Drawing from Life: Sketching and
Socialist Realism in the People’s Republic of China

By Christine I. Ho

Reviewed by Alfreda Murck

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2021)

Christine I. Ho. Drawing from Life: Sketching and Socialist Realism in the People’s Republic of China Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020. 308 pp. 83 color illustrations. ISBN 9780520309623 (cloth)

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, artists and arts administrators had the challenge of reworking both the methods and the content of art making. Their goal was to create a modern form of art appropriate for the new socialist China. How could artists be made cultural workers for the promotion of socialism? Could attitudes be molded so that art could serve the new socialist state?

Christine I. Ho provides an account of the seventeen-year effort, from 1949 to the eve of the Cultural Revolution, to forge a socialist-realist style of drawing and painting. The book is organized in seven chapters divided into two parts, plus an introduction and epilogue.

The book’s main theme is the importance of “mass sketching” that took teachers and students out of the art academies to record the common people, the masses. In Chinese Communist rhetoric, “mass” or “the masses” (群众) refers to the people—who were, at least in theory, the arbiters of all policy. Mao Zedong insisted that the Communist Party had to rely on the masses for its authority and had to learn from them. As a way to learn from peasants and workers, mass sketching was an important tool of political education. It transformed how painting was created and how China was pictured.

The “politics of recognition” is a second central theme of the book. Painters were tasked with making formerly unrepresented subjects—most importantly, peasants and workers—visible in painting. To reverse long-held prejudices against those who worked with their hands, faculty and students strove to depict peasants and workers with a sense of dignity.

Chapter 1, “Within the Studio: Drawing Pedagogy, European-Soviet Transnationalism, and Academic Realism,” takes us through the contentious politics of establishing a unified curriculum for art schools. In 1949 Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿 (1895–1953) was appointed president of the new Central Academy of Fine Arts. Having studied in France from 1919 to 1927, Xu was deeply committed to Beaux Arts training. He insisted that all students learn to sketch in charcoal from live models and from the plaster casts that had been shipped from Europe. To the consternation of teachers of Chinese brush painting, Xu eliminated the practice of copying old masters, the traditional way that painters had learned their craft. In 1953, the art academies adopted the Soviet Chistiakov system, which required drawing in graphite pencil following step-by-step instructions. Compared to charcoal, the graphite technique was more demanding; the precision of the lines inspired many to praise graphite drawing as scientific and analytical.

To apply what they had learned in the studio, faculty and students went on sketching tours. Destinations included countryside villages, famous scenery, construction projects, sites of Chinese Communist Party history, and international travel. Each destination figures in a subsequent chapter.

Wang Shikuo, The Bloodstained Shirt. Source: Sohu

Chapter 2, ”Going into Life: The Anti-Academic Impulse, Social Investigation, and the Peasant Portrait,” begins with the merger of two Beijing art schools to form the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The two faculties embraced different approaches. Those from National Beiping Academy were led by Xu Beihong, who, as noted in chapter one, favored Beaux Arts studio drawing. The head of the Lu Xun Art Academy, which was founded in the revolutionary crucible of Yan’an, instead advocated community involvement. The latter approach won out; artists traveled to the countryside to document political reforms. Wang Shikuo 王式廓 (1911-1973) and his remarkable depiction of land adjudication exemplifies the genre. The Bloodstained Shirt (血衣) depicts peasants accusing an exploitative landlord, who cowers before the rural crowd. A distraught young woman holds up a key piece of evidence, the bloodied shirt of the title. Wang Shikuo’s working process was held up as a model: plan the composition with dozens of sketches, including studies of studio models in desired poses; for further research and conceptualization, go to the countryside to observe and sketch actual peasants. As a revolutionary history painting, the finished work—over eleven feet wide—was unusual in its medium of charcoal on canvas.

The politics of traditional Chinese media are at the core of chapter 3, “A Socialist Huang Gongwang: Between Brushstroke and Wash, between Brush-and-Ink and Watercolor Sketching.” Huang Gongwang 黃公望 was a Daoist geomancer and master of ink painting in the fourteenth century. After he retired to the Fuchun Mountains near Hangzhou, he painted a long handscroll for his Daoist friend, Wuyi. In later centuries, artists so often copied his inspired landscape that the style became ossified. In the 1950s, art administrators want to reform traditional brush-and-ink painting, which was considered elitist and divorced from the realities of life. They encouraged landscape painters to work in watercolors, which were used world-wide and had less ideological baggage. Li Keran 李可染 (1907–1989) and others successfully merged brushstrokes with watercolors, a combination that blurred distinctions between the two mediums. In chapters 5 and 6, we learn that other media further complicated art production, and in 1962 painters and critics were still debating the problem of what constituted “national form.”

“Sketching from life” (写生) traditionally referred to meticulous colorful depictions of birds and flowers. Li Keran saw it as an updated version of Huang Gongwang’s brush-and-ink painting. The term xiesheng was soon appropriated as an equivalent to European plein air sketching.

Chapter 4, “Going into the Construction Landscape: Sketching Labor and Panoramas of the Maoist Technological Sublime,” features dramatic paintings by the Cantonese artist Li Xiongcai 黎雄才 (1910–2001). Li studied with Lingnan masters Gao Jianfu 高剑父 and Gao Qifeng 高奇峰 and was adept at lending majesty to hydroelectric and industrial compounds. Ho analyzes Li Xiongcai’s drawings of the dikes and drainage that were engineered in Wuhan following three months of disastrous flooding in 1954. His resulting long handscroll, Flood Prevention in Wuhan (武汉防汛图), won prizes for setting a precedent for socialist realism. Ho describes the parallels between panoramic handscrolls and photography; from 1954, closer contact with Soviet artists helped Chinese improve technique and equipment for panoramic photography.

Chapter 5, “Going into Revolutionary History: Military Landscape, Authenticity, and the Impressionism Salons,” deals with color and Western painting styles as well as how artists shaped a vision of revolutionary history. In 1955, artists were invited to join a tour organized by the August First Film Studio (August first being the day of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, which funded the trip). The mission was to make the first narrative film on the Chinese Communist Party’s devastating retreat of 1934–1935, called the Long March. One of the invitees was the painter Dong Xiwen 董希文 (1914–1973). Dong was already famous for The Founding of a Nation (开国大典), which pictures Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Gate inaugurating the PRC. Ho illustrates three small oil sketches and two gouache studies that show Dong’s brilliant command of color and light. Artists were charged with authentically depicting Long March events that they had not witnessed, even as those events were becoming mythologized in literature, film, and radio programs. Dong’s contribution was a nighttime painting, The Red Army Crosses the Grasslands (红军过草地), which emphasizes the suffering of the exhausted and wounded troops. Although some condemned the large canvas for its darkness, and thus an implied negativity, Ho reminds us that the audience would have been familiar with the narrative of extreme sacrifice that led to a triumphant conclusion.

Dong Xiwen, The Red Army Crosses the Grassland. Source: Baike.

Ho lays out the debates over Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and their relationships to concepts of realism. Arts administrators cast Impressionism and Post-impressionism as embodying decadent individualism and lacking in heroic collectivity. Some faculty worried that plein air painting, with its emphasis on natural light and color, was inappropriate for socialist realism: it would undermine studio training and compromise academic rules. Nonetheless, Dong Xiwen and Jin Ye 金冶 (1913–2003) both published important essays on color theory. Discussing the expressive and emotive power of color, Dong structured his essay with an impressive commentary on Western artists’ use of color from Leonardo da Vinci to Claude Monet.

In chapter 6, “Going into the World: The Artist as Diplomat,” Ho addresses Chinese artists being sent on exchanges to foreign countries, including the Soviet Union, Poland, France, and England. In 1957, a Chinese delegation led by Fu Baoshi 傅抱石 (1904–1965) visited Czechoslovakia and Romania for three months. In 1957, Li Keran and Guan Liang 关良 traveled to East Germany. Shi Lu 石鲁 went to India and Egypt. Art organizations in those countries reciprocated by sending delegations to China. While visiting China in 1953–54, Polish painter Aleksander Kobzdej adopted brush and ink.  Japanese ink painters Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi exhibited their painted panels of Hiroshima in Beijing. Protocol required that artists give public talks and painting demonstrations, meet with fellow artists, and present artworks to their hosts. They all exhibited their work after returning home, making New China a painting subject in foreign countries.

One of the goals of these international sketching tours was to find a unified vision of transnational socialist realism. Ivan Gronsky defined socialist realism as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Ilya Repin “put at the service of the working class.” But that kind of international socialist realism—heavy on impasto oil paint—was in tension with Chinese “national form.” And Chinese artists found it difficult to avoid interpretations informed by personality, experience, and attitudes.

Chapter 7, “In Search of Revolutionary Romanticism: Great Famine and the Collective Landscape of New China,” takes us into the 1960s. After the break with the Soviet Union in 1960, Mao charged painters to drop socialist realism and instead to infuse their paintings with “revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.” Fu Baoshi led a group of thirteen artists from the Jiangsu Academy on a three month sketching tour to revolutionary sites, with a focus on the Long March. The man-made famine of 1958–1960 was still devastating the countryside. Painters had become expert at portraying peasants as noble victims and heroes, but on the 1960 sketching tour, when painters witnessed extreme poverty, starvation, and corpses, no one dared include those brutal realities in their art. In stark contrast to Wang Shikuo’s peasant-populated The Bloodstained Shirt, artists were asked to depict important buildings and landmarks without figures and to imbue the inanimate structures with “exalted significance.”

Li Keran’s Ten Thousand Crimsoned Hills.

Ho offers two examples of paintings with revolutionary fervor and melodrama, both depictions of Red Crag Village near Chongqing. Red Crag Village was the southern base of the CCP’s Secretariat; it had been a military center during the Sino-Japanese War and a former residence of Premier Zhou Enlai. One of the eldest painters on the tour, Qian Songyan 錢松岩 (1899–1985) painted Red Crag (红岩), featured on the book’s dust jacket. The key building, sheltered by an ancient tree, stands atop an exaggerated bluff in blood-red. Even more intensely red is Li Keran’s cinnabar pigment for Ten Thousand Crimsoned Hills (万山红遍). Ho posits that the red landscape became “a celebration of revolutionary death.” She doesn’t explicitly say so, but a subtext of the unnaturally blood-red coloration may have encompassed the trauma of seeing starvation during Mao’s famine (and the persecution of artists’ families and friends).

The goals of mass sketching included balancing technical discipline learned through academic pedagogies with life experience; depicting peasants and workers sympathetically as heroic victims and agents in history; and forging a sense of equality with the peasants, workers, and soldiers. The mass sketching movement, which had helped develop socialist realist styles for revolutionary China, ended in 1966. Hardline Red Guard publications railed against the training trips as state-funded junkets. Ho concludes that ultimately mass sketching failed to achieve the goal of creating a unified socialist realist style, and artists failed to connect to the peasants, workers, and soldiers whom they were to serve.

Finding any faults in this illuminating study is challenging, but I’ll raise three issues. The first is a quibble. In a painting of 1956, Li Keran depicted trees growing on the Tang dynasty Buddha at Leshan, Sichuan. Ho comments that trees “impossibly spring” from the Buddha’s lap. But Li Keran was true to his subject: early photographs show substantial trees flourishing in the fertile lap of the monumental figure, which, although seated, is as tall as a twenty-story building. A more serious issue is the neglect of Dunhuang. The Buddhist caves are mentioned multiple times as an art trip destination. But Dunhuang is not in the index, and although many viewed the miles of colorful murals as quintessentially Chinese, no mention is made of the impact of those paintings on generations of Chinese artists. Third, readers will discover that the author’s intricate rhetoric at times obscures her arguments; nonetheless, parsing the occasional dense passage rewards the effort.

With attention to the variety of artists’ formative experiences, Cristine I. Ho has written a sensitive account of the critical role of mass sketching in the kaleidoscopic history of art academies from 1949 to 1966. She has provided background on Republican-era artistic developments that impacted art theory and practice in the PRC and used extensive European and Soviet artistic theories to analyze Chinese modern art. Having thoroughly examined the art works under discussion, she has crafted descriptions that are instructive, imaginative, and a pleasure to read. Her study reveals the complexity of the ideological and aesthetic struggles among dozens of players. She shows how artists brought variety and creativity to the project of negotiating fresh form and content for a new era.

Alfreda Murck
Independent Scholar