light Xiaobing Tang moves the study of modern Chinese art ahead one giant step. James Flath

James Flath
University of Western Ontario


[1] See, for example, Hu Yichuan, in Jiefang ribao (Jan., 1944), cited in David Holm, Art and Ideology During the Yan’an Period, 1937-1945 Ph. d. diss. Oxford University, 1979.