Confucius and Mao at the Mall

In China, local and regional governments are spending lavishly to establish a new kind of public space.

Cartoon-style billboard, Shanghai.
Lei Feng billboard, Shanghai, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

On a typically muggy day in Chongqing, a heartland metropolis that has grown so fast it awes even the Chinese, I spent a morning in a sculpture studio set high on a bluff above the Yangtze River. On the grounds of the studio complex — a decommissioned state-owned cup-and-bowl plant still named the Chongqing Industrial Enamel Factory — artist Zhang Xiang showed me his latest creation-in-progress, a clay mock-up of a frieze propped against the factory wall. The frieze and its accompanying sculpture presented the Song dynasty general An Bing as an avatar of benevolent authority: the towering commander, with neatly-trimmed mustache, flowing beard, and dramatic cape, is portrayed handing out grain to the region’s children and elderly, who line up to thank him. The sculptor, a youthful 35, dressed in hip gray sneakers with a matching gray backpack, told me that he was particularly proud of this work, because it had afforded him a degree of autonomy rare in government commissions.

The People’s Republic of China has always sponsored public art. But a new kind of work is proliferating amidst the greatest city-building binge in human history.

State-sponsored public art has long been woven into the urban fabric of the People’s Republic of China, but such works have proliferated in recent decades as the country has embarked on the greatest city-building binge in human history. For residents of cities like Chongqing and Shanghai, propagandistic political imagery like that in Zhang Xiang’s An Bing series has become as ubiquitous as capitalist advertisements — in fact, the two often alternate in the ads that flash across flat-screen TVs in every subway car and city bus. One minute a smiling animated sheep is beckoning viewers to dine at a local hotpot chain; the next, a computer-graphics montage shows shiny molten metal pouring into a mold and emerging as a mighty hammer and sickle that rises triumphantly over the city. At first glance, the figure on the billboard looks like a happy little boy rendered in trendy kawaii style. Look again, and he is revealed to be rosy-cheeked Lei Feng, the model soldier of Maoist propaganda, wearing his trademark winter hat with ear-flaps and toting an automatic weapon.

Statue of An Bing.
Zhang Xiang, An Bing, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

Frieze of An Bing.
Zhang Xiang, An Bing Distributing Grain, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

Mao regarded his revolution as an historic rupture. But the Party now presents its regime as a restoration, returning China to its traditional place as the world’s largest economy and most powerful state. In the last fifteen years or so, official edicts have elevated numerous philosophers and statesmen from the ages of the emperors — including Confucius and An Bing — to secular sainthood, part of a growing pre-Communist pantheon that emphasizes parallels between the wealthy and powerful Middle Kingdom that endured for millennia before Western imperialism, and the nation eclipsing the West today. The government has an ambitious ideological agenda to push and full coffers from the state-capitalist boom. For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist art.

For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist and traditionalist art.

Zhang Xiang is a prolific sculptor of Mao Zedongs and Deng Xiaopings, and makes nonfigurative assemblages and installations as well (such as his recent massive ball of recycled clothing tied together with ropes). For him, the pleasure of the project he showed me lay in the convenient fact that no period portraits of An Bing exist, leaving room for wide creative license. (The only information about the general’s physical appearance comes from a medieval poem that, predictably, describes him as tall and handsome.) By contrast, official images of Mao and Deng are hemmed in by long lists of regulations. On canvas, paramount leaders always appear bathed in light, like Catholic saints in European art; Mao is never portrayed in any medium, including the lithographic portraits reproduced on every denomination of Chinese paper currency, without his trademark chin mole.

Portrait of Mao Zedong.
Portrait of Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong Memorial Museum, Shaoshan, 2012. [Wikimedia Commons]

Billboard of Deng Xiaoping.
Billboard portrait of Deng Xiaoping, Shenzhen, 2007. [Wikimedia Commons]

The monument I saw in progress had been commissioned by the City of Guang’an, a mid-sized municipality in Sichuan Province where An Bing is a hometown hero. Despite Zhang Xiang’s relative artistic freedom, he still had to offer up several versions of each element for official scrutiny before the design was finalized. As always in such endeavors, he explained, authorities were on the lookout for “hard mistakes” — say, dressing Song dynasty officials in Han dynasty garb. But “soft mistakes” also send artists back to the studio. Officials sometimes insist, for instance, that “the main guy be taller to represent that he’s politically powerful. Or they may want the people to look happier to show that they’re satisfied and getting along well with each other. The authorities can be very blunt, and artists need to heed their requests,” Zhang Xiang told me. “After all, we’re paid in phases.” 1 The first payment clears when an initial clay model is submitted; the second when revisions are deemed acceptable. The final installment doesn’t come through until a year or more after the unveiling, when the work passes inspection for chips and cracks.

As always, authorities are on the lookout for ‘hard mistakes.’

Governmental authorities order art the way they order any other commodity — with a procurement contract. The bidding process is often opaque. For Zhang Xiang, this particular commission came via Zhang Lang (no relation), a forty-year-old colleague in the sculpture department of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. Though Zhang Lang is still an active artist, these days he has also become a businessman on a fairly large scale. Zhang Xiang is essentially a subcontractor; it is Zhang Lang who won the contract, covers rent on the studio, and pays the artist’s fee. Chain-smoking as we sipped tea in front of his own recent work — a white gypsum sculpture of a maternal-looking People’s Liberation Army doctor healing a Tibetan child — the wiry Zhang Lang bragged about the origins of the Guang’an piece. It had initially been slated to be put on out for multiple bids, but he’d scored an inside deal. When I inquired about his connections with city officials, he demurred, sharing only that he’d presented a good preliminary sketch and quoted a good price. Contract in hand, Zhang Lang tapped Zhang Xiang and gave him the work-space and specs — the size of the wall to receive the bas-reliefs and the dimensions of the city square where General An Bing would preside.

Sculpture by Zhang Xiang.
Zhang Xiang, A Thousand Catties — The Art of the Family, 2017. [Li Ming]

Sculpture by Zhang Lang.
Zhang Lang, PLA Medic and Tibetan Girl, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

Like much of the Chinese economy in recent decades, the enamel-cup-and-bowl factory had been “privatized,” meaning that real-estate investors have been granted multi-decade land-use leases. But despite the massive scale of these privatizations, the industrial building in Chongqing — and indeed all land in China — remains officially owned by the state. When fields on the outskirts of cities are rezoned for housing, offices, and shopping centers, leases bestow development rights only, not ownership. If push ever came to shove in court, even the land-use rights would be unenforceable.

Between 2011 and 2013, China poured more concrete than the U.S. poured in the 20th century.

China’s state-backed real-estate boom and concomitant public-art boom have attained a magnitude that is difficult to fathom: Consider that between 2011 and 2013, mainland China poured more concrete than the U.S. poured in the entire 20th century. 2 And even such stunning factoids fail to capture what it’s like on the ground, firsthand. Local and regional governments are spending lavishly to establish a new kind of public space in China, marked by a disorienting hybridization of Communist, nationalist, and capitalist symbols and functions that is, by turns, futuristic and nostalgic. Even the most pedestrian-hostile, neo-Corbusian developments include some officially-zoned walkable area, typically a shopping plaza, and here developers pay de facto in-kind kickbacks to officials in the form of sycophantic public monuments. Public spaces like parks are dotted with nationalistic art sponsored by flush municipal bureaus. The aim is to unify an ever-wealthier yet increasingly unequal society, as well as to exert the soft power of unelected authorities both Communist and capitalist.

Wandering China’s sprawling new cityscapes, today’s flâneur observes an incongruous procession of innocuous “peace trees” and brand-new military monuments that appear to have been shipped in via time-machine from 1970s East Berlin. This is not what the phrase “Chinese art boom” generally conjures beyond the borders of the People’s Republic; international audiences typically think of the contemporary projects that have filled Western galleries, headlined the biennial circuit, and set records at premier auction houses. Such works are made by independent artists (those operating “outside the system,” as the Chinese put it), most famously the dissident Ai Weiwei. But in terms of sheer output, artists working “inside the system,” taking on public commissions and holding professorships at state-run academies, dwarf the internationally-celebrated practitioners. Focusing on China’s art-world superstars would be like a foreign correspondent in the U.S. reporting on American culture through art-house cinemas while ignoring Hollywood blockbusters, or covering American cuisine without mentioning McDonald’s. “Outside the system” art may be more innovative, but it is “inside the system” works that reach hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. These works are interesting because they are so uninteresting and yet so ubiquitous. This is the art that Chinese urbanites see, whether they want to or not.

Even by Chinese standards, there is no boomtown quite like Chongqing. A decision by the central government in 1997 split the city off from the rest of Sichuan Province and designated it a stand-alone federal region — the same status accorded to the financial capital, Shanghai. The goal was to concentrate inland economic development; rather than see investment scattered anarchically across the interior, central planning focused growth on a single city linked to the rest of the country via sparkling new airports, expressways, and high-speed rail lines. In the ensuing two decades, Chongqing has transformed into China’s — and, by some measures, the world’s — fastest-growing city. 3

Twin River Bridges, Chongqing, China.
Twin River Bridges: Dongshuimen Bridge over the Yangtze (left), Qiansimen Bridge over the Jialing (right), Chongqing, ca. 2015. [T.Y. Lin International Group]

Today, the subtropical metropolis of roughly 20 million people is a labyrinth of skyscrapers. The daunting topography of the region, cut by rivers and mountain ranges, underscores the triumph of the urban transformation. Expressways and railroads bore through ridges and span rivers. Highway tunnels through the bluffs are so long that they include multiple exits. The city’s subway map is drawn half in color and half in gray-scale — color for lines that already exist and gray-scale for the lines currently under construction. Back in the impoverished 1960s, the central government printed propaganda posters to hail construction of a single bridge over the Yangtze River as a “great victory for Mao Zedong thought.” 4 Today, some seventeen bridges cross the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers in Chongqing alone, with more being built. The most dramatic of these constructions, a double-decker rail-and-road suspension bridge supported by sleek towers, crosses the Yangtze, burrows under the city’s downtown peninsula, and then shoots back out over the Jialing in a mirroring structure.

Few places have experienced the urban art boom as dramatically as Chongqing.

Because real-estate and infrastructural development go hand-in-hand with cultural investment in contemporary China, few places have experienced the urban art boom as dramatically as Chongqing. Bo Xilai, the powerful Party boss who ran the region from 2007 to 2012, was renowned for promoting “Red Culture,” a neo-Maoist celebration of revolutionary symbols. Even after Bo was purged — he is currently serving a life sentence in prison for corruption — Chongqing authorities have continued to promote this nostalgic celebration of the People’s Republic in concert with salutes to the imperial past and current technological and economic transformations. Since taking power in 2012, paramount leader Xi Jinping has pushed a jingoistic Bo-ism-without-Bo nationwide. In the 1950s, the Party slogan “Overtake England and Catch Up to America” was delusional; now the question is not if, but when.

Chongqing was uniquely positioned to benefit from the art boom, given that long before the city became famous for its growth, it was famous for its art school. Founded nearly a decade before the revolution, when Chongqing was an inland backwater, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute has always drawn aspiring young artists from all over the country. In recent decades, an alternative art scene has developed off-campus, as students and younger faculty who eschew stodgy “inside the system” patronage cobble together a more bohemian existence. The main avenue abutting the school has become a “graffiti street,” its apartment blocks covered in emoji-esque cartoons. A network of independent galleries, led by the internationally-oriented Organhaus (my local host), has blossomed as well. The global art-world that elevates artists like Ai Weiwei takes note. But given these venues’ quasi-underground status and modest domestic followings, inside China they are still more sideshow than main event — and the authorities are keen to keep them that way.

Graffiti, Chongqing, China.
Graffiti Street, Chongqing, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

Graffiti, Chongqing, China.
Graffiti Street, Chongqing, 2017. [Daniel Brook]

Buildings with graffiti, Chongqing, China.
Graffiti Street, Chongqing, 2015. [Daniel Brook]

For faculty at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, contributing to state-backed exhibitions has long been a tacit condition of employment. It is now the path to a profitable side hustle as well. Zhang Lang’s salute to the “liberation” of Tibet, for instance, was created for an exhibition at the Institute’s art gallery, sponsored by the local Culture and Propaganda Bureau to honor the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Party’s armed wing, the PLA. Zhang Lang received a modest stipend for the work. But the real payoff came in the form of opportunities at the opening reception, where artists and government officials mingled and contracts materialized. According to Zhang Xiang, assignments like his An Bing frieze and sculpture for Guang’an have become the difference between making ends meet on a faculty paycheck and enjoying fine dining and international travel.

Supporting a bourgeois lifestyle by producing Communist art is a bargain that gives some artists pause.

Supporting a bourgeois lifestyle by producing Communist art is a bargain that gives some artists pause — as I found when I interviewed faculty members in coffee shops and studios along the hipster side streets. We met off campus because the Institute had banned visits from international lecturers like myself until after the conclusion of the Communist Party conference in Beijing (a red banner exhorting the observance of International Teachers Day flew over the university gate nevertheless). Even off campus, Zhang Lang waxed nationalistic about the civilizing mission of the army in Tibet, and railed against “these younger artists” — those “outside the system” — “who tell negative stories about China abroad and focus on China’s problems.” But I also heard from many quiet critics. Some attempt to smuggle subversive ideas into official works and exhibitions, while others fully bifurcate their professional lives. Tang Yong, for example, uses funds from “inside the system” commissions like his Red Army Monument in Wanyuan — a cast-copper Socialist Realist soldier standing tall atop an angular podium — to support his critical “outside the system” projects. In his studio, an assistant showed me a sculpture assailing China’s Two-Child Policy — a shiny fiberglass condom standing five feet tall, with bleached human skulls tumbling out of it. Works like this have prompted the closure of Tang’s exhibitions in Chongqing and Beijing. Nevertheless, his connections with local authorities run deep enough that official gigs keep coming. Besides, he said, “the public-art bureau doesn’t know about the other bureau that shuts me down.” Funding his critical art with commissions glorifying the very system that bans his work, Tang has cleverly turned biting the hand that feeds him into a strategy for creative survival.

Two works by Tang Yong.
Tang Yong, Wanyuan Defense Battle Monument, Wanyuan, 2012 [Manye Tian], and Feast — Still There, 2007 [Liu Yong].

So much publicly-funded art has been produced since the turn of the last century that the nation is scrambling for places to put it all; a significant portion of all that freshly-poured concrete has gone to build new palaces of culture. In 2002, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that, by 2015, it would build one thousand museums. In classic Stakhanovite fashion, this audacious central-planning goal was met — and exceeded — ahead of schedule, and by 2013, China had founded nearly fifteen hundred new galleries. At the peak of the campaign, a new museum, invariably stuffed with Socialist Realist oil paintings, was opening every single day. 5 Among the most acclaimed is the China Art Museum in Shanghai, housed in the Chinese national pavilion from Expo 2010, a massive showplace along the Huangpu river.

A significant portion of all that freshly-poured concrete has gone to build new palaces of culture.

The museum-building binge is key to a state-sponsored “civilizing” push that seeks to move China from a society of raw new wealth to one of globalized sophistication. The goal is modernization without liberalization — to match or surpass the standard of living in the countries that industrialized earlier than China, without compromising the Party’s  centralized power. (Chongqing’s local government has launched its own smaller-bore “Civilized City Campaign” to encourage residents to practice good etiquette, like queuing on subway platforms and not spitting in public.) Locals, however, sometimes balk at being force-fed “civilization.” Because of the government’s land monopoly, the state-financed, state-run exhibition halls are typically given enviable locations and entrance is almost always free, yet the galleries are rarely crowded with anyone other than school groups on mandatory field trips. The China Art Museum is the exception that proves the rule — though its appeal is less its art than its architecture. The red beam-and-bracket structure, designed by He Jingtang, was celebrated in state media because it was so much larger than the pavilions of other nations at Expo 2010; now, no domestic tourist’s trip to Shanghai is complete without the requisite selfie out front. Inside, however, crowds circulate rapidly through cavernous halls hung with hagiographic portraits of long-dead Party paragons; museum-goers seem more interested in an excuse to go out with friends or family than in the art on display.

Chongqing Art Museum, China.
Chongqing Art Museum, 2015. [Wikimedia Commons]

As a poster-child for China’s stunning rise, Chongqing naturally erected a flagship museum too. Set on a multi-acre plaza in the heart of downtown, the Chongqing Art Museum (also known as the Jiefangbei Guotai Arts Centre) was designed by Cui Kai and opened in October 2013. Viewed from above by Chinese observers in surrounding buildings, the Lego-like red-and-black beam structure can be clearly read as an abstraction of the character for “nation.” During my time in Chongqing, the museum was hosting an exhibit of woodblock prints. This medium goes back centuries in China, to the world’s first printing press, a non-moveable-type machine created in the 9th century. But the focus of “Made in Chongqing: Industrial Scenes in Woodcut Pictures” was woodblock-printed propaganda from the 20th century. The oldest posters on exhibit were created during World War II, when Chongqing, safely inland, briefly became the national capital; after the Communist Party took power in 1949 and launched campaigns like the Great Leap Forward, this medium for public communication became even more important. The mostly black-and-white prints were hung chronologically and interspersed with rusting, vintage industrial equipment, presenting the city’s nearly seven decades under one-party rule as a chronicle of uninterrupted industrial progress. In an image from the 1950s, dedicated workers shovel coal into a glowing furnace; in the 1970s, pleased proletarians coo over a tiny tractor-prototype on their factory floor. The most recent works venerate Chongqing’s skyscrapers and elevated expressways in similarly utopian terms, using the same woodblock-print idiom.

A few days after visiting the exhibit, I had lunch with its curator at a Pizza Hut around the corner from the museum. Cai Feng sported the goatee and blue Converse T-shirt of an aging skate-boarder and, over a durian-topped pie, he laid out how his exhibit came to be. Each year, more than 200 state-run museums pitch their most ambitious proposals to the Culture and Propaganda Bureau in Beijing. It’s an exhaustive application process that includes submitting a digital image of every work planned for inclusion. Cai’s survey of woodblock prints was among the 25 shows that were approved. Once it went up, authorities audited it through the state-run art press, as is typical. “The media does two jobs,” explained Cai. “They come from Beijing to interview the artists and curators for their published articles, but they also file separate, secret reports with the authorities to ensure that this is the thing you proposed to the government.”

Each year, more than 200 state-run museums pitch their most ambitious proposals to the Culture and Propaganda Bureau in Beijing.

Cai’s exhibit was, work for work, precisely what he’d pitched. Yet his personal interpretation diverged subtly from the official tale of uninterrupted social progress. “As a curator,” he said, “I consider myself a storyteller. And I especially want to teach young people born after the 1990s about the 1950s.” In a nation where the famines and failures of the Great Leap Forward have been excised from history by censorship, young people like Cai, who didn’t live through the era, often view it with a certain longing. The curator noted the prevalence of human figures in woodcuts from the Maoist period, while the subjects of recent works are all machines. “The art from back then is not as cold,” he mused. “There’s a sense of community in the art. People helping each other.” It reminded him, he told me, of how he’d grown up.

Woodblock print, 1956.
Zhu Xuanxian, Group Policy, 1956. [via iDaily Media]

Woodblock print, 1965.
Wu Kongchun, Pioneer, 1965. [via iDaily Media]

Cai was born in coastal Shandong Province in 1985, to a pair of workers at China’s state oil monopoly, Sinopec. His mother worked as a supply clerk and his father was an oil-field roughneck whose job grew less grueling each year as his increasing age and the company’s increasing automation eased him into less arduous tasks. Cai moved to Chongqing in 2004 to study at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, and now, to all appearances, he is thriving in the metropolis — winning national competitions at work and planning his wedding and first international trip. He and his fiancée are going to Russia, where he hopes to learn more about the Soviet Socialist Realist tradition that deeply shaped visual art in China, in order to one day mount an exhibit of 20th-century Soviet and Chinese paintings side by side.

Notwithstanding these successes, Cai values the comforts of a simpler life. Uncommonly for someone of his generation, he grew up in an old-style work unit. “In the state-owned enterprises in China, people have tight bonds and a sense of community. At my school, my dad’s middle-school classmate was my principal,” he told me. “I miss it.” He’s lived in Chongqing for well over a decade, yet still Shandong is “home.” “I have a flat that’s nicer than the old place I grew up in, but I have only a few acquaintances in the neighborhood. I don’t even know their names. We just say ‘hi’ when we walk our dogs. Back home, people have dinner together, go on walks together.” The woodblock prints from the 1950s suggest, for Cai, a critique of current realities. A nation that once supported its citizens through stable employment and a web of intimate connections has given way to a population of atomized individuals who don’t know their neighbors down the hall in skyscraper condos.

Woodblock print, 2007.
Peng Wei, Mirage, 2007. [Courtesy of the artist]

A few days later, I met Peng Wei, the artist who made one of the most recent images in the woodblock exhibition — Highway in the City (2010), a print of an elevated expressway. We met on the campus of Chongqing’s Southwest University, where he teaches printmaking. In his office, Peng explained that he had first glimpsed this view of a new freeway from the passing lane a year after learning to drive. When he first came to Chongqing for schooling, in 1994, the bus trip from his hometown of Guang’an took eight hours. Now, on new roads cut through the mountains, he can get there in his Mercedes sedan in just 90 minutes. Peng’s life parallels China’s transformation. It wasn’t until 1990, when he was ten, that his family got its first tv, a clunky black-and-white; now he carries a world-pacing made-in-China iPhone in his pocket. But, to Peng, “the city’s development is too fast and I don’t like it. The speed could be slowed down but the government won’t do it. It’s always getting faster.”

With China’s rise, even ‘inside the system’ artists are finding ways to express skepticism.

Peng is a prosperous urban professional, risen from rural poverty, and Chinese authorities are eager to telegraph such stories of astonishing progress to audiences at home and beyond. But the fast-forward pace of development is jarring for him, as it is for China’s hundreds of millions of new urbanites. To live in contemporary China is to be dropped into the fastest-developing society in human history, a discomfiting experience that calls to mind Marx’s aphorism that, in the modern world, “all that is solid melts into air.” In this dizzying environment, even the “inside the system” artists of China’s rise are finding ways to express skepticism. Clearing a drafting table, Peng rolled out another large woodblock print. A vertigo-inducing image of Chongqing’s skyline, it was not, he assured me, a salute to the wonders of unchecked growth. “The title is Mirage. People build just to tear down later. The city of today is nothing but a mirage.”

Author's Note

My thanks to interpreter Yang Jieyi for her assistance with this research.

  1. I conducted interviews in Chongqing from September 4 through 28, 2017. All quotes are from these conversations.
  2. Christine Jeavans and Helier Cheung, “Cement and Pig Consumption Reveal China’s Huge Changes,”, September 21, 2015.
  3. Mick Brown, “Chongqing, the World’s Fastest Growing City,” July 12, 2009, The Daily Telegraph,
  4. I viewed this poster at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.
  5. Winnie Wong, “China’s Museum Boom,” Artforum 54, no. 3 (November 2015), 123-126.
Daniel Brook, “Confucius and Mao at the Mall,” Places Journal, January 2019. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

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