From rustic rural paintings to political pop art, Chinese art is unique in its reflection of culture, politics, and society.

In this quick guide to modern Chinese art, we uncover the trends, movements, and controversies that have shaped the art scene over the last 50 years.

Mao (2006) by Yu Youhan

The 1970s

After the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China saw a new movement of dynamic artists who wanted to challenge the status quo.

In the same year as Mao’s death, the first exhibition of Western art was held since WWII. Paintings of rural France by the artist Jules-Bastien Lepage were displayed at Beijing’s National Art Museum and in Shanghai. 

This rustic style of painting influenced ‘the father of modern painting’, Wu Guanzhong. His first solo exhibition was shown at the National Art Museum of China in 1979. 

Wu Guanzhong's landscapes of his home region, Jiangnan

Later in the decade saw the emergence of the Stars Art Group, who were self-taught and are known as the first influential avant-garde art group in China.

Their first major show of work was placed without permission in a small park next to the National Art Gallery (now the China Art Gallery). Although the display was removed and protests occurred, they were later given their own exhibition that was attended by 80,000 people.

The Stars Art Group's first makeshift exhibition

Influential artists of the Stars Art Group include Huang Rui, Ma Desheng and Ai Weiwei. The group’s work includes films, installations, sculptures, and paintings that are now displayed worldwide. 

Huang Rui's The Guitar's Story (1979)

The 1980s

Between the early and mid-80s, the Chinese government launched an Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign that cracked down on Western cultural influences, including on the avant-garde art scene and the Stars Art Group. 

After 1985, the campaign ended and The Young Art of Progressive China exhibit triggered the 85’ New Wave movement.

Self-Portrait? Da Vinci or Mona Lisa? by the founder of Xiamen Dada Group, Huang Yong Ping

During this New Wave period, more than 75 groups of Chinese artists produced new work heavily influenced by absurdism. 

In 1988, Xu Bing displayed his first solo exhibition, Book from the Sky. The work features traditional books and scrolls filled with thousands of nonsense Chinese-style characters.

A page from Xu Bing's Book from the Sky (1988)

The 1990s

By the start of the 90s, Cynical Realism reached peak popularity. This movement was a reaction against China’s post-1989 politics. 

Cynical Realists, such as Zhuang Xiaogang and Liu Wei, are among the highest earners in Chinese art scene.

Zhang Xiaogang's A Big Family (1995)

Later, the 90s saw works criticising consumerism. The Mass Consumption exhibit at a MacDonald’s in central Beijing involved rock music, painting and fashion shows but was shut down by authorities before the event even started.

Artists such as Li Xianting and Wang Guangyi were the first Chinese avant-garde artists to be shown at a prestigious international art festival in Venice.

Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism: Disney (2000)

The 2000s

The 2000s saw an explosion in Chinese artists exhibiting work internationally.

Yue Minjun became a critic favourite with his striking self-portraits. Exhibitions in Venice and London helped him shoot to international acclaim.

Yue Minjun's The Sun (2000)

Continuing China’s influence abroad, 2003’s Well then, China? exhibition in Paris was the first state-sponsored international exhibition of Chinese art.

In 2011 an ink painting by Qi Baishi became the most expensive painting ever sold. Costing $57.2 million, the work beat previous records set by Picasso and Warhol. 

Towering Pine and Cypress Painting with Four-Character-Line Couplet in Seal Script  (1945) by Qi Baishi

What's next for the future of Chinese art?

Recently there has been growing interest in art as new galleries open in cities and towns across the country.

The China Art Museum opened in 2012

A younger generation of Chinese artists have been exploring and responding to topics like urbanization, climate change, and social media.

Female artists, like Nabuqi and Xinyi Cheng, have also been making their voices heard in the international and Chinese art scene through sculpture and paint.

Bathtub (2013) and Night Tub (2014) by  Xinyi Cheng

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Isobel Haskell
Isobel Haskell is studying for a Master’s Degree in Chinese Studies at SOAS in London. As a language learner and noodle enthusiast, she hopes to write stories that inspire curiosity.
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