Chinese Intellectuals in Yang Fudong

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 25 Pages

Art - Art Theory, General


Chinese Intellectuals in Yang Fudong’s Work — a Western View Imagine a group of seven young and stylish people wandering in the misty mountain landscape of Huangshan. Hear a voice - over lamenting, ‘ I’m destined to lose him . Our constellations do not match’.

Consider a fashionable city youth and a country girl in a traditional fishing boat on a reed-fringed lake sadly in love. Listen to the popular tune of the Chinese folk song Liu Lan:’ .. .tears in eyes flowing like pearls, in the light of sunset, the Liulan girl stands still on the boat’.

Watch two people in love on the beach, in a beach buggy, on a white horse. Turn around the screen and see them struggling for survival on a shipwrecked raft in the rolling sea. Listen to the sentimental music of Jing Wang played by solo musicians elegantly dressed in Western clothes on rocks against the rolling Yellow Sea.

These and other films and videos by the Chinese artist Yang Fudong : Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 1 (2003, black and white film in 35mm), Liu Lan (2003, 35mm transferred to DVD) and Close to the Sea (2004, 10-screen video installation) are presented in the circuit of international shows like Dokumenta XI, the 50thVenice Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial , or in exhibitions like Time Zones: Recent Film and Video at Tate Modern. Yang Fudong’s works have also become known as part of group exhibitions of Chinese artists like Alors la Chine? (Paris Centre Pompidou, 2003) and China Now ( 2004, New York, MoMA, Gramercy Theatre) or, more specifically of Shanghai artists, like Camera/Yingshi ( Paris 2003), Light as Fuck, Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004 (Oslo 2004) and Shanghai Modern ( Munich 2004/2005).

The artist was born in Beijing 1971, studied oil painting and graduated in 1995 from the China Academy of Arts ( former Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou, and lives and works in Shanghai. In 1999 he exhibited oil paintings and photography in Shanghai and in the same year participated in two events abroad: The Love Tokyo Festival in Japan and the Hanover Film Festival in Germany. A look at his gallery’s website would seem to suggest that participations abroad may be more numerous than the exhibitions in China which are mainly limited to Shanghai and Beijing.[1] However, in China many events happen in small, non-institutional places, leaving few traces.

Yang Fudong’s spectators in the West are the cosmopolitan art audience who visit international exhibitions and, in China, most likely the urban proto-middle class which grew up in the semi-market environment of the past 15 years.[2] When interviewed by American journalists about his viewers, Yang Fudong has stated that Western art collectors failed to comprehend the deep confidence Chinese artists have in their own culture. ‘They think we are doing our work for them. We’re not.

We’re doing it for China.’[3] His statement is reinforced by the fact that there is far more information on Yang Fudong to be found on Chinese Internet sites than on Western ones which is further evidence of the informal structures that play an important role in China.

While the situation of the intellectual is one of the main themes of Yang Fudong’s work his target audience is the sophisticated and culturally literate[4] and his art by no means ‘cultural fast food for the West’.[5] Yang Fudong is represented together with twenty-five other Chinese artists by Shanghart, owned by a Swiss national .[6] The fact that many galleries in Beijing and Shanghai are owned by Westerners is in my opinion less the consequence of global capitalism or of a postcolonial situation than a consequence of the historical development in the cultural field which I would like to sketch briefly, taking as an example Yang Fudong’s art school, Zhejiang Academy of Arts in Hangzhou.

The Academy , today endowed with one of the most modern departments of video and film art, the was founded in 1928 by Lin Fengmian following the German Bauhaus model.[7] After 1949 the main cultural discourse in Mainland China, revolutionary art for the masses with a prescribed content had to be followed.[8] That meant that as of then the school was dominated by Socialist Realism. During the Cultural Revolution students and teachers were suspected as ‘formalistic’, some were tortured to death. The school was forced to close, and only reopened in 1977, the first generation of students comprising some of the most promising talents like Gu Wenda and Huang Yongping, In the early 1980s in the course of a ‘Campaign against Spiritual Pollution’ exhibitions were ordered closed because of ‘liberalization tendencies’. What Chinese considered as one of the most liberal periods of Chinese cultural life since 1949, namely the second half of the 1980s ended with the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th 1989 and the exile of a number of talented artists teaching at the school like Huang Yongping.[9] While this account of the period of the Cultural Revolution may seem somewhat simplistic[10], it nevertheless demonstrates a historical heritage[11] which , together with the actual socio-political situation, are the reasons why national structures are still weak . The Chinese curator Zhang Zhaohui complains that ‘even today, the new art is still half hidden in the underground and the basic foundations are missing’.[12]

After having discussed some institutional aspects, I would like to turn to the one of the main themes of Yang Fudong’s art: it concerns the situation of young intellectuals in contemporary China . In this context it might be worthwhile to look at some of the Mandarin terminology used . Yang Fudong’s very first film, An estranged paradise is about what he calls the xiao wen ren literally the educated young person, the half intellectual, who is part of ‘a group of special people who do not do anything astonishing or remarkable. They may not create masterpieces, but they have their own qualities. ‘[13] In The Seven Intellectuals the Mandarin term for Intellectual is “xian” which was used before 1949 and would be best translated by “scholar”. While the Mandarin equivalent for intellectuals as a (social) class post- 1949 would be “zhi shifen zf’ which comes close to the “intelligentia” in a Soviet context and is the original term employed for the lonely, wounded First Intellectual .

One could assume that either by picturing the Intellectual (in the sense of a social class) as an individual under attack or, in other works, by avoiding the class connotation altogether, Yang Fudong refers to a situation about which Western and Chinese authors agree: namely that today’s Chinese intellectuals, who except during the period of the Cultural Revolution have played a leading role in Chinese history have been pushed to the margins and are seeking an autonomous space of their own.

The most recent sociological research by a Westerner on Chinese Intellectuals is a thorough analysis based on a field study conducted in 1997 by Eva Evasdottir “Obedient Autonomy”.[14] She pictures a fairly uncritical (hence obedient) social class[15] [16] which through the system of guan xi ( personal relationships) and in particular a smart handling of relationships with the central authorities maintains a certain space of freedom ( autonomy). Evasdottir states ‘If social restrictions increase, so do practical opportunities to combine and reinterpret such restrictions’. However, she points out that autonomy in China has nothing to do with the ‘rugged individualism or the anti-government libertarianism ‘ of the West but is the result of the position of the intellectual and the negotiation of that position. 16Traditionally the intellectual’s role was also that of an advisor, and that meant mediation between the state and the masses and involvement in local and national politics.[17]

Chinese critical analysis of the situation of Chinese Intellectuals emphasizes the marginality or even breakdown of a social class. Wang Hui, one of China’s most influential public scholars, and current editor of Dushu [Reading], considers that the dramatic social changes after 1989 have ‘collapsed the category of the intellectual altogether and with a higher degree of division of labour divided them into experts, scholars, managers and technocrats. The relentless process of stratification in Chinese society has brought about a loss of spirit and silence of intellectuals on social conditions which is in stark contrast to the new enlightenment intellectuals of the early 1980s’.[18] Zhang Xudong, agrees that today’s intellectual is powerless. He argues that while Marxism remains the main discourse of modernity, new forms of material life, in particular capitalism are created. At the same time the oppressiveness of the Chinese state is paralleled by an ‘unprecedented freedom and anarchism in other fields. In this situation, the Chinese Communist party becomes a giant interest group- CCP.Inc- and the communist government and the market environment have effected a corporate style merger.’[19]


[1] www.shanghart.com

[2] Zhang Zudong , ’Nationalism, Mass Culture, and Intellectual Strategies in Post-Tiananmen China in Zhang Zudong (ed) Whither China ? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, Duke University Press, London, 2001, p.313

[3] Perlez, ‘Casting a fresh eye on China with Computer not Ink Brush’ , New York Times, December 3,2003 on www.shanghart.com

[4] This is also the main gallery audience in the western context as has been demonstrated in sociological research by Bourdieu The Love of Art referred to in Stallabrass, Julian, Art Incorporated, The Story of Contemporary Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p.115

[5] Gu Zhenqing in a roundtable discussion where there was considerable criticism and scepticism about the relationship between Chinese artists and the West. See Wu Hung: Experimental Art and Experimental Exhibitions, Wu Hung (ed.) Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future, Between East and West, New Media, Hong Kong, 2001, p.133

[6] www.yangfudong.com

[7] Xu Jiang, ‘The misreading of Life’, Shanghai Modern 1919-1945, exhibition catalogue, Munich- Kiel, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern —Ruit 2004, p.77

[8] The hegemonic discourse is based on Mao Tse —Tung’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May1942, Selected Works of Mao Tse Tung, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1977, Volume III p.69 ff. As to the content of art, Zhou Yang stated in a keynote address to the National Congress of Literature and Art Workers in1949 ‘We highly respect and wish to learn from what is useful from the fine heritage of all native and foreign traditional forms, especially from Soviet socialist literature and art.’ Notice the emphasis on traditional which led to an exclusion of Western Modernism and, beyond that, a widespread criticism of ‘bourgeois formalism’ of everything which fell outside the canon of ‘ traditional forms’. Quoted by Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p.131

[9] Zheng Shengtian,’ Modern Chinese Art and the Zhejiang Academy in Hangzhou’ , China Avantgarde, Exhibition Catalogue, Berlin, Braus, Berlin 1992 p.56

[10] One of the icons of the Cultural Revolution Chairman Mao Goes To Anyuan, a western style oil painting was produced in 1969 by students of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. See:Yan Shenchen,’Political Inspiration in Art Production: Three Oil Paintings depicting Mao Zedong During the Cultural Revolution’ in Yishu, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art., August 2002, Taipei, p.53

[11] While I do agree with Jameson that we need a non ‘Euclidean geometry’ to conceptualise the intellectual and cultural situating of China, I would argue that it was not necessarily the impact of the revolutionary hegemony as such but the totalitarian regimes which ensued which caused the destruction of intellectual conditions under which artistic creation is possible. See: Liu Kang,’ Is there an alternative to capitalist globalization? The debate about modernity in China’ in Jameson,Fredric /Miyoshi Masao (eds.), The Cultures of Globalization, Duke University Press, London, 1998, p.167. On the need of Art to be free from authority, dictation and traces of order from above: Breton, Rivera and Trotsky, ’Towards a Free Revolutionary Art ‘in Harrison/Wood: Art in Theory ,Blackwell, Oxford 2003 p.532 ff.

[12] Zhang Zhaohui,’ Where do we depart to?’ on www.china-gallery.com

[13] Zhang, Yaxuan, ’ Interview with Yang Fudong,’ Yishu, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, September 2004, Taipei, p.81-91

[14] Evasdottir, Erika E. S., Obedient autonomy : Chinese intellectuals and the achievement of orderly life , UBC Press, Vancouver , 2004. This study is based on observation and interviews of 332 archeologists in 1997

[15] This is understandable since Evasdottir deals with one discipline: archeology

[16] ibid.p.7 f

[17] ibid.p.155

[18] Wang Hui, ’Contemporary Chinese Thought and Modernity’ , Huters, Theodore (ed.) China’s New Order, Society, Politics and Economy in Transition, Cambridge (Mass) Harvard University Press, 2003 p.168

[19] Zhang Zudong, ’The making of the Post-Tiananmen Intellectual Field: A Critical Overview’ inZhang Zudong (ed) Whither China ? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, Duke University Press, London , 2001,p.1-7


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University of London – Courtauld Institute of Art
Video Photographie Intellektuelle in China



Title: Chinese Intellectuals in Yang Fudong