Performance art for the people

Investigation by Shiyan Li


Since the late 1980s, Chinese artists have been developing body-based art centered on suffering and self-abuse, close to certain Western performances in principle, yet quite different in their intentions. The difference lies in Chinese culture – from Confucian to Taoist thought – and to the Chinese tradition of learned civilians – the intellectual as the safeguard of ethics, but also to recent changes in society. In this context, the artist’s body is a social body that reflects the paradoxes of the country’s recent political evolution and the steadily increasing tensions between communist and ultra-liberal economic dogma. However, this art also draws on the Cultural Revolution, a somber era of the country’s history during which thousands of intellectuals were condemned to humiliation and whose fifty-year anniversary China is not taking great care to commemorate.

[ 1 ]

The group was founded in 1979. Its main members are Huang Rui; Ma Desheng (first exiled to Japan then to Switzerland, he finally settled in France where he has resided since 1986); Zhong Acheng (a writer who goes by the name A Cheng, living in exile in the USA since 1987); Li Yongcun, Qu Leile, Wang Keping (in France since 1984); Yan li, Mao Lizi, Yang Yiping, Li Shuang (in France since 1983); Shao Fei (in the USA in 1989) and Ai Weiwei (artist and architect who left in 1982 to study in the USA, returning to China in 1993. In 2015, he left for Germany). Their first exhibition took place in a park near the National Art Museum of China on September 27, 1979. The police closed it down three days later. They remained a group for ten years.

[ 2 ]

Ziwobiaoxian: the formulation “self-expression” in China refers to art that is nourished by subjectivity, as opposed to art in service of collective values.

[ 3 ]

Gao Minglu, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art, Beijing Millenium Art Museum/Buffalo, University at Buffalo, 2005.

[ 4 ]

In the 1980s there were various Chinese translations for these terms of Western origin. From the 1990s onward, this art is definitively named xingwei yishu which can be literally translated as “the art of behavior”. The term demonstrates how Chinese critics wanted to bend the meaning given to Western performance. The binomial xingwei is composed of two characters xing and wei. Xing meaning “to walk”, whereas wei signifies “to do” and “to act”. François Jullien translates this binomial with the word “behavior”: “Chinese thought refers… to behavior (xingwei) in terms of courses or processes: such is the course of behavior as exemplified by one from the Heavens (walk of the sky [tian-xing], walk of man [ren-xing]). Or such is the ‘way of man’, ren dao, in the manner of the way of the world.” (Cinq concepts proposés à la psychanalyse, Paris, Grasset, 2012, p. 121) “Behavior” is a process that aims to follow the way that is in harmony with the process of the world.

[ 5 ]

Gao Minglu, op. cit., p. 162.

[ 6 ]


[ 7 ]

The use of a firearm inside the museum was reason enough for the administration to react, especially since it was little acquainted with the whims of these new artists.

[ 8 ]

See Rong Rong’s East Village, exhibition catalog, May 8 to June 21, 2003, New York, Chambers Fine Art, 2003, p.82.

[ 9 ]

Hans Günter Golinski, “The Body as Intercultural Medium of Communication: on the Spiritual Background to the Art of Zhang Huan”, Zhang Huan, Hatje Cantz, Hamburg, 2003, p. 40-47, cit. p. 41.

[ 10 ]

In China, until the end of the nineteenth century, the “artist” did not exist. There were intellectuals, lettered people who practiced painting, music, wrote poetry and did martial arts while at the same time filling the function of an Imperial official. Next to these intellectuals existed a number of artisans responsible for the ornamental aspect of life in the Imperial court.

[ 11 ]

Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) first studied at the Hanlin Academy between 1892 and 1894, later at the University of Leipzig (1907-1911) in the subjects philosophy, psychology and art history. After returning to China, in 1912 he became the Minister of Education for the Republic of China’s interim government.

[ 12 ]

Tchouang-tseu (Zhuangzi), « chapitre XXI, T’ien Tseu-Fang » in Œuvre complète, translated by Liou Kia-hway, Paris, Gallimard/Unesco (1969), 2011, p. 239.

[ 13 ]

Anne Cheng, Histoire de la pensée chinoise [History of Chinese Thought], Paris, Seuil, 1997, p. 73.

[ 14 ]

From remarks collected by Hans Günter Golinski, Ibid., cit. p. 44.

[ 15 ]

Ibid., p. 41-42.

[ 16 ]

The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 2013, p.257.

[ 17 ]

He Yunchang, “Fairytales for Adults”, Ink Studio, consulted on March 9, 2016.

[ 18 ]

Words collected and translated by François Jullien, Dialogue sur la morale [Dialog on Morals], Paris, Grasset, 1995, p. 12.

[ 19 ]

Ibid., p. 31. Incidentally, the character 仁 (ren) is made up of the root “man”(人) and the sign “two” (二).

[ 20 ]

François Jullien explains the following with regards to this notion: “The very essence of incitement is to be driven to exert oneself and, by exerting oneself, to put into motion.” Ibid., p. 32.

[ 21 ]

He Yunchang, “Fairytales for Adults”, op. cit.

[ 22 ]

« Palme d’or de l’art contemporain chinois 2010 : Un mètre de démocratie – entretien avec He Yunchang », see: blog website consulted on March 27, 2016.

[ 23 ]

Mencius, translated by D.C. Lau, Hong Kong, The Chinese University Press, 1979, p. 253.

[ 24 ]

Artists born after 1970, on the other hand, seem to distance themselves from this today.

Mao once claimed: Art is for the masses of the people. A “socialist realist” art in service of Maoist propaganda, that is, far from serving the interests of the masses. Just after the Cultural Revolution, artistic freedom, which had long been repressed in China, is reclaimed in particular by the artistic-literary group Stars Group1. The name…

Do you want to react?

Read also...

Jean Dupuy par Renaud Monfourny pour la galerie Loevenbruck

Hommage à Jean Dupuy

Discover the edition
Beaucoup plus de moins

Beaucoup plus de moins

Discover the edition
Encyclopédie des guerres

L’Encyclopédie des guerres (Aluminium-Tigre)

Discover the edition
O. Loys, bal des Incohérents

Décembre 2021

Discover the edition
Younes Baba Ali, art et activisme en Belgique

Art et engagement Enquête en Belgique

Discover the edition

Parcourir nos collections