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Chinese art: Modern and contemporary

Last Updated: 20-Jul-2015

This guide is designed to provide an introduction to the literature of modern and contemporary Chinese art.  It also presents a selection of key primary source holdings in modern and contemporary Chinese art in the Stanford University Libraries.


This guide focuses on modern and contemporary Chinese art and visual culture, roughly from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day (for a discussion of pre-nineteenth century Chinese art, see the Chinese art: traditional guide). “China” is defined broadly, including art from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora.  Art historians have typically designated the period of modern Chinese art as beginning with the intense and frequent Western contact following the first and second Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), peaking during the Republican period (1911-1949), and continuing through the Maoist years (1949-1976). Contemporary Chinese art, on the other hand, is generally understood as art produced during the Reform Era, the period following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and China’s subsequent turn to a market economy.  Since the issues and concerns of these periods, given their distinct historical contexts, are widely divergent yet interlinked, focused studies in this guide has been divided into these two periods, and the selected texts are meant to reflect the major themes in addition to developing areas of study.  For the modern period, these include urban visual culture, nationalism and transnationalism, and political ideology, while for contemporary art, issues span new media, the emergent avant-garde, identity, commercialization, and globalization.

Because the field of study is newly emergent, writing on contemporary Chinese art can be uneven in quality and occasionally limited recourse is made to historically motivated contextualization and interpretation.  The section on focused studies of contemporary art emphasizes the major writers, academics, and players that have structured understandings of the contemporary arts scene, with a caveat that, given the rapidly changing circumstances of both the Chinese art market and art world, some texts may be more precise and faithful than others.  “Source Texts” are writings and interviews by artists and curators in English; “Primary Sources” highlight works by artists in the library collections.

This guide was created by Christine Ho, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History in the Department of Art & Art History, and Hui-Chi Lo, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Art History in the Department of Art & Art History.


Introductory texts

New York : Guggenheim Museum : Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, c1998.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .A53 1998 F
Covering the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the late 1990s, the twelve essays of this catalogue accompanying a watershed Guggenheim Museum exhibition present focused examinations of the late-nineteenth century Shanghai School of painters, modern calligraphy, the spread of Western-style painting instruction, the modern woodblock print movement, Chinese Socialist Realism, and several other topics.  The catalog is strongest in material from the early twentieth century to the period following the Cultural Revolution; one of the most fascinating catalog essays discusses commercial book design in relation to Chinese modernization campaigns.  As a whole, the catalog tends to center around a narrative focused on painting; the last section on the eighties and nineties focuses on modern ink painters at the exclusion of the avant-garde exhibitions and experiments that were occurring at the same time.
Berkeley, Calif. : University of California Press, c1996.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .S79 1996 F
With personal knowledge of war-torn China during the 1940s, Michael Sullivan is one of the early pioneers in the study of modern Chinese art.  This comprehensive survey is the result of artist interviews and relationships over a long period, and is solidly situated in the twentieth century.  Periodized into the late Qing dynasty to the early Republican period (1900-1937), the war years (1937-1949), the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic of China (1949-1976), and the Reform Era (1979 onward), the book also treats other major themes, such as other media and artists of the diaspora, and contains an extensive index of artists.  The book provides a wealth of information, but categorizations and judgments of value can seem arbitrary, while the narrative structure is very loosely chronological.  Sullivan’s characterizations of the many messy threads that comprise modern Chinese art, however, have long stood as the definitive survey.
Milano : Charta, c2010.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .L535 2010
This monumental survey of twentieth-century Chinese art is written by a professor at the prestigious China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Organized chronologically, beginning in the period following the Opium War and ending in the twenty-first century, the book is exceptionally lengthy with excellent illustrations and is meant to be used a reference text. Unlike the surveys by Andrews and Sullivan, this introductory text was written with avant-garde developments in mind and provides a unique and different perspective on the canonical works of modern and contemporary Chinese art.  It is therefore unfortunate that the book suffers overall from an uneven and erratically edited translation, rendering large sections unreadable. Nonetheless, complemented with another survey text, the book is still helpful in understanding various movements within the larger contexts and questions of modern Chinese art.
Honolulu : University of Hawaii Press, c1998.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7260 .C55 1998
This is a difficult but rewarding introductory text to the study of modern Asian art.  Taking an unusually broad perspective across Asia, Clark draws out the disciplinary and methodological challenges that are presented by discussions of “alternative” modernities. Citing cases from China, Japan, Thailand, India, and Indonesia, he argues that responses to these questions that are not exceptional situations but are phenomena widely experienced across national borders and conditioned by local circumstances and histories.  The book is organized thematically, followed by specific historical cases; the themes begin with Western transfer, neotraditional reactions, categories of artistic identity (aristocrats, plebians, professionals), exhibitions, the avant-garde, nationalism, and end with the contemporary. Chapter 1 is a must-read for any student wishing to think critically about writing of modern art in non-Western contexts.
Berkeley : University of California Press, c2006.
Art & Architecture Library » Reference (non-circulating) » N7348 .S85 2006
This dictionary has entries for approximately 1,800 artists who grew up or were trained in China, including artists working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, America, and Europe. Each entry includes the artist’s name in English and Chinese, birthplace, alternative spellings (which are provided as separate headings, particularly useful for a non-Chinese readers), specialization, and professional affiliations. Much expanded from the appendix of Sullivan’s Art and artists of twentieth-century China, the entries include both key and more minor painters, printmakers, and new media/avant-garde artists.

Focused studies: Modern

Los Angeles, Calif. : Getty Research Institute, c2011.
SAL1&2 (on-campus shelving) » Temporary shelving for Folio materials » TR101 .B78 2011
This is an essential resource for the study of photography in China. Drawing on the Getty’s large collection of early photography, roughly from the mid nineteenth century to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the exhibition catalog is notable for its focus on both Western photographers in China as well as Chinese-born photographers and their associated studios. Both the reproductions and essays by historians and art historians are invaluable, particularly the introductory essay by the editors-curators on photography’s dual status as scientific technology and artistic medium within the Chinese context. English-language publications on photography have mostly focused on Western photographers abroad and tend to be lavishly illustrated with scant critical content. One of the most comprehensive studies to date is by the collector Terry Bennett, who has a projected three-part series on early photography. Two volumes have been published and are extremely useful for their dry empiricism; the first is History of Photography in China, 1842-1860.
Ostfildern-Ruit : Hatje Cantz, c2004.
Green Library » Stacks » N7347 .S48 S53 2004 F
Studies of the visual culture of Shanghai have exploded in the last ten years; the book responsible for interest in urban life and the new Chinese consumer as a cultural contact zone was the literary historian Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945. The Shanghai Modern, 1919-1945 exhibition catalog is a focused yet broadly conceived exploration of the varying facets of expression in the treaty port city as a breeding ground for Chinese modernity, with short, to the point essays on various media such as traditional painting, oil painting, the Woodcut Movement, photography, film, and fashion. Written by a mix of established Western and Chinese contributors, the catalogue also presents several primary sources translated into English for the first time. Although works on Shanghai’s visual culture are too numerous to list here, one of the most recent that takes an intriguingly transnational perspective is Looking Modern: East Asian Visual Culture from Treaty Ports to World War II. Another collection of essays, Chinese Architecture and the Beaux-Arts, focuses on the built environment.
New York : Dept. of Asian Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c2001.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » ND1045 .C48 2001
This conference volume, accompanying the exhibition catalog Between Two Cultures: Late-Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contains several excellent essays, each taking different interpretative tacks to the question of Chinese modernity. Both Julia Andrews and Richard Vinograd’s essays are syncretic conceptual overviews of the major issues in modern painting studies. David Der-wei Wang’s essay, “In the Name of the Real,” introduces a critical debate between two major figures over the role of art under varying political and historical pressures, while Eugene Wang’s essay, “Sketch Conceptualism as Modernist Contingency,” provides an intriguing set of terms to describe the shifting grounds of painting practice. The focus on the specific qualities of traditional media, primarily painting and calligraphy, and their challenges in becoming “modern” are explored in the museum catalog Tracing the Past, Drawing the Future: Master Ink Painters in Twentieth-Century China. John Clark has written prolifically on the subject, and expanded his purview beyond mainland Chinese artists to diasporic artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong; these writings are collected in Modernities of Chinese Art.
Honolulu : Association for Asian Studies : University of Hawai'i Press, c2006.
Art & Architecture Library » See circulation desk for access » ND1045 .W66 2006
Sino-Japanese relations were foundational to the formation of modern art in China. This thematic study of cultural translation and the formulation of a native modernity explores Japanism through the publications, joint exhibitions, and art brokers that demonstrate the relationship’s complicated power dynamics. The book is heavily reliant on textual evidence, and occasionally the writing is arid, but Chapter 2 is especially important, chronicling how Chinese artists took on and rejected Japanese models for writing modern art history. For an older study on the relationship between traditional brush-and-ink painting and nation building, see Ralph Croizier, Art and Revolution in Modern China: The Lingnan (Cantonese) School of Painting, 1906-1951. Another study of modernity through negotiations with the Western encounter from a Japanese perspective is In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modern Art.
Berkeley, Calif. : University of California Press, c2008.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » NE1183.3 .T36 2008
The radicalization of the woodcut medium as a mass art by Chinese Leftists became known as the Woodcut Movement, one of the most significant and influential art movements in twentieth-century China. As a study of the intellectual history and aesthetics of the Woodcut Movement, the book examines its discursive underpinnings: aesthetic education, German expressionism, and the relationship between literary criticism and art production. Primarily textual, Tang’s book is sometimes bogged down with detail and stays too close to its sources; the conclusion, however, provides an acute close reading of a single, canonical print. The cultural history of the woodblock as a folk art from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries is richly developed in The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China. A sophisticated reading of leftist art practices and debates surrounding the relationship between art and the people in roughly the same period can be found in David Holm’s Art and Ideology in Revolutionary China.
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1994.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » ND1045 .A53 1994
This milestone study was the first—in both China and outside—to provide a documented history, through artist interviews and extensive archival research, of the Maoist years in the present-day People’s Republic. An earlier and shorter history that covers a greater variety of media, such as sculpture, is Ellen Johnston Laing’s The Winking Owl: Art in the People's Republic of China. Andrews’ book is written chronologically, beginning before Liberation in 1949 and stopping a few years after the Cultural Revolution. Following the impact of arts policies and institutional changes on printmakers, oil, and ink painters, she gives extensive background for internal political struggles and their immediate impact on artists. The book also emphasizes formal analysis of the works produced; one of the strongest passages in Chapter 5 describes the process of creating a monumental state painting. For the various aspects of revolutionary culture, Chang-tai Hung’s Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic covers history painting, architecture, parades, and popular prints in extensive archival detail. This book draws upon comparative political analysis to develop the dynamics of power and state ideology intrinsic to the subject, but the method unfortunately tends to flatten the central works as mere instruments of political power.
New York : Asia Society ; New Haven [Conn.] : In association with Yale University Press, c2008.
Art & Architecture Library » See circulation desk for access » N7345 .C4548 2008 F
Spanning a wide variety of media, including oil and ink paintings, posters, and designed objects, this exhibition catalog illustrates works from the early Maoist years and the Cultural Revolution period. Several are published in high quality reproduction for the first time. The production of propaganda posters, in the chapter by Shen Kuiyi, as well as the history of the creation of the underground No Name Group in the essay by Gao Minglu, are particularly worth reading. Unfortunately the analytical apparatus and the depth of the sources are at times lacking, but the catalog also contains several translations of important speeches and recollections of personal experiences by art historians and artists that point to more avenues of research. An excellent book focusing on the aesthetics of this period, and unusually organized by alternating between personal reminiscence and historical analysis, is Wu Hung’s Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space.
Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1995.
Green Library » Stacks » JQ1512 .Z13 P85 1995 F
Both collector and historian, Stefan Landsberger has published widely on propaganda posters from the early People’s Republic to the present day. Illustrated with posters from Landsberger’s own collection, this catalog presents thorough translations of the poster’s content and an informative introductory essay. The wealth of information on political indoctrination, social campaigns, and other modernization efforts underlying each poster edition is indispensable to understanding the enormous body of posters and their formal properties. Other excellent essays on the propaganda poster, particularly the introductory essay by Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald, are available in Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution.

Focused studies: contemporary

Hong Kong : Timezone 8, 2003.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .K67 2003
This book examines emergent arts circles and the first generation of artists during the eighties Reform Era, prior to the ascendant art market that characterizes the Chinese arts scene of the nineties. The first half of the book surveys changes in institutional infrastructure, arts policy, encounters with European and American translations and postmodern movements, and outlines major groups and exhibitions, while the second section moves through case studies of several canonical works, primarily paintings. As the title implies, Köppel-Yang reads the works as a set of signs that are embedded within larger discursive systems and relationships to self-fashioning and identity. The first section is well worth reading in its entirety, and, whether or not one agrees with her analyses of specific works, the case studies are sensitive to artists’ positions and their larger political and social responsibilities. An alternative and fascinating reading of Luo Zhongli’s Father painting can be found in Eugene Wang’s essay, “Anxiety of Portraiture: Quest For/Questioning Ancestral Icons in Post-Mao China,” in Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theorectical Interventions and Cultural Critique.
New York : Columbia University Press, c1999.
Green Library » Stacks » DS777.6 .B37 1999
Not strictly an art historical study, In the Red is a compendium of essays by an eminent sinologist/cultural critic who has been a China observer for decades and often written on art-related subjects. Barmé’s book, which straddles an intriguing line between popular and academic writing, centers on nineties popular culture, including literature, advertising, marketing, and urban consumption. Vigorously composed as a critique of what Barme views as the hypocritical and often mutually sustaining relationship between intellectuals and the state, Chapter 8 of the book explores artists, unofficial exhibitions, and the resulting cultural capital within a global art market. A similar cultural history of China during the eighties is Jing Wang’s High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng's China, which remains a classic of the field and necessary reading for understanding contemporary China.
Updated ed. [China] : Timezone 8 ; [New York] : Distributed by DAP in North America, [2008?]
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » ND1048 .S65 2008
The curator and art critic Karen Smith’s close personal experience with the nine artists profiled in Nine Lives results in a recently revised book that has rich biographical texture. Now high-profile and highly successful, each of the selected artists developed their careers during the eighties and nineties. Divided into roughly three thematic sections, Wang Guangyi, Geng Jianyi, and Fang Lijun represent the “pop” artists; Gu Dexin, Li Shan, and Zhang Xiaogang as the postsocialist “alternative” response; and Xu Bing, Zhang Peili, and Wang Jianwei as the new media experimenters. While the writing is engaging and based on extensive interviews with the artists, it is strongest as brief introductions to the artists and their careers, and is less substantive as analysis and contextualization of the contemporary international art world. Another important exhibition curated by Smith, who has been instrumental in introducing Chinese contemporary art to European venues, is The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China.
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press ; London : In association with China Art Foundation, c2011.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .G29 2011
Gao Minglu was and continues to be important figure in the contemporary art world as critic, teacher, and curator. This book attempts to define a Chinese avant-garde by tracking its formation at three different moments: the beginnings in the early twentieth century and immediately following the Cultural Revolution; the ‘85 Movement; and the post-85 artists. These are then subdivided into various groups with names ostensibly coined by Gao, including the Rationalists, Maximalists, and Apartment Art. Gao’s purpose is to expand upon and defend a native modernity based on ancient philosophy and aesthetic theory that cannot be understood within a “Western” context. Because of Gao’s unique position, as a major actor within history and protector of his legacy, this book must be read with a critical eye, but also will be cited as an influential study that represents a particular interpretative strain of writing on Chinese contemporary art. He has continued to promote younger artists, including the ones included in the exhibition curated by Gao, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art.
Berlin : Haus der Kulturen der Welt ; Hong Kong : Oxford University Press, 1994, c1993.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .C446 1993
San Francisco : San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ; New York : Asia Society Galleries ; Berkeley : University of California Press, c1998.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .I58 1998
These well-illustrated catalogs represent two landmark exhibitions that introduced Chinese contemporary art to Western audiences. As such, they provide important canonical narratives of the state of Chinese contemporary art in the late eighties and nineties, but also remain documents themselves of the entrance of Chinese artists into the international art world. The China Avant-Garde catalog, not to be confused with the seminal 1989 "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition held at China Art Gallery in Beijing, present a wider scope: essays present historical contexts, cinema, literature, poetry, theater, and music. The chapter by Zheng Shengtian on the Zhejiang art academy, breeding ground for many new media artists, is recommended. From Inside Out, the essay by Norman Bryson on the challenges of defining the avant-garde, “The Post-Ideological Avant-Garde,” provides insightful readings of works, especially those by Xu Bing and Wenda Gu, and has been widely cited in the scholarly literature.
Produced as exhibition catalogs, these document two influential and important private collections of contemporary Chinese art. Both are extremely useful visual surveys that take a wider perspective on the definition of contemporary art, beginning with works from the Cultural Revolution. The Mahjong catalogue, in particular, showcases Sigg’s longstanding business and cultural involvement in China through some very early and rare works by now well-known artists, such as Huang Yongping, Wang Guangyi, Geng Jianyi and Zhang Peili. The somewhat controversial Estella Collection, which was broken up and sold at auction following the exhibition, is nearly encyclopedic in its scope and tends to privilege painting, but also includes some photography, video works, and sculpture.
Chicago, Ill. : David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, c1999.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .W83 1999
Chicago : David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, the University of Chicago, c2000.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .W8 2000
1st ed. Chicago : Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago ; New York : International Center of Photography ; Göttingen : Steidl Publishers ; Chicago : In collaboration with Museum of Contemporary Art ; New York : Asia Society, 2004.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » TR645 .C552 D389 2004
The essays in these three slim catalogs, each of which accompanied their respective exhibitions at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, are worth reading in their entirety. Wu Hung has produced some of the most synthesized, readable, and satisfyingly contextualized writing on Chinese contemporary art. The Transience entries accompanying each work provide a thematic reading of late nineties art under changing interpretations of official history and large-scale urbanization. In Exhibiting Experimental Art Wu explores the dual-edged sword of cancelled exhibitions with extensive documentation of twelve significant exhibitions. He also explains his rationale for using “experimental” as opposed to “avant-garde.” For more on experimental art, see the exhibition catalog, also curated by Wu, Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art: 1990-2000. The catalog essay in Between Past and Future is a brief but precise primer on the various functions of photography from the Maoist period to the early 2000s. These essays and others have been recently compiled in Making History: Wu Hung on Contemporary Art, but because of the uneven quality, both in editing and reproductions, of Timezone 8’s publications, it is worth seeking out the original catalogs.
Milano ; New York : Charta, c2006.
Art & Architecture Library » Stacks » N7345 .C45 2006
Breakout concentrates on the diaspora of artists who left China in the late eighties and nineties for the United States, France, and Australia. Through an examination of their works, Chu studies the ways in which these artists negotiate their cultural identity and how “the place of settlement, the circumstances of migration (such as forced exile or refugee status), and the age of the migrant when they left China" affect the expression of Chineseness, which Chu suggests is “a fluid entity with the potential to respond to and reflect new experiences.” While each chapter focuses on a different country, this work is tied together through the investigation of the dualities of past/present, homeland/site of settlement, global/local, and the concept of transexperience, which “describes an attempt by Chinese artists to come to terms with Chinese culture in a foreign context.” Chu closes with a short chapter on changes in the Chinese art scene and the reception émigré artists have received upon returning to China.