China’s underground art rebels: “Light Before Dawn” exhibition – interview

Art was their common cause, but the Wuming, Xingxing and Caocao groups’ greatest legacy to Chinese artists may have been their rebellious spirit.

“Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Expressions of Chinese Rebellion” is on view from 15 May to 1 September at the Asia Society Hong Kong. Showing the work of three seminal Chinese art groups, the exhibition explores the quiet rebellion that changed Chinese contemporary art for good.

Wang Aihe, 'Moonlight Night', 1974, oil on paperboard. Image courtesy Wang Aihe.

Wang Aihe, ‘Moonlight Night’, 1974, oil on paperboard. Image courtesy Wang Aihe.

Asia Society’s “Light Before Dawn” includes works by 22 artists from the Wuming (No Name), Xingxing (Stars), and Caocao (Grass Society) art groups, all of which were active during the fraught, transitional years of the 1970s and 1980s. Often working undercover, the groups caviled at the hegemony of Mao’s Socialist Realist aesthetic, instead producing works that, more often than not, had little regard for the Party line. Artists such as Ai Weiwei, Ma Desheng, Qiu Deshu and Zhang Wei were formative figures in the groups, and Asia Society displays their works alongside ephemera and personal items in the name of historical contextualisation.

Art Radar spoke to the exhibition curators, Professors Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, as well as Gallery Manager Dominique Chan to find out some of the stories behind the Wuming, Xingxing and Caocao groups’ creative dissent, and to discuss the continuing influence of their work and rebellious spirit on Chinese art today.

Ma Kelu, 'Snow at Wumen Gate', 1974, oil on paperboard. Image courtesy Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and René Balcer.

Ma Kelu, ‘Snow at Wumen Gate’, 1974, oil on paperboard. Image courtesy Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and René Balcer.

Can you explain the importance of Wuming, Xingxing and Caocao during the 1970s?

Kuiyi Shen & Julia F. Andrews [KS/JFA]: Three groups of unofficial artists, the Wuming, the Xingxing and the Caocao were active from 1974 to 1984, when revulsion against totalitarian control of art and life caused artists and writers to resist the mandate that art must serve politics. They emerged from underground in 1979 and shook the assumptions of the state system to its core. Each of the three groups directly challenged state-sponsored socialist realism and Maoist restrictions on creative expression.

The oil painters in the Wuming, who came together as a secret painting group in 1972 and 1973, sought natural beauty in Beijing’s untended ponds and parks. The Xingxing, a more formally diverse group of painters, sculptors, and printmakers took as their collective mission a firm and explicit claim to freedom of expression. The ink painters of the Caocao asserted the value of an art form that had been condemned under Mao, the self-expressive brushwork of literati painting.

Although their common cause was art, each group pushed against the political status quo, seeking to liberate Chinese art, and themselves, from a dictatorial cultural system. Most were soon persecuted, and their artistic careers in China largely blocked, but their courageous demand for artistic freedom and the principles and practices they established directly set the foundations for the 1980s Chinese avant-garde, and remains their core collective contribution to contemporary Chinese art.

Why are their works important today within China, and in an international context?

[KS/JFA]: The artists of the three groups shared an insistent demand for freedom of artistic expression that was essential to the subsequent development of art in China. Many of them, however, left China under duress and have developed as artists and individuals in the societies of Europe, the United States or Japan.

Others found a quiet space in the newly reestablished profession of design in China. A few others left the field of visual art and have excelled in scholarly and literary fields. Artists in these three groups thus went in different directions after 1979—but no matter what medium or what style, those who have continued their careers as artists have realised their early dreams of continuous exploration and self-expression in art.

Within the past decade, their art historical absence has been corrected with a series of exhibitions and publications in their homeland. Even more important than an acknowledgement of their importance as individual artists, however, is recognition of the fundamental importance of their early art and activism to the subsequent direction of the Chinese art world.

The three groups fought for common principles—that artists should have the right to freely express their artistic ideals. Even while denying their legitimacy, the official art world in China opened itself to their ideas. Institutional changes that followed led directly to the 1985 new wave movement, and, in turn, made possible the acceptance of contemporary Chinese art by the international art community.

Qiu Deshu, 'Empty No. 1', 1982, oil and colour on paper. Image courtesy Jean and Michael Micketti.

Qiu Deshu, ‘Empty No. 1′, 1982, oil and colour on paper. Image courtesy Jean and Michael Micketti.

The three groups were intent on asserting individual over collective experience – how does that manifest in their works, and can you see those particular modes of manifestation in contemporary Chinese artists today?

[KS/JFA]: In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, artists were not expected or permitted to express themselves freely. The battles fought by these three groups of artists encouraged their contemporaries and subsequent generations to keep fighting for freedom of expression.

With the boundaries of permissible self-expression expanded, this increased artistic freedom, creativity has burgeoned, enabling the new art world to attain international recognition. The very difficult struggles and self-sacrifice undertaken by these artists between 1974 and 1985 remain an inspiration to many artists in the contemporary Chinese art world.

Can you tell me about one or two of the works which you think are emblematic of the visions and aims of each of the groups, or the artistic wave of the late 1970s?


Zhang Wei’s White Pagoda (1976) depicts a scene that is very significant both to the artist and to his artist friends. The stupa itself is a famous sight in Beijing, even today, but at that time, depicting apolitical scenery rather than uplifting figurative political propaganda was considered a manifestation of counter-revolutionary bourgeois thinking.

This view of the pagoda, painted from the window of Zhang Wei’s home, and the snow-covered houses below, present a temporarily purified world, cleansed of the anxiety and danger of the Cultural Revolution’s daily life. Zhang Wei’s home was used as the underground gathering and exhibition location during their difficult time, and its images remain extremely memorable for all the Wuming artists.

Zheng Zigang’s Sunset Over the Farm Dormitory (1973) was painted after he was sent down to the countryside at Shanhe State Farm in Nenjiang, Heilongjiang, a difficult experience shared by almost everyone of his generation. Although living the collective life of a laborer in the vast centralised Communist agricultural system, in this image, as in all his paintings, he responds instead as an individual soul and sensitive artist to the lonely beauty of his surroundings, commemorating a sunset over the simple lodging in which he and all the young exiles lived.


Qiu Deshu’s “Self-portrait—1983.3 Cracks Series” (1983). This painting was rendered after the one and only exhibition of the Caocao group, which he organised, was shut down and he was severely criticised for his ideological errors because of the exhibition’s promotion of abstract art. Suffering from daily criticism, searches of his workspace, and forced self-criticism, the intense psychological pressure led to a stroke followed by an artistic breakthrough.

When walking home from work one day, the cracks on the ground seemed to speak to him. From that time, his work has been based on cracks, building up the surface of painting from torn paper into fissured abstract images.


Wang Keping’s Silence (1979), exhibited in the first Xingxing show, hung without permission on the fence surrounding the National Art Gallery on 27 September 1979, spoke very directly to his fellow countrymen of the constraints against seeing and speaking the truth that they had experienced during the Cultural Revolution.

Li Shuang’s Red and Black (1979) commemorates the heroic truth-telling of Zhang Zhixin, who was arrested during the Cultural Revolution for calling its policies into question. Ironically, and tragically, she was publicly executed for this “crime” even after the death of Mao Zedong and arrest of the four major leaders of the Cultural Revolution.

Because of her outspokenness, it was feared by the authorities that her last words would be a powerful speech. To prevent onlookers from hearing the truth, her vocal cords were slashed before she was taken before the firing squad. Li Shuang’s work commemorates this injustice, and by such exposure fights against it.

Ma Desheng, 'Dancing Woman', 1983, ink on paper. Image courtesy Frederick L Gordon.

Ma Desheng, ‘Dancing Woman’, 1983, ink on paper. Image courtesy Frederick L Gordon.

Why the inclusion of artist ephemera? What do you feel this personal contextualisation brings to the exhibition experience?

[DC]: We added in things like admission tickets, exhibition banners and underground publications belonging to the artists because they allow audiences to relate to events of that time more easily. For example, there’s a small painting box from one of the artists that really allows the audience to learn more about the experience of painting for pleasure. [Painting for pleasure] was not allowed, so the painting box is very small, and a lot of the paintings are actually quite small too – if we didn’t have the painting box and only had the description explaining why the artists had to be so secretive, it might not have the same impact.

The groups’ art was a rebellion against “the pattern of brutality, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and irrationality” institutionalised during the Cultural Revolution, according to the catalogue essay. Can you tell us some of the stories behind the creation of art in those constrained circumstances?

[KS/JFA]: The generation of the three groups that came to maturity during the Cultural Revolution experienced a succession of hardships, traumas, and shocks that forged a particular understanding of the meaning of human life and the purpose of individual expression. For most of the artists in this exhibition, the art they made during this decade had existential significance—at crucial moments it defined their only purpose in surviving on this earth.

Launched by Mao Zedong in May of 1966, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was presented to the public in patriotic revolutionary terms, was in large part aimed to destroy Mao’s rivals and enemies within the party. Students at campuses all over China were mobilised to seize, denounce, and humiliate their elders for the purpose of dismantling the party bureaucracy that Mao believed thwarted his exercise of personal power. The young people, a cohort that that been indoctrinated since childhood in optimistic values of cooperation, hard work, self-sacrifice, and patriotism, eagerly followed his call to crusade against those he labeled “enemies of the revolution.” They proudly took the name Red Guard and unwittingly assisted in reestablishing Mao’s leadership as a totalitarian dictatorship. Over the next two years, the search for “enemies of the people” spread to all quarters of the nation: not only former capitalists, but veterans of the Communist revolution became targets. Private homes were repeatedly raided, and all contents destroyed in searches for “evidence” and to “smash the four olds.” Christian churches and Buddhist temples were stripped of their “feudal” contents, which the Red Guard enthusiastically destroyed.

The children of intellectuals and officials were often the most idealistic participants, but many soon saw their own parents or grandparents condemned, paraded in dunce caps to public ridicule, or incarcerated for prolonged periods in make-shift jails called “oxsheds.”

The ardour of future Xingxing artists Wang Keping and Qu Leilei was extinguished by the irrational suffering to which their fathers were subjected. The grandmother of Wuming painter Zhang Wei, who came from a prosperous capitalist family, was beaten to death by the Red Guard. Xingxing artist Yan Li lost his cultured grandfather, a physician, to suicide. Many young people witnessed their neighbours, teachers, or relatives badly beaten or even murdered by the mob.

Wang Aihe, who was in fifth grade in 1966, remembers vividly the sight of her favourite art and music teacher, Miss Li, leaving the school in humiliation after having had her head publicly shaven. She had been condemned by a mass meeting at the school for her bourgeois family background and was never seen by her students again.

Zhang Wei, 'Hall of Supreme Harmony', 1976. Image courtesy

Zhang Wei, ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’, 1976. Image courtesy Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and René Balcer.

Wang Keping, Ma Desheng and Ai Weiwei all belonged to Xingxing. When asked about the name of the group Ma said “Every artist is a little star. Even the greatest artists are still little stars from a cosmic point of view. We called our group ‘Stars’ in order to emphasise our individuality.” Now they are some of the biggest stars in the contemporary Chinese firmament – does their influence and fame weigh too heavily on the next generation?

[KS/JFA]: The Xingxing did not, and do not today, consider themselves “Stars” in the sense of celebrities or movie-stars, but instead used the term to express their individuality as tiny flickers in a vast universe.

In the context of the formation of the 1979 exhibition, the Xingxing, which may literally be translated as either “star” or “spark,” signify resistance to a centralised ideology or a god-like dictator that subordinates individual creativity. The Xingxing artists today can see that their ideals of the “stars” have been realised and that contemporary artists do not have to circle the sun (or worship a dictator) but can follow their own independent trajectories through the firmament.

We often discuss the Chinese art market and the value of works. Do you feel the financial has taken too much focus away from the artistic when it comes to our view of contemporary Chinese art?

[DC]: In this exhibition we’d like to present an exhibition showcasing some of the earlier works of contemporary Chinese art in a little-known period. We also introduce another perspective of looking at these artists, and we feel the audience, when they look at the artworks, will see the inner passion of these artists, and that’s something new. We hope that it won’t appeal to just the usual crowd of art lovers but the general public, as well. And, we’ve seen that, of course, the art lovers will always come to our shows, but we’ve also had things like school groups.

Qiu Deshu has proved popular with American collectors; is there a political element to this popularity?

[KS/JFA]: Because Qiu Deshu had the opportunity to spend a year in the U.S. in 1986 and has been represented in several important American exhibitions, his work is better known to American collectors than to those in Europe.

His work is unique, and its appeal is based largely on its originality and its visual power. Besides this, its abstract elements, while linked to those found in classical Chinese painting, also share certain aesthetic qualities with American Abstract Expressionism, and give it the possibility of very direct communication with an American audience.

The Grass Society hoped, like grass, to grow everywhere and bring hope. Do you see artist groups in China today with similar aims, or has the Stars’ message of individualism led to an individualistic approach to art practice?

[KS/JFA]: Both tendencies exist in the contemporary art world as they did in the Caocao group itself.

Cassandra Naji 


Related Topics: Chinese art, groups and movements, politicalthe Cultural Revolution, events in Hong Kong, interviews

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more on exhibitions of Chinese art