Contemporary art encouraging individual identities

Contemporary artist Zhang Huan juxtaposes elements of traditional China with social commentary, making him one of the most influential figures in the art world. His larger scale works dominates the space unapologetically, sparking conversations from people of all generations. His first performancetitled ‘Angel 1993’ established his dedication to art,  as he laid naked, pouring red paint over a doll’s body parts, symbolic of the abundant abortion of baby girls, a result of the one-child policy (Goldberg, 2000).

angel-1993Zhang Huan performing ‘流淚的天使’ in the National Art Museum of China, Beijing.

Performed two decades after Mao Zedong’s suppressive government, the rise of contemporary art symbolised Chinese people’s desire to reform their individual identities after the Cultural Revolution of dictatorship. “Artists have begun to express…fresh ideas and explore newly found freedoms (Kirkland, 2012). Huan’s comment on the taboo raised questions on the value of girls and the aftermath of overpopulation issues unique to China. The gender ratio has gradually shrunken 5.38% from 2004 to 2014 (Ping, 2015), reflecting changing values among Chinese youths of traditional gender roles, a combination of influences from influencers like Huan.

Huan has also aimed to directly create a sense of empowerment among Chinese people, whilst commenting on societal prejudices. Huan invited forty unemployed migrants to a pond located right in the centre of Beijing, creating a public stir. The participants had power and control in an urban city that disregarded their value (Kirkland, 2012). Their bodies became a means of art-making and their presence had the power to create change.

zhang-huan-to-raise-the-water-level-in-a-fishpond-1997-1-800x0To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, 1997

Huan’s work rises questions of what constitutes the ‘self’ (Gould, 2016), a direct contrast against Modern China. Kirkland’s research uncovers the government’s economic focus and industrialisation to have replaced the traditional Chinese identity with ‘uniform boxed high-rises” (2012). However, artists like Huan continue to advocate for the minority voices, holding on to a sense of identity by “reawakening a spirit and giving them a voice in a  [remaining] totalitarian regime” (Kirkland, 2012).  Today, more than tenthousand enterprises are founded every day, majority internet based reflecting a burst of creative entrepreneurialism from Chinese millennials (Doctoroff & Hong, 2015).  However education remains dominant over creative self-expression, a reflection of Deng Xiaoping’s claim ‘to getting rich is glorious!’ still remaining in play today. Doctoroff & Hong state that capitalist aspirations are lubricated by personal relationships known as ‘face’ (2015). The aftermath are concepts like ‘gaofushuai‘ for millennial men, translating to tall, rich and handsome, an unforgiving standard boiling in a pressure pot of historic standards and societal pressures.

Huan’s art aims to invoke the nuances of contemporary Chinese life, encouraging to “invoke narratives that address many of China’s social concerns” (Kirkland 2012) and promotes individual thinking, a pursuit of passions and a celebration of youth.

Yanny Yu


Doctoroff, T. Hong, LY. 2015, Chinese Millennials: New Minds In An Old World, Forbes, New York, viewed 4 November 2016, < >.

Goldberg, R. 2000, Interview with Zhang Huan, Zhang Huan, Santiago, 4 November 2016, < >.

Gould, R. 2016, Chinese Artist Zhang Huan’s Contemporary Reality Is Steeped In Tradition, The Culture Trip, New York, 4 November 2016, < >.

Huan, Z. 1993, 流淚的天使 Angel, Asia Art Archive, newed 4 November 2016, < >.

Huan, Z. 1997, To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond, Public Delivery, viewed 4 November 2016, < >.

Kirkland, C. 2012, ‘Modern Chinese Art in Dialogue with Social Unrest’, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, pp. 65-84.

Ping, L. 2015, Chinese Men Outnumber Women by 33 Million After Decades of Gender Bias, Radio Free Asia, Washington DC, 4 November 2016, < >.

Posted in D: Chinese Contemporary Culture

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