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From Ladies at Leisure to Internet Avatar: Women in the Arts in China

The focus of Asia Art Archive’s 2018 Teaching Labs series is women in art history. This lab, “From Ladies at Leisure to Internet Avatar: Women in the Arts in China,” considers the position and representation of women in Mainland China from the late Qing dynasty to the present day, within the context of a shifting political landscape and an evolving debate about the role of women in society.

Speaker: Jane DeBevoise, Co-chair of the Board of Directors of Asia Art Archive and independent art historian

Language: English

Total Length: 1 hour 41 minutes


I. Background

Over the past century and a half, the position and representation of women in Mainland China has changed dramatically, both in the arts and society. These changes began in the late Qing dynasty and the early Republican period as the “modernisation” of women became part of a reformist and nationalist discourse, and continued through the Mao era when the concept of “iron girls” was promoted as part of a programme of self-strengthening and economic development. Starting with experiments in collectivisation in the 1950s, women were not only encouraged to work outside the home, they were often required take on roles that were traditionally male, such as heavy manual labour in the farms and factories. In art schools, Soviet-influenced socialist realism was introduced, becoming a mainstream form of artistic expression.

Length: 36 minutes

I. Background

Nineteenth Century: Late Qing Dynasty

  • Key Events: Opium Wars (1839­–60), First Sino–Japanese War (1894–95)
  • Keywords: social position of women limited by Confucian kinship system, the domestic sphere
  • Women artists, unless otherwise indicated: Wu Jiayou (?–1893, male), Ju Qing (dates unknown)

Republican Period (1912–49)

  • Key Events: Founding of the Republic of China (1912), May 4th Movement (1919), founding of Chinese Communist Party (1921), Second Sino–Japanese War (1937–45),
  • Keywords: rise of cosmopolitan urban cities, commercialism, Shanghai, rise of women educated and working outside the home, “new woman,” women’s rights, Liang You magazine, calendar girls
  • Artists: Guan Zilan (1930–86), Pan Yuliang (1895–1977), Jiang Zhaohe (1904–86, male)

Mao Era (1949–76)

  • Key Events: Founding of the People's Republic of China (1949), Marriage Law (1950), literacy campaigns, Cultural Revolution (1966–76)
  • Keywords: collectivisation of agriculture and industry, “nannu pingdeng,” “iron girls,” “women hold up half the sky,” socialist realism, propaganda posters and paintings
  • Artists: Pan Jiajun (b. 1947, male), Chen Yanning (b. 1945, male), Wang Xia (b. 1936), Zhao Youping (b. 1932)


II. Post Mao Era (1976–89)

With Mao Zedong’s death and the arrest of Gang of Four in 1976, the radical leftist policies of the Cultural Revolution ended and China embarked upon a series of reforms, including the introduction of free markets and monetary incentives. In 1977, university entrance exams resumed after a ten-year hiatus, and artists all over China began experimenting with newly introduced concepts, such as surrealism, expressionism, abstraction, conceptualism, and performance. These and other liberal experiments were interrupted intermittently by conservative campaigns to suppress bourgeois tendencies and “spiritual pollution” from the West.

In the post-Mao period, women’s issues became secondary to the task of rebuilding the economy after the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Traditional roles regained favor as many women sought to lighten the double burden of domestic responsibilities (childrearing and housework) and a full-time job outside the home. Nascent advertising programmes targeted women as a new and rising consumer market. The introduction of the One Child Policy in 1979 laid bare a continuing preference for males, particularly in the countryside. The number of women in the recently re-opened art academies was low, as was participation in the emerging experimental art movement.

Length: 32 minutes

II. The Post Mao Era (1976–89)
  • Key Events: Death of Mao Zedong (1976), resumption of university entrance exams (1977), One Child Policy (1979), establishment of diplomatic relations with the US (1979), economic reforms, China Avant-Garde Exhibition (1989)
  • Keywords: “Seek Truth from Facts,” “Four Modernisations,” “anti-spiritual pollution” campaigns, low representation of women in the art academies and experimental art movements
  • Artists: Zhou Sicong (1939–96), Wang Gongyi (b. 1946), Chen Haiyan (b. 1955), Xiao Lu (b. 1962)


III. 1990s

The violent crackdown on student protests on 4 June 1989 ended public political dissent. In the 1990s, market reforms accelerated, and as a result, China experienced unprecedented economic growth. By the late 1990s, urban centres had ballooned in size as the loosening of government regulations facilitated the large-scale migration of mostly labourers from the countryside to the city. Experimental artists also migrated from regional centres to the three main coastal cities—Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. Barred for the most part from public platforms at home, these artists resorted to self-organised, DIY, event-oriented projects in alternative venues, or sought opportunities abroad. The increased availability of hand-held video cameras encouraged the development of moving image art.

In terms of the position of women in the arts, by the mid-1990s exhibitions of art by women were growing. The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing in 1995, and exhibitions organised by the government and by women working independently proliferated. Public debates about the meaning of feminism versus femininity emerged, and women artists explored subjectivity in painting, photography, performance, and installation.

Length: 26 minutes

III. 1990s
  • Key Events: June 4th Incident (1989), The World of Women Artists Exhibition (1990), United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), Women’s Approach to Chinese Contemporary Art exhibition (1995)
  • Keywords: economic growth, urbanisation, consumerism, feminism vs. femininity, female subjectivity
  • Artists: Yu Hong (b. 1962), Lin Tianmiao (b. 1961), Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963), Xing Danwen (b. 1967)


IV. The 2000s and Beyond

In the 2000s, China’s economic growth continued to accelerate and its international influence increased.

Massive infrastructure projects, such as the damming of Yangtze River to generate hydroelectricity, dislocated over one million people and attracted widespread media attention. Symbolising China’s self-confidence and global aspirations was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, a jaw-dropping spectacle of power and ambition. Since 2013 Xi Jinping, as leader of the second largest economy in the world after the United States, continues to consolidate his control through an anti-corruption campaign, political education, and censorship.

Starting in the early 2000s, the commercial market for art expanded rapidly and many new contemporary art museums were built. While the representation of women in high profile domestic and international art exhibitions remains relatively low, a growing number of women artists have embraced a wide range of aesthetic and social issues, creating some of the most forward-looking work across genres and media, from oil painting to performance, photography, installation, and video. Most recently the internet has developed into a space for artistic experimentation. An example is RMB City by Cao Fei in which the artist’s avatar China Tracy roams the world in Second Life.

Length: 7 minutes

IV. The 2000s and Beyond
  • Key Events: Yangtze River Dam (2003), Beijing Olympics (2008), Xi Jinping becomes President (2013)
  • Keywords: accelerating economic growth, dislocation, rise of art market, anti-corruption campaign, censorship
  • Artist: Cao Fei (b. 1978)

Jane DeBevoise is Co-chair of the Board of Directors of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and New York. Prior to moving to Hong Kong in 2002, DeBevoise was Deputy Director of the Guggenheim Museum, responsible for museum operations and exhibitions globally. She joined as Project Director of China: 5000 Years, a landmark exhibition of traditional and modern Chinese art, presented in 1998 at the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Her book Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era was published in 2014 by Brill.

Publishing date: 7 Jan 2019

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Teaching Labs | From Ladies at Leisure to Internet Avatar: Women in the Arts in China
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Teaching Labs | From Ladies at Leisure to Internet Avatar: Women in the Arts in China

Sat, 26 May 2018, 2 – 5 PM