Education About Asia: Online Archives

Contemporary Chinese Art: Uses and Reuses of the Past

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Contemporary artists in China are now free to make an array of different kinds of art. Artists, emerging from the limited forms of expression allowed during the second half of the twentieth century, are exploring their ancient traditions that were restricted during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when the “four olds” (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) were forbidden. A second source of inspiration is the breadth of Western global art that had also been strictly criticized but is now a core course in art school curricula. Now able to study these masters of the past, Chinese artists are creating new kinds of art and exploring different media—painting, photography, sculpture, installations, and traditional Chinese brush and ink painting. For the most part, Chinese artists draw upon the great masterpieces of European religious art and Chinese figure and landscape paintings. Copying to acquire skill in painting is a common learning method. Chinese artists since antiquity have copied great art, a technique first described by Xie He in the sixth century; for in the absence of art schools and models, recreating famous works of art was the only means of learning. (note 1) Moreover, artists are adapting these models to express their responses to the new social and political environment that evolved in the post-Cultural Revolution era. By looking at their art, there is much to be learned about the current situation in China; artists are often critical of the legacy of Mao and the prominent role of the Communist Party and army, social inequity, and environmental problems that resulted from the march to capitalism, and the frustrations and difficulties of life under an authoritarian government. This article illustrates the sources of art appropriated by contemporary Chinese artists and demonstrates how they alter them to address current themes. Websites for all artists featured in this essay are available in the endnotes.( note 2)Three categories are considered—Western models, Chinese figural art, and Chinese landscape painting. In no way is this art to be viewed as mere copies; indeed, their artistic processes transform the originals into new creations.

Editor’s Note: Please visit the EAA online supplement for the artist’s images that are not shown in this article: -17-1.htm.


1. Michael Sullivan, Arts of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 102.

2. Website addresses are provided for the artists, but some may not be operational for a number of reasons. Please see their entry in Michael Sullivan, Modern Chinese Artists: A Biographical Dictionary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

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