In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Chinese Art Since 1976

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Primary Materials
  • Collected Interviews
  • Collected Biographies and Case Studies
  • Contemporary Ink Painting
  • Women Artists
  • Individual Artists
  • Art Criticism
  • Art Market
  • Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Overseas

Chinese Studies Contemporary Chinese Art Since 1976
Amanda Wangwright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0102


Although the precise moment of the inception of contemporary Chinese arts remains debatable, most scholarship on the topic picks up after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The end of the Cultural Revolution and subsequent period of intense reform launched dramatic changes across China and the Chinese art world. These events and later waves of major social, political, and economic change greatly impacted the lives of Chinese artists and the artwork they produced. Thus, art historians typically categorize contemporary Chinese art in chronological periods of development, an approach that is reflected in the Exhibition Catalogues section of this article. The first of these periods, spanning from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, was a remarkable time of artistic curiosity and collaboration with the emergence of many groups and trends. Important art groups include the Stars, the Grass Society, the No Names, the Northern Art Group, the Pond Society, and Xiamen Dada. New Realism (sometimes discussed as Scar and Stream of Life painting) and the ’85 New Wave movement were defining trends of the period. The second stage of development, occurring in the 1990s, was a period of profuse and brilliant experimentation in performance, installation, and video art, and also saw the development of the avant-garde trends Political Pop and Cynical Realism. The third and current period picks up at the turn of the 21st century and has seen the international critical and commercial success of Chinese artists, as well as the explosion of video art and new media art, such as computer animation and video games. With a history of more than thirty years and widespread recognition, contemporary Chinese art is a quickly growing field of research, and literature on the subject is increasingly abundant and accessible. The second half of this article is organized into thematic sections that address major issues in the field. Contemporary Ink Painting receives its own section because the art form, although widely popular, has been largely neglected by curators and scholars until relatively recently. Although women enter Chinese art schools in numbers roughly equal to that of men, female professional artists are undeniably a minority in the field. A number of scholars have addressed this concern, and their work forms the Women Artists section. A handful of big-name artists dominate both the art market and scholarship, as do just a few regional art centers, so these two areas also receive separate sections, Individual Artists and Cities, Districts, and Art Communities, respectively. The Art Market and Art Criticism, the focus of two additional sections, have both been subjects of some controversy and debate, although scholarly investigation has been more limited. Finally, the very concept of contemporary Chinese art is frequently questioned. In particular, the Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Overseas section includes catalogues and anthologies that address cultural identity and artists’ relationships with the mainland.

General Overviews

Most overviews of contemporary Chinese art are part of larger surveys of 20th-century Chinese art and thus begin their examinations well before the year 1976. Andrews and Shen 2012 and Lü 2010 both devote several chapters to the modern art of the early and mid-20th century before continuing their extensive surveys into the 21st century in later chapters. Andrews and Shen divide their look at contemporary art into three roughly decade-long increments with an additional chapter on Hong Kong and Taiwan. Lü’s survey is generally chronological, with emphasis on art groups and movements, continuing the approach of his more focused text, published nearly twenty years prior, Lü and Yi 1992. Like Lü, Gao 2011 is also chronologically organized and concentrated on art movements, but more heavily focuses on the avant-garde activities of the 1980s. The authors of Vine 2011 and Tong 2005 approach their surveys differently; Vine sorts his according to media, while Tong primarily organizes her survey by genre. Berghuis 2006 is the most focused of the surveys and looks only at performance art.

  • Andrews, Julia F., and Kuiyi Shen. The Art of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

    A thorough and readable textbook for Chinese art of the mid-19th to early 21st century; only the last four chapters (chapters 10–13) concern contemporary art.

  • Berghuis, Thomas J. Performance Art in China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006.

    A survey of Chinese performance art that focuses on the “role of the mediated subject of the acting body in art” (p. 2). Chapter 1 introduces dominant discourses, chapters 2 through 4 provide chronological review, 5 discusses new media, 6 examines distinctions between “official” and “unofficial” art, and 7 looks impact of moral codes. Backmatter includes bibliography, index, and six appendices of assorted chronologies and lists of artists and Chinese terms. More information available online at Asia Art Archive.

  • Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

    Lengthy (409 pages) survey of avant-garde Chinese art, ostensibly from early 20th to early 21st century, but primarily focused on the brief period of the ’85 Movement. Written from an insider’s perspective, as Gao was part of the ’85 movement prior to moving to the United States to earn a PhD with a dissertation on the same topic. More information available online at Asia Art Archive.

  • Lü, Peng. A History of Art in 20th-Century China. Milan: Charta, 2010.

    Unwieldy (1284 pages) survey of 20th-century Chinese art, translated from 2009 Chinese text; chapters 16–25 cover contemporary art. Encyclopedic and impractical as a textbook, this text is most useful as a reference work. Bibliography is a good source for Chinese publications.

  • Lü Peng 呂澎, and Yi Dan 易丹. Zhongguo xiandai yishushi: 1979–1989 (中國現代藝術史: 1979–1989). Changsha Shi, China: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1992.

    Earliest Chinese survey text of contemporary art produced in China. Eighteen chapters present major artistic developments and debates in chronological order. Illustrated throughout with 170 colorplates and over 500 black-and-white images. Chronology in back. Chinese, but with English title: A History of Chinese Modern Art: 1979–1989. Revised and expanded in 2011 as The Art History of China Since 1979, 1979 nian yilai de Zhongguo yishushi (1979 年以来的中国艺术史). More information available online at Asia Art Archive.

  • Tong, Dian. China! New Art and Artists. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2005.

    Chronological survey spanning from Mao Zedong to the beginning of the 21st century, with heavy focus on the last twenty years. Divided into four sections, each headed with a conservative format of brief introductions and artist biographies sorted according to genre, such as Women’s Art, “Children” Paintings, and New Experimental Ink Painting. Follows with multiple full-page reproductions of works for each artist. More than eighty artists featured, mostly painters. More information available online at Asia Art Archive.

  • Vine, Richard. New China, New Art. Munich and New York: Prestel, 2011.

    Brimming with large color images, this survey of eighty big-name artists and their works is organized according to medium with chapters on painting, sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and video. Potentially a useful textbook, it opens with “Why China, Why Now?” which contextualizes the art within social and political change. Appendix contains a slim review of Chinese history.

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