How Traditional Principles Shape Contemporary Chinese Art
Chinese contemporary art is a testament to the enduring legacy of artistic expression that has flowed through centuries and into the present, embuing the art world with its distinctive aesthetics. From the fluid elegance of calligraphy that encapsulates the wisdom of sages to the poignant ink paintings echoing the rhythm of nature, traditional Chinese aesthetics have served as a mirror to a holistic vision of life and art—a vision deeply rooted in spirituality, philosophy, and a profound respect for nature.
However, as we navigate through modern times, traditional Chinese aesthetics has met the confluences of new thoughts, technologies, and global influences. This reshaping of its course has led to a fascinating evolution in Chinese contemporary art. With the Western world’s attention increasing facing the East, Chinese artists are wielding their brushes not just to create art, but to initiate a dialogue—a dialogue between the traditional and the modern, the local and the global, the temporal and the timeless.
In fact, in modern Chinese art, you can anticipate a diverse palette ranging from subdued monochromatic tones reminiscent of traditional ink paintings to vibrant, bold colors inspired by Western styles. You’ll often find lines that vary from soft, fluid brushstrokes which echo calligraphic elegance, to rigid, angular forms illustrating contemporary abstraction. Other modern techniques could involve meticulous layering to create depth, contrast, and texture, combined with innovative use of mediums like performance, installation, digital art, and mixed media to bring the artwork to life.
In this article, we will explore the visibility of Chinese contemporary art on the world stage, examine the influences both historical and political on Chinese contemporary art movements, and reveal how contemporary Chinese artists find new and innovative ways to reinvent traditional aesthetics through the lens of modern experiences and global perspectives. In doing so, they are not merely preserving the ancient wisdom embodied in traditional Chinese aesthetics but also contributing to its evolution.
Understanding the Global Visibility of Chinese Contemporary Art
While many Chinese artists today have gained global recognition, certain challenges can hinder their global visibility when compared to Western artists. The global art scene has often been dominated by a Western-centric viewpoint that traditionally highlights European and American artists. This bias extends to the art market, which continues to be largely centered around Western countries.
In fact, until recently within China, the study of Chinese art often involved concepts borrowed from Western art history, as observed by prominent art historian and University of Chicago professor, Wu Hung. This perspective also highlights that traditional Chinese discourses on art, dating back as early as the ninth century, primarily focused on calligraphy and painting. This points to a very specific and somewhat restrictive approach to art history education within China.
Additionally, contemporary Chinese artists may face restrictions due to censorship, limiting the range and impact of their work. Language and cultural differences can also create barriers to understanding and appreciation of their art globally.
I, myself, in exploring and researching this topic am bounded by language constraints, making my access to Chinese language websites and articles largely limited to what is already accessible and available to the West, thus highlighting a select crop of talented individuals deemed suitable for foreign sensibilities.
Another similar challenge in the global visibility of Chinese contemporary art is that Chinese artists have fewer galleries and institutions representing them internationally, impacting their exposure. However, this landscape is changing, and through increased representation in international art fairs and biennials, Chinese contemporary art is garnering increasing recognition worldwide.
Imprints of Time: Tracing Historical and Political Influences in Chinese Contemporary Art
Uncovering the nuances of Chinese contemporary art’s political and historical influences is akin to unraveling a complex tapestry. One of the most profound threads in this tapestry is the influence of the Cultural Revolution—a decade-long period that significantly impacted the lives and art practice of an entire generation.
This tumultuous era left imprints on the art scene, compelling artists to navigate the turbulent waters of political ideology and social upheaval, yet, it also served as a catalyst for change, ushering in a new era of creativity and resilience that still echoes in the works of contemporary Chinese artists today.
But while restrictions can pose challenges, they have also propelled contemporary artists to push boundaries, question conventions, and produce profoundly poignant works. These works, often rich with layers of meaning, offer a compelling insight into the social and political landscape of modern China.
Another crucial dimension of Chinese contemporary art is the fascinating East-West dialogue. Many Chinese artists have been educated or have worked in Western countries, thereby creating a dynamic artistic cross-pollination that blends Eastern traditions with Western influences. This interplay has fostered a richly diverse art scene, where traditional Chinese elements harmonize with Western techniques and ideas, birthing a unique hybrid aesthetic.
A Close Look at 6 Contemporary Chinese Artists and Their Aesthetic Interpretations
Today’s Chinese contemporary art is a dynamic dance of contrasts—East and West, ancient and contemporary, tradition and innovation. The artists, serving as the conductors of this performance, strike a delicate balance between the time-honored philosophies of yesteryears and the vibrant, modern energies of the present world.
In another article (and video) of mine on Wabi Sabi in Photography, I explored how this traditional Japanese concept can be used to create new and novel works of art. Here, we see how the adaptation of tried and true ancient philosophies is alive and in full swing in contemporary Chinese art.
To fully appreciate the depth and dimension of this dance, we must first familiarize ourselves with the core aesthetic principles that underpin Chinese art. These principles, often viewed as the soul of Chinese artistry, can be categorized into six key elements: ‘Shi‘ (Bone Method), ‘Qi Yun‘ (Spirit Resonance), ‘Ying‘ (Correspondence to the Object), ‘Jing‘ (Suitability to Type), ‘Chi‘ (Transmission by Copying), and ‘Yi‘ (Improvisation).
Each artist in the realm of contemporary Chinese art brings their unique interpretation to these principles, creating a mosaic of works that, despite their individuality, are bound together by a shared cultural and aesthetic lineage. As we delve into their works, we will see how these principles come to life, revealing the profound impact they have had in shaping the modern Chinese art landscape.
Liu Dan: ‘Shi’ (Bone Method)
“Shi” or “Bone Method” refers to one of the core principles of traditional Chinese aesthetics, particularly in the realms of painting and calligraphy. This concept is often likened to the bones in the human body, serving as the structural foundation upon which the form and spirit of the artwork are built.
In terms of technique, “Shi” pertains to the brushwork and the way the artist manipulates it to create structure and express movement. It is about the deftness, strength, and rhythm of the brush strokes, which give the painting its vitality and dynamism. A well-executed “Shi” provides a sense of structural solidity and fluidity to the artwork, akin to how bones provide both support and enable movement in a living organism.
However, “Shi” is not just about the physical aspect of brushwork. It also encapsulates the artist’s understanding of the natural world, their internalization of the object or subject being depicted, and their ability to express its inherent structure, spirit, and energy through their artwork. In this sense, the “Bone Method” is as much about capturing the essence of the subject as it is about the technique used to depict it.
A modern Chinese artist that exemplifies the use of “Bone Method” or “Shi” in their work is Liu Dan. Born in 1953, Liu Dan is renowned for his contemporary ink paintings that skillfully integrate traditional Chinese aesthetics with modern sensibilities.
Liu Dan’s work is absolutely breathtaking and comes across both in his mastery of brushwork and in the delicate balance between solid form and something ethereal. He uses meticulous, detailed strokes to create complex textures and structures in his paintings, effectively capturing the essence and vitality of his landscapes and subjects.
His works often involve rigorous studies of natural forms like rocks and trees, which he renders with an astonishing level of detail and accuracy. This is where the concept of “Shi” is especially apparent – the strength and precision of his strokes give a solid ‘bone structure’ to his forms, making them appear almost three-dimensional on the flat surface of the paper.
But Liu Dan’s art is not merely a physical representation of objects. Just as the “Bone Method” encompasses understanding and expressing the spirit of the subject, Liu Dan’s works also delve into the philosophical. His meticulous rendering of natural forms serves as a meditation on the complexities and mysteries of nature, inviting viewers to reflect on their relationship with the natural world.
Xu Bing: “Qi Yun” (Spirit Resonance)
Qi Yun is another core concept in traditional Chinese aesthetics. It’s a term that’s often difficult to translate directly into English but is commonly referred to as “Spirit Resonance” or “Vitality.”
The term is composed of two parts: “Qi,” which can mean energy, breath, or life force, and “Yun,” which can be translated as rhythm, movement, or pattern. When combined, “Qi Yun” reflects the belief that an artwork should convey the energy or spirit of the subject, and this energy should be manifested in a discernible rhythm or pattern within the work.
In the context of traditional Chinese painting or calligraphy, “Qi Yun” can refer to the vitality and dynamism expressed directly through the artist’s brushwork. It’s not just about creating a visually accurate representation or narrative of the subject, but about capturing its inherent energy, character, and essence. Here, brush strokes should seem to flow naturally, with a rhythm that corresponds to the energy of the subject.
One contemporary Chinese artist who demonstrates the principle of “Qi Yun” in his works is Xu Bing. Xu Bing, born in 1955, is known for his innovative use of calligraphy and printmaking, among other mediums.
One of his most famous installations, the “Book from the Sky”, showcases a deep understanding of Qi Yun. In his acclaimed “Book from the Sky” installation, Xu Bing uses traditional Chinese printing techniques to create a massive, immersive environment of hand-printed books and scrolls. But upon closer inspection, the characters are revealed to be gibberish, a poignant commentary on the confusion and disorientation brought by rapid societal change.
Despite using invented, meaningless glyphs that resemble Chinese characters, Xu Bing fills the work with a certain energy and rhythm. The meticulous layout of the glyphs, their balanced distribution, and the apparent ‘movement’ in their arrangement, all give a sense of ‘life’ to the work, embodying the essence of Qi Yun.
Another example is Xu Bing’s work where the brush stroke defines the experience of the work is “Square Word Calligraphy,” where Yu Bing reformulates English words to resemble Chinese characters. Even though these pieces are essentially in English, they still retain the aesthetic rhythm and spirit resonance found in traditional Chinese calligraphy, again highlighting Xu Bing’s understanding and application of Qi Yun.
Cai Guo-Qiang: ‘Ying’ (Correspondence to the Object)
‘Ying,’ or ‘Correspondence to the Object,’ is another vital principle in traditional Chinese aesthetics. This concept refers to the artist’s ability to capture the true essence of the subject, to portray its spirit or fundamental nature, rather than focusing solely on its physical, external form.
In ancient Greek philosophy, this concept can be compared to Aristotle’s theory of Essence, where the sole of an object lies within the object itself. In ancient Chinese philosophy, this concept is deeply intertwined with the Ying/Yang interplay of Taoism, where understanding the natural balance of contrasts and opposites brings about a state of transcendence. Here ‘Ying’ represents the passive, feminine power, and ‘Yang’ the active, masculine principle.
In other words, at its core, ‘Ying’ is about truthful representation, but it’s not necessarily about realism or literal depiction. Instead, it’s about expressing the inherent qualities and characteristics of the subject.
For example, if an artist is painting a bamboo stalk, ‘Ying’ would mean not just accurately depicting the physical characteristics of the bamboo, such as its color, shape, or size. Instead, it would involve expressing the inherent qualities of bamboo – its resilience, flexibility, and upright integrity. The artist should capture the ‘spirit’ of bamboo, its essential nature.
“Sky Ladder,” one of Cai Guo-Qiang’s most recognized works, is a 500-meter ladder constructed with a gunpowder fuse and attached to a weather balloon, ignited to create a cascading ladder of fire and light in the sky. This work, like many others of Cai, can be interpreted through the lens of the ‘Ying’ principle.
In “Sky Ladder,” the subject isn’t just the physical ladder of fire, but rather the broader, abstract concepts it represents: human aspiration, the quest for dreams, the passage of time, and the connection between the earthly and the heavenly. The ladder serves as a symbolic conduit between humans and the cosmos, a path leading toward the heavens, embodying human longing for exploration, knowledge, and transcendence.
The use of gunpowder and fire in creating the ladder further adds to this correspondence. While the explosions used to create many of his works may be interpreted as symbolizing ‘Yang’ principles, it is the traces of what is left behind, or the ‘Ying’, that leave its mark.
In addition, the transitory and volatile nature of the flames reflects the fleeting, ephemeral nature of human aspirations and dreams, capturing the spirit of these concepts rather than their physical manifestation.
Despite its temporary existence, the powerful visual and emotional impact of “Sky Ladder” leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. The work succeeds in conveying the essence and spirit of its subject—human aspiration—thus effectively embodying the ‘Ying’ principle.
Zhang Huan: ‘Jing’ (Suitable to Type)
‘Jing’ (Suitable to Type) focuses on the appropriateness and compatibility between the subject matter and the chosen artistic methods. It reflects the artist’s understanding of the subject’s unique nature so that the art form and technique employed are “suitable” or harmonious with it.
For instance, the ‘Jing’ principle would dictate the use of certain brush strokes, colors, and compositions in a landscape painting that captures the true essence of the depicted scenery. It emphasizes the need for the artist to adapt their techniques according to the specific demands and nature of the subject.
While it might sound similar to other principles, like ‘Ying’ which refers to capturing the essence of the object, ‘Jing’ differs in its emphasis on the harmony between technique and subject, rather than focusing primarily on the object’s inherent qualities. It’s a subtle yet important distinction in Chinese aesthetics.
Zhang Huan is a controversial contemporary Chinese artist who embodies the principle of ‘Jing’ or ‘Suitable to Type’ in his artwork. In “My New York”, a poignant performance piece Zhang paraded through the streets of New York clad in a suit made from raw meat. The shocking spectacle served as a provocative commentary on a range of issues, from cultural alienation and consumerism to the commodification of the body.
The choice of performance art as the medium was suitable to express the raw, confrontational nature of these themes. The suit of meat itself was a powerful visual symbol, embodying the objectification and consumption of the body, and the physical vulnerability and mortality inherent in the human condition.
Zhang’s body, encased in the meat suit, became a canvas upon which these themes were imprinted. His physical discomfort and the public’s reactions became part of the artwork, enhancing its impact and resonance.
Here, Zhang’s literal ‘rawness, and his use of such provocative visual symbols, demonstrate the principle of ‘Jing.’ To be specific, this work illustrates how the medium and method were carefully chosen to align with the nature of the subject matter, resulting in a compelling, thought-provoking work of art.
Through this piece, Zhang not only reflects on his personal experiences as an immigrant in New York but also engages with broader socio-cultural issues. Altogether his cross-cultural influences reflect a deep understanding of the compatibility between subject and form, making “My New York” a quintessential example of ‘Jing’ in contemporary Chinese art.
Qiu Zhijie: ‘Chi’ (Transmission by Copying)
The term “Chi” (sometimes also spelled “Qi”) is indeed often used to refer to energy or the life force in Chinese philosophy. However, within the context of traditional Chinese art and aesthetics, “Chi” has a slightly different meaning. It refers to the principle of learning and mastering art through the process of copying the works of old masters.
That said, the idea of “Chi” as energy or life force can be related to this principle in a metaphoric sense. Just as “Chi” is seen as the vital energy that flows through all things, the aesthetic principle of “Chi” can be seen as the vital flow of artistic knowledge, skill, and inspiration that is transmitted from the old masters to the new artists.
When an artist engages in the process of copying a master’s work, they are not merely reproducing the visual appearance of the original artwork. They are also attempting to grasp the underlying spirit or “energy” of the work, to understand the artistic principles and techniques used by the master, and to absorb the cultural and philosophical ideas embodied in the work.
So while “Chi” in the context of Chinese aesthetics does not directly refer to energy, the concept of energy flow can provide a useful metaphor for understanding this principle and its importance in the tradition of Chinese art.
Another contemporary Chinese artist who demonstrates the aesthetic principle of ‘Chi’ is Qiu Zhijie. Known for his calligraphy and ink paintings, Qiu both respects and challenges the established conventions of these traditional art forms.
Qiu’s “Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times” project is a clear embodiment of the ‘Chi’ principle. In this work, Qiu repeatedly copied the famous ‘Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion’ by Wang Xizhi, an eminent calligrapher of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. This ancient text is renowned and highly respected in China, often used as a prime example for students learning calligraphy.
By copying this Preface a thousand times, Qiu Zhijie engaged in a deep dialogue with this traditional masterpiece. However, rather than striving for perfect replicas, Qiu allowed each copy to vary and evolve, with the characters becoming gradually more abstract and free-form as the process continued. In this way, Qiu demonstrated his mastery of traditional calligraphy while also exploring new possibilities and pushing the boundaries of this art form.
The final yet key concept in traditional Chinese aesthetics that lives on in contemporary Chinese art today is ‘Yi,’ or ‘Improvisation.’ This principle uses randomness and intuition to emphasize spontaneity, freedom of expression, and the artist’s personal response to their subject. It captures the idea that art should not be rigidly constrained by rules or conventions, but should instead be a spontaneous outpouring of the artist’s emotions, perceptions, and creative impulses.
In the context of painting or calligraphy, ‘Yi’ could refer to the artist’s use of free, spontaneous brushstrokes that convey their immediate emotional response to the subject. Rather than aiming for a precise, detailed representation of the subject, the artist might aim to capture the essence or spirit of the subject in a more abstract, impressionistic way.
Zeng Fanzhi is one of China’s most prominent contemporary artists, known for his emotionally charged, expressionistic works. His series of paintings inspired by Vincent van Gogh offers a fascinating insight into the aesthetic principle of ‘Yi’ or ‘Improvisation.’
In this series, Zeng reinterprets van Gogh’s iconic self-portraits, using his own distinctive style to create a dialogue between Eastern and Western artistic traditions, the past and the present, and the personal and the universal. While the subject matter is clearly inspired by van Gogh’s work, Zeng’s approach is not to make a direct copy but to engage with van Gogh’s spirit in a more spontaneous, creative way.
Zeng’s characteristic bold lines and intense colors can be seen in these pieces, as well as an almost frenzied energy that connects with van Gogh’s own intense emotional style. His process of painting is often spontaneous and expressive, and this is particularly evident in the Van Gogh series, where his broad, dynamic brushstrokes capture both the physical likeness and the emotional intensity of van Gogh’s original paintings.
Through this series, Zeng also explores the concept of identity, another key theme in his work. By inserting himself into the artistic lineage of van Gogh, he raises questions about the relationship between the artist and the subject, the self and the other, the personal and the universal.
For further examples of Chinese contemporary artists you need to know click here for a nice list.
As we traverse the mystic universe of Chinese contemporary art, we realize that the journey is not merely about aesthetic exploration. It’s about experiencing the heartbeat of a culture, its dreams, and dialogues, its past, and its potential. The harmony of Xu Bing, the unity of Zao Wou-Ki, the elemental echoes of Cai Guo-Qiang, the resilient symbolism of Ai Weiwei, the modern alchemy of Wu Guanzhong, and the vital pulse of Huang Yong Ping—these are not just artistic expressions; they are the vibrant verses of an evolving cultural narrative.
Chinese contemporary art, in its magnificent marriage of traditional and modern aesthetics, stands as a testament to the resilient spirit of Chinese culture. It continues its mystical journey, gracefully embracing the whispers of ancient wisdom, the shouts of modernity, and the infinite melodies that lie in between. It invites us to embark on this journey, to explore, experience, and evolve with it. And in this enchanting dance of tradition and transformation, we find not just art, but a reflection of our own journeys.