Chinese Intellectuals in Yang Fudong’s Work – a Western View

Imagine a group of seven young and stylish people wandering in the misty mountain landscape of Huangshan. Hear a voice - over lamenting, ‘ I’m destined to lose him . Our constellations do not match’.

Consider a fashionable city youth and a country girl in a traditional fishing boat on a reed-fringed lake sadly in love. Listen to the popular tune of the Chinese folk song Liu Lan:’ …tears in eyes flowing like pearls, in the light of sunset, the Liulan girl stands still on the boat’.

Watch two people in love on the beach, in a beach buggy, on a white horse. Turn around the screen and see them struggling for survival on a shipwrecked raft in the rolling sea. Listen to the sentimental music of Jing Wang played by solo musicians elegantly dressed in Western clothes on rocks against the rolling Yellow Sea.

These and other films and videos by the Chinese artist Yang Fudong : Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest, Part 1 (2003, black and white film in 35mm), Liu Lan (2003, 35mm transferred to DVD) and Close to the Sea (2004, 10-screen video installation) are presented in the circuit of international shows like Dokumenta XI, the 50thVenice Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial , or in exhibitions like Time Zones: Recent Film and Video at Tate Modern. Yang Fudong’s works have also become known as part of group exhibitions of Chinese artists like Alors la Chine? (Paris Centre Pompidou, 2003) and China Now ( 2004, New York, MoMA, Gramercy Theatre) or, more specifically of Shanghai artists, like Camera/Yingshi ( Paris 2003), Light as Fuck, Shanghai Assemblage 2000-2004 (Oslo 2004) and Shanghai Modern ( Munich 2004/2005).

The artist was born in Beijing 1971, studied oil painting and graduated in 1995 from the China Academy of Arts ( former Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou, and lives and works in Shanghai. In 1999 he exhibited oil paintings and photography in Shanghai and in the same year participated in two events abroad: The Love Tokyo Festival in Japan and the Hanover Film Festival in Germany. A look at his gallery’s website would seem to suggest that participations abroad may be more numerous than the exhibitions in China which are mainly limited to Shanghai and Beijing. However, in China many events happen in small, non-institutional places, leaving few traces.

Yang Fudong’s spectators in the West are the cosmopolitan art audience who visit international exhibitions and, in China, most likely the urban proto-middle class which grew up in the semi-market environment of the past 15 years. When interviewed by American journalists about his viewers, Yang Fudong has stated that Western art collectors failed to comprehend the deep confidence Chinese artists have in their own culture. ‘They think we are doing our work for them. We’re not. We’re doing it for China.’ His statement is reinforced by the fact that there is far more information on Yang Fudong to be found on Chinese Internet sites than on Western ones which is further evidence of the informal structures that play an important role in China.

While the situation of the intellectual is one of the main themes of Yang Fudong’s work his target audience is the sophisticated and culturally literate and his art by no means ‘cultural fast food for the West’. Yang Fudong is represented together with twenty-five other Chinese artists by Shanghart, owned by a Swiss national . The fact that many galleries in Beijing and Shanghai are owned by Westerners is in my opinion less the consequence of global capitalism or of a postcolonial situation than a consequence of the historical development in the cultural field which I would like to sketch briefly, taking as an example Yang Fudong’s art school, Zhejiang Academy of Arts in Hangzhou.

The Academy , today endowed with one of the most modern departments of video and film art, the was founded in 1928 by Lin Fengmian following the German Bauhaus model. After 1949 the main cultural discourse in Mainland China, revolutionary art for the masses with a prescribed content had to be followed. That meant that as of then the school was dominated by Socialist Realism. During the Cultural Revolution students and teachers were suspected as ‘formalistic’, some were tortured to death. The school was forced to close, and only reopened in 1977, the first generation of students comprising some of the most promising talents like Gu Wenda and Huang Yongping, In the early 1980s in the course of a ‘Campaign against Spiritual Pollution’ exhibitions were ordered closed because of ‘liberalization tendencies’. What Chinese considered as one of the most liberal periods of Chinese cultural life since 1949, namely the second half of the 1980s ended with the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th 1989 and the exile of a number of talented artists teaching at the school like Huang Yongping. While this account of the period of the Cultural Revolution may seem somewhat simplistic , it nevertheless demonstrates a historical heritage which , together with the actual socio-political situation, are the reasons why national structures are still weak . The Chinese curator Zhang Zhaohui complains that ‘even today, the new art is still half hidden in the underground and the basic foundations are missing’.

After having discussed some institutional aspects, I would like to turn to the one of the main themes of Yang Fudong’s art: it concerns the situation of young intellectuals in contemporary China . In this context it might be worthwhile to look at some of the Mandarin terminology used . Yang Fudong’s very first film, An estranged paradise is about what he calls the xiao wen ren literally the educated young person, the half intellectual, who is part of ‘a group of special people who do not do anything astonishing or remarkable. They may not create masterpieces, but they have their own qualities. ‘ In The Seven Intellectuals the Mandarin term for Intellectual is “xian” which was used before 1949 and would be best translated by “scholar”. While the Mandarin equivalent for intellectuals as a (social) class post- 1949 would be “zhi shi fen zi” which comes close to the “intelligentia” in a Soviet context and is the original term employed for the lonely, wounded First Intellectual . One could assume that either by picturing the Intellectual (in the sense of a social class) as an individual under attack or, in other works, by avoiding the class connotation altogether, Yang Fudong refers to a situation about which Western and Chinese authors agree: namely that today’s Chinese intellectuals, who except during the period of the Cultural Revolution have played a leading role in Chinese history have been pushed to the margins and are seeking an autonomous space of their own.

The most recent sociological research by a Westerner on Chinese Intellectuals is a thorough analysis based on a field study conducted in 1997 by Eva Evasdottir “Obedient Autonomy”. She pictures a fairly uncritical (hence obedient) social class which through the system of guan xi ( personal relationships) and in particular a smart handling of relationships with the central authorities maintains a certain space of freedom ( autonomy). Evasdottir states ‘If social restrictions increase, so do practical opportunities to combine and reinterpret such restrictions’. However, she points out that autonomy in China has nothing to do with the ‘rugged individualism or the anti-government libertarianism ‘ of the West but is the result of the position of the intellectual and the negotiation of that position. Traditionally the intellectual’s role was also that of an advisor, and that meant mediation between the state and the masses and involvement in local and national politics.

Chinese critical analysis of the situation of Chinese Intellectuals emphasizes the marginality or even breakdown of a social class. Wang Hui, one of China’s most influential public scholars, and current editor of Dushu [Reading], considers that the dramatic social changes after 1989 have ‘collapsed the category of the intellectual altogether and with a higher degree of division of labour divided them into experts, scholars, managers and technocrats. The relentless process of stratification in Chinese society has brought about a loss of spirit and silence of intellectuals on social conditions which is in stark contrast to the new enlightenment intellectuals of the early 1980s’. Zhang Xudong, agrees that today’s intellectual is powerless. He argues that while Marxism remains the main discourse of modernity, new forms of material life, in particular capitalism are created. At the same time the oppressiveness of the Chinese state is paralleled by an ‘unprecedented freedom and anarchism in other fields. In this situation, the Chinese Communist party becomes a giant interest group- CCP.Inc- and the communist government and the market environment have effected a corporate style merger.’ There is a proto- urban middle class emerging forming a semiautonomous social and cultural space . In this ‘Umfeld’ the elite intellectuals suffer from a semi- paralysed condition at the margins. Sheldon Hsiao Peng Lu, sees intellectuals assuming a difficult role between the twin centres of capitalist consumer culture and the communist state.

Yang Fudong translates this marginality of the intellectual into a certain retreat from public affairs. The theme of the film The Seven Intellectuals ( Fig.1) refers to a folk story from the Wei-Jin era (220-420 A.D) called the Seven sages of the Bamboo Grove. It is an account of forgetting worldly troubles as well as an invitation to ‘solitary meditations on individuality and liberty’ . The drawings in Figures 2 and 3 dating back 300 A.D. on a brick wall refer to this story about a group of Chinese scholars and poets who fled political troubles in the mid-third century, a period characterized by a certain sorrow about life and the doubting and refuting of external powers. The Chinese art historian Li Zehou explains that these people who had done nothing that merited status, who had no legal power, and put forth no moral principles to speak of, became the models for others by dint of their own personality. In this period, men were no longer respected for their accomplishments, or show of moral integrity and learning as they had been during the two preceding Han dynasties, but chiefly for their inner speculative attitude and spirit. It was man and his character, not external things that increasingly became the center of the philosophy, art and literature. There was an aesthetic interest in a person’s aura and spirituality; the period of Lao Tzu’s philosophy. ‘Things are born out of the formless and meritorious deeds of the nameless. Formlessness and namelessness are the origins of all things’. Relating the spirit of the Wei-Jin period to Yang Fudong’s film, the latter becomes an account of intellectuals and their distance from the real world seeking an autonomous space of their own. Or, phrased more sharply by Hans Ulrich Obrist: it is about the ambiguous position of intellectuals in contemporary China –their longing for individual freedom in the shifting context of an emergent capitalist society.

An earlier work of Yang Fudong, the photographic triptych The First Intellectual from 2000 shows an urban intellectual (Fig. 4). We see an injured man in a business suit. He is threatening to throw a brick, but there is no clear object against which to retaliate. He is alone in an empty street which gives the picture a sense of futility. Charles Merewhether contrasts Yang Fudong’s First Intellectual to the generation of the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China which ‘had faith and ideals and worked hard to achieve them’. My interpretation would be different and associate - at first sight - the image of The First Intellectual to a recent exhibition shown in Paris, Brussels and London of photographic work by Li Zhensheng taken during the Cultural Revolution (Fig. 5). This reading would be supported by the title of the image where Yang Fudong uses zhishifenzi, thus he refers to intellectuals as the social class which was deeply humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. I would merge a recent visual recollection (the photographs of Li Zhensheng) with a mental association (the accounts of humiliations suffered by intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution) while Merewhether refers to an earlier period of Chinese history.

In the words of the artist, The First Intellectual - a young man in a business suit- is the expression of a psychological condition of confusion as a result of materialism and the situation of the individual in a big city. ‘It is about somebody who gets hurt, but he does not know where the injury comes from’. Similarly, critical theorists like Wang Hui describe the historical and social conditions for the psychological shock of the failure of the 1989 movement, the ensuing debate and rethinking of radicalism and as of 1993 the ideology of the market. As a result many intellectuals turned towards the market and became entrepreneurs mainly interested in making money, a phenomenon termed xiahai [taking the plunge] which led to a major crisis for the status of intellectuals in Chinese society. This crisis results in estrangement of the individual who in the end is seeking a spiritual home between dream and reality. This is the theme of another work by Yang Fudong Liu Lan. to which I will come back later.

If today China’s intellectuals have become marginalized, they nevertheless negotiate an autonomous space. In this point the western analysis of Evasdottir talking about “autonomy” and the Chinese analysis, much influenced by Western concepts like Gramscis ‘civil society’ or Habermas ‘public space’ concur. Sheldon Hsiao Peng sees the potential to enlarge ‘the autonomous critical public space constituted by critical journals , avant garde literary works, art exhibits, academia and the classroom in some institutions of higher education which in the late nineties became enclaves of free thinking’. Stephen Wright also mentions the Internet as an opportunity to open up a new public space, ‘promoting pluralism and strengthening civil society’ an opportunity which, as Western observers are quick to point out, is limited . Nevertheless Yang Fudong’s art is discussed vividly on his website in China.


In the West reception of Yang Fudong’s art is enthusiastic since, similar to other non - Western artists, this young artist works at a level of intensity and engagement rarely found in the more comfortable and settled societies of the West. The Guardian’s art critic, Adrian Searle, a painter himself, praised Close to the Sea as the only truly major work of the Liverpool Biennial. ”Totally engaging, mysterious and full of memorable images and music, this moved me.” In the US, David Bonetti judged the Seven Intellectuals as a “breathtakingly beautiful” and “ gorgeous” work”. Similarly Tony Godfrey in Burlington considers that Close to the Sea has what most works lacked at the Liverpool event: “a profound excitement over the sensuous possibilities of its chosen medium” .

In my eyes, the most striking visual features of Yang Fudong’s videos are their painterly quality, and their sensual yet enigmatic beauty with a certain dissonance not unlike the music of Jing Wang which accompanies Close to the Sea. While the imagery at times becomes abstract, it remains firmly grounded in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting and composite photography, the latter developed in the 1930s in Shanghai by Long Chin An. His model is Western photomontage but, unlike photomontage whose makers don’t take the trouble to conceal the joining parts, since the story or the idea is essential, Long has developed a technique to print only the desirable parts from two of more negatives. The purpose of using disjunctures in Western art was to disrupt a compositional balance and hence to convey the idea of the inner life of present day man. Long Chin An’s intention was, at first glance, the opposite. He intended to produce an ideal or beautiful scene. At the same time he wanted to depict not what is there but what he has seen . His works show a clear silhouette in the foreground while mist separates the middle ground from the background. Similarly, Yang Fudong moves within the Chinese tradition of the 1930s which, by then, had already undergone a certain interpenetration by Western Modernism. In Long Chin An’s work this is not just a new type of formalism but a new way to visualize memory (Fig.6). Similarly, Liu Lan is about memory without falling into the cliché of kitsch or nostalgia. (Fig. 7). Both artists achieve this result by simplifying form, by leaving out the superfluous, and by working with a subtle range of grey tones. Technically they seem to aim at opposite results: while for Long Chin San the aim is technical perfection, Liu Lan is low - tech, thus reducing the risk of commercialism. Yang Fudong’s art is an art of balance, purity and serenity, in the sense of what Matisse wrote about in the ‘ Notes of a Painter’. But it is not entirely devoid of ‘pictorial contradictions and troubling elements’.

If at first sight Western viewers tend to emphasize the beauty and sensual appeal of Yang Fudong’s work, a Chinese critic has a somewhat different perception focussing more on the troubling elements. For example, Yao Yuan draws the viewer’s attention to the sense of tension inherent in Yang Fudong’s work. A tension born of antagonism towards the modernized city and towards the everyday life. And indeed, there are signifiers, like the sad text of hopeless love, a folk song about departure, the plaintive instrumental music which all point to a sense of estrangement and uncertainty. Once the viewer has been made aware of this alternative view, he will identify more elements of disturbance: like the overacting of the amateur actors, which create a sphere of irreality.. Or Western solo instruments played by musicians standing on rocks by the sea and alluding to a Greek chorus in the sense of Brechtian theatre and its distancing effect on the viewer ( Fig.8). Or the grand installation of Close to the Sea on ten screens in a darkened room which made it –in my eyes- the strongest and most convincing work of the Liverpool Biennial but at the same time created a power relation of the artist dominating the viewer.

By using camera and digital technology Yang Fudong achieves unusual and new results: shots of the misty landscape, mountains becoming pixelated, whereby the smooth outlines of landscape paintings are replaced by a large number of squares. Thus the Huang Shan mountain turns from a familiar tourist sight into an abstract, indefinite and threatening shape and with the spoken text ‘If you leave me next minute, then be my lover now’ into a metonym for desire and self - destruction. By contrast, when looking at the ultra sharp close - ups of the actors’ clothes like tweed, cotton and silk fabrics revealing a sensuous quality of texture, the viewer is almost tempted to touch . Similarly, in Close to the Sea close-ups of sand on skin, or sudden rays of light on the shimmering quality of a satin blouse create a loaded, erotic atmosphere within a scene of struggle for survival.

While the viewer’s horizon of aesthetic expectation makes the visual perception dependent on his/her cultural background, understanding the meaning of a work of art would require an even deeper interpretative understanding, which in a sense crosses the boundaries of culture. Can the Western viewer and art critic escape the trap of superficiality of the pure aesthetics and engage with the content? Or, in other words, if Chinese work is exposed to the global circuit of the art world does it lose its Chineseness and its character of art and become some hybrid, indefinite, consumer commodity explained away by general notions of alienation, urban-rural contradictions or the blending of the traditional with the contemporary? Are there any strategies for crossing the boundaries between different cultures without falling into the traps of superficiality or some aesthetic universalism or a philistine appreciation of the “exotic”. Since Western viewers have their own cultural knowledge and experience , their own way of thinking, the work of art from a non- Western culture will inevitably take on a new significance. Hans Robert Jauss calls this the effect of translation which is a way of transcending the horizon of the original meaning and, therefore, also the intentionality of the artist and his work.

Hence decoding of works of art may vary depending on different cultural backgrounds. As an example I would like to give an interpretation of Liu Lan based on a conversation with a young Chinese Intellectual who has seen the work together with me. She sees the distance between man and woman or the lack of physical touching as nothing unusual.(Fig.9) Chinese people would rather hide their emotions and show their true feelings in a much more restrained way than westerners. There are signs of deep love and caring: like the woman covering the man, or dusting off the boat. Similarly, the man, helping in cleaning the fish, gives an indication of the seriousness of his intentions. It would be clearly a love story with symbols hinting at matrimony like the mandarin ducks swimming on the water, or the ripe pomegranate in autumn. The surface of the water reflecting the light reminds her of a Chinese expression ‘bo guang lin lin’ meaning complete happiness and harmony. Similarly, a critique by Su Xian Ting refers to the peace and harmony of the film as a spiritual home for people under pressure engaged in the struggle for power and money. Su Xian Ting then describes in detail the various references to traditional Chinese painting and poetry as well as the beauty of the landscape of Suzhou where the film was taken. While Su Xian Ting praises the film’s quality between dream and reality other Chinese voices are more critical: Fu Xiao Dang considers the film to be of a somewhat ‘dubious romanticism’. These comments are evidence for the vivid discussion of Yang Fudong’s work in China .They also substantiate his claim of making art mainly for a Chinese audience.

Turning back to the Western viewer, the text in the catalogue states that the attraction of Liu Lan might have to do with our urge to slow down history, our need for maintaining balances or harmony. Some new relationship to time, which is not tied up with nostalgia but some need to resist the unconditional ideal of change . Another interpretation based on the doctrine of materialism might point to the uneven development in China with different temporalities present at the same time, the backwardness of the countryside which Yang Fudong alludes to in The Seven Intellectuals by letting a peasant pass in traditional clothes and balancing a bamboo pole on his shoulder in the background. In Close to the Sea he achieves a similar effect with the shadowy figure of a traditional fisherman. The clothes in the first part of The Seven Intellectuals relate to a period before China’s revolution while the second part of the Seven Intellectuals lets the group of young people mount Huangshan in a cable car and pose nude at the top of the mountain, thus referring to the presence.

Reading work by conducting a dialogue with a second viewer who is culturally literate in the world of the artist becomes communicative action in the sense of Habermas . Co-curated or collaborative exhibition projects like Light as Fuck in Oslo or Camera in Paris are successful examples of such dialogue. While it breaks the myth of ‘sinicity’ it does not release the Western partner from deeply engaging in the culture of the ‘other’. One of the most successful examples of a new breed of critics and curators is the Swiss Hans Ulrich Obrist, who considers himself as a ‘junction maker’ bases his work on the dialogue with the artist.

I would like conclude this essay with three reflections :

1. Yang Fudong’s work deals with the situation of intellectuals in China. If intellectuals have become marginalized, they nevertheless negotiate an autonomous space. In the field of the arts, non -institutional events and the Internet will most likely play a leading role. It remains to be seen whether the process of opening up of critical public spaces becomes irreversible in the Chinese political context.

2. Translation into a different culture implies that the work of art will take on a new significance and transcend the horizon of the original meaning (Jauss/Iser). Faced with the risk of misreading a work of art from a culture as different, dynamic and strong as the Chinese, Western critics tend to disengage from critical analysis either by falling into the trap of superficiality or by resorting to some concept of ‘radical alterity’, stopping at boundaries without crossing them.

3. However, in a globalized context the Western viewer can no longer ‘ afford to be satisfied with having acknowledged the obvious points of difference and compelling points of commonality with an artist from another culture. The boundary must be crossed and the trajectory followed into other cultural, aesthetic and experiential territories. Without such a crossing contemporary art is in danger of being reduced to contemporary artefact’.

List of Illustrations

Fig. 1. Yang Fudong, still from film Seven Intellectuals of the Bamboo Forest, 2003

Fig. 2. Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove ( left part), stone engraving on brick (ca. 300 A.D)

Fig. 3. Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and Rong Qiqi ( right part), stone engraving on brick ( ca.300


Fig. 4. Yang Fudong, The First Intellectual , Photographic Triptych, 2000

Fig. 5. Li Zhen Sheng, from Le petit livre rouge d’un photographe chinois 1966/67

Fig. 6. Long Chin San, Springtime Fantasia, Composite Picture, photograph on bromide, ca.1937

Fig. 7. Yang Fudong, still from film Liu Lan, 2003

Fig. 8. Yang Fudong, still from 10 - screen video installation Close to the Sea, 2004

Fig. 9. Yang Fudong, still from film Liu Lan 2003


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Other sources :

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