Duelling Hagiographies: Mao and Modernism

Jiang Zhi The world is yours, as well as ours - Display 24

The world is yours as well as ours: a statement in which ancestry maintains a dialectic with reconstruction; engineered to mobilise disjunctions with the past over a period spanning sixty years. An exploration of abstraction within contemporary Chinese painting, the exhibition shares its title with a work by Jiang Zhi, one of nine artists commanding the space at White Cube’s Mason’s Yard until 17th September.

Zhi’s paintings present the glitches that corrupt images on our screens. Rendered freehand, magnified and spectacular, they occupy a territory between the actual and inherent imagery they stand for – an act of meticulous representation to the point of abstraction. But it is exactly this liminality that contrasts so starkly with the phrase’s original conception, as one of the countless totems used to endorse Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution: a period of dictatorship that decimated Chinese economies and populations, provoking widespread violence, poverty and fear.

“The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.”

Jinggangshan Commune, Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院, 井崗山公社). Mao Zedong: ‘The world is yours, as well as ours […]’ (毛泽东: ‘世界是你们的, 也是我们的 […]’) January 1967 © People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Bejing

Originating at a talk with Chinese students and trainees in Moscow, November 1957, the statement, which subsequently adorned Maoist propaganda, bears a great similarity to the language that initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign – “the policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” This initiative was devised in 1956 under the premise of affording citizens the opportunity to critique the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. Ultimately however, it became a way of quelling dissent, with the subsequent “revolutionaries” facing severe retributions in the form of manual labour, imprisonment and merciless beatings.

With this in mind, it is important to note here that Western reactions to Mao’s regime at the time were at best ambivalent, at worst commendatory. In Chinese Shadows (1978), Simon Leys outlines his experience of “the largely pro-Mao Western intelligentsia” in relation to his first-hand knowledge of the CCP:

“To my increasing dismay and horror, I realized that in the West, news media kept the public almost entirely ignorant of the evidence available to anyone who could read Chinese. As for professional China-watchers, they already knew most of the facts I was compiling, but, with no particular commitment to the Chinese people … [they] seemed to have no compulsion to come out publicly and put themselves in the uncomfortable position of being a witness to the truth.”

Authors such as Réne Viénet and Xing Lu echo Leys’ sentiment, with Lu’s Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (2004) in particular referencing the attacks of Western intellectuals on Confucianism at the turn of the twentieth century as the foregrounding of a modern history of China “characterised by cultural and ideological confrontation, destruction and reconstruction.” In keeping with Mao’s fixation on relinquishing ideologies of the past, in the form of the Four Olds (or sì jiù) – Old customs, Old culture, Old habits, Old ideas – Western historicising post-Mao has made a habit of positing abstracted art in China as a resolute break with communist aesthetics, resulting from a delayed exposure to the Western art practise that inspired our own modernity.

Like Mao’s own rhetoric, Western art history works to create and maintain the conditions for its survival.

This conception misrepresents the political trajectory of both movements. Where American Abstract Art began as resolutely anti-political before its reconfiguration as a tool against communist values by US law enforcement, the obverse has occurred in post-Mao China, as politicised gestures against dominant communist graphics are framed as facsimiles of the noble Western canon. But the designation also feeds into two of the most destructive narratives of the period: Mao’s determination to separate his new country from its past, and the West’s masturbatory obsession with its own greatness.

The extreme efficacy of these hagiographies is evident through their capacity for projection, as their existence subsumes all contending histories. James Elkins lends credence to this theory in Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History (2010) when he suggests that “… despite the wide and deep differences, Western art history continues to treat Chinese traditions as if they were comparable—in principle, in the abstract—to Western traditions.” A cookie-cutter Modernism is evoked, continuing the displacement of China’s heterogeneous artistry that Mao initiated, and in turn trivialising the influence of Chinese art and culture on Western Modernists, from Schopenhauer and Kandinsky to Tàpies and Reinhardt. It is this (hagiographic) idea of a principle modernity in itself that Jonathan Hay disputes in Shitao: Painting and Modernity in Early Qing China (2001):

“Indeed, I hope that this book will nudge along a much needed geocultural expansion of the debate on artistic modernity, which at the moment proceeds all too often on the assumption that modernity was invented only once, taking no account of the possibility of other modern art histories elsewhere in the world that would not be derivative of the Euro-American one to which it is attuned.”

'The world is yours, as well as ours', White Cube Mason's Yard, London

Emblematic of this need is Tang Guo’s Luo River (2015). Described by White Cube as rooted in ancient traditions, Guo paints “using both the element of chance and a controlled brushstroke … resulting in works that resonate with ideas of post-painterly abstraction.” However, the use of this term specifically – “post-painterly abstraction” being coined by Clement Greenberg in 1964 – incites what Jennifer Purtle describes in her Introduction to Elkin’s work as a “loading of the deck” in favour of the Western canon. Discussing Zhang Hongtu’s Shitao–Van Gogh (1998), in which Zhang repainted one of Shitao’s most famous compositions in the style of Van Gogh, Purtle argues that “when viewers who do not know Chinese landscape painting fail to recognize the Shitao composition, they render it invisible, eliding the status and influence of a masterpiece.”

This assimilation, while typically instigated by a predisposition to Western aesthetics, is ultimately reinforced through the language art is described in, and inscribed by. Like Mao’s own rhetoric, the implication of art historical discourse works to create and maintain the conditions for its survival. As Elkins observes:

“The project of writing art history is Western, and so any history of Chinese landscape painting is partly but fundamentally a Western endeavour, even if it is written by a Chinese historian, in Chinese, for Chinese readers. … Art history, in other words, is Western no matter what it studies.”

While he makes this statement with a degree of specificity, I would argue that these sentiments apply just as accurately to history proper as they do to art. There is a distinct correlation between the immediacy of the impact other communist or fascist regimes had on lived experience in Europe and the US, and their subsequent notoriety. Propagated by globalisation, and inequitable distributions of power and resources, the West’s monopoly on the recapitulation of histories means that when alternative accounts are put forth they are quickly marginalised or recontextualised to suit the needs of the grand narrative. Subject to both aggrandisement and dismissal, global conflicts are thus continually presented through a Western frame of reference. This structure, like Elkins’ art history, is ubiquitous, but in the case of the Cultural Revolution it can be disrupted through an overt recognition of the ancestries that Mao tried to abolish.

Qin Yifeng, Yu Youhan, Liu Wentao

Referencing a text by Hubert Damisch titled Traité du trait (1995), Elkins notes the importance of Shitao’s phrase yībi (“writing with one mark”): “… even though the West divides painting from drawing, Chinese art embraces painting, drawing and writing as a single concept, so that a ‘preliminary’ detour through Chinese art may well be a journey to the ‘central place’ of all marking.”

From Qin Yifeng’s columns, echoing traditional Chinese calligraphy, to Yu Youhan’s ‘Circle’ paintings and Liu Wentao’s dense graphite compositions, both of which utilise tenets of Taoist thought, The world is yours as well as ours pays homage to this single concept, presenting contemporary Chinese art through the context of its own heritage while still engaging with the seismic shifts that the country has endured. A space is thus created between Maoist and Modernist hagiographies that in its essence inspires a critique of reverence, and provokes a timely rethink of the central place Chinese art holds in the history of marks.


The world is yours, as well as ours is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 17th September 2016.

Image credits (from top to bottom):
1. Jiang Zhi, The world is yours, as well as ours – Display 24, 2015-2016, Oil on canvas, 86 5/8 x 153 9/16 in. (220 x 390 cm) © the artist Courtesy White Cube.
2. Jinggangshan Commune, Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院, 井崗山公社). Mao Zedong: ‘The world is yours, as well as ours […]’ (毛泽东: ‘世界是你们的, 也是我们的 […]’) January 1967, © People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Bejing
3. Liang Quan and Qian Jiahua and Zhou Li and Su Xiaobai and Jiang Zhi and Liu Wentao and Qin Yifeng and Tang Guo and Yu Youhan, ‘The world is yours, as well as ours’, White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, 15 July – 17 September 2016, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)
4. Qin Yifeng, Line Field 562, 2015, Acrylic on linen, 70 7/8 x 59 1/16 in. (180 x 150 cm), © the artist Courtesy White Cube.
5. Yu Youhan, Abstract 2007.12.1, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 43 5/16 x 43 5/16 in. (110 x 110 cm), © the artist Courtesy White Cube.
6. Liu Wentao, Untitled, 2015, Graphite on canvas, 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. (200 x 200 cm), © the artist. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)


The Learned Pig

Phoebe Colley

Phoebe Colley is a London based writer and all-round book lover. Since graduating from Goldsmiths in 2015 with a degree in art history, she has worked for two independent publishers, Eros Press and Repeater Books, on titles including Dante's Broken Hammer, The Psychopath Factory, Family (vol 1) and Eros Journal – a biannual publication devoted to innovative cultural critique. Maintaining a focus on psychoanalysis and social constructions, she continues to write for PYLOT Magazine, with pieces ranging from the commodification of the voice to aesthetic déjà vu. Her interests include surrealism, rum and authors that make you feel a bit queasy.