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 “Stars Group” refers back to an era in which Mao Zedong was considered the sole source of light; here, however, the title signifies that every individual can now emit their own light and reclaim their “self-expression2”.

In parallel, a literary current is born, called “Scar Literature” to commemorate the mental and physical trauma endured by young educated persons sent by Mao to the countryside starting 1968. The writers of this movement use a new, humanist style that employs rich, subtle vocabulary rather than the reserved and conventional language of Maoist propaganda. As a result, “Scar Literature” has had a considerable impact on artists working with the medium paint in their expression of the physical and moral persecution that the Chinese people were subjected to during the Cultural Revolution. This realist painting, known as “Scar Art” (Shanghen meishu), erases the “self-expression3” of the late 1970s.

In the 1980s, under the influence of Western thinkers (Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, etc.) and Performance Art, Body Art, Happenings and Actionism4, historical “scars” find new forms of expression through the language of the body. Suffering is externalized either through acts of “self-inflicted wounds” or through the gesture of “bandaging” the body, “dressing” symbolic wounds and repairing past violations of liberty of expression. Often created by groups, the performances of this era take place in public areas. They call for a “socialized” body, one carrying traces of a collective memory, a paradoxical heritage of Maoist ideology5. The artist’s body appropriates the public space in an attempt to bring art closer to the spectators, yet does so without putting individual sensitivities first6. The body is no longer an instrument of “self-expression”, it is integrated into a larger humanist, altruist dimension. The artist-performers of that time were aware of their status as a small elite vested with a generous mission, they hoped in this way to contribute to the socio-cultural and political reformation of their country.

Extreme violence and social tensions

The year 1989 is marked by the first large-scale exhibition dedicated to contemporary art, 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition, twice interrupted by the police. First, due to an action by artist Xiao Lu, who fires two bullets into his installation to correct its ‘explicitly complete’ nature7. The second time, for a bomb threat. The exhibition took place prior to the Tiananmen Square protests the same year. After those tragic events, performance art goes silent. Only in the mid-1990s is it revived, manifested namely through the actions of underground artists marginalized by the official art world. These artists reside in a miserable neighborhood they call East Village, a reference at the same time to its suburban Beijing location as to the spirit of the East Village in New York. This revival brings about a kind of fusion: “self-expression” following the call of the humanist cause. The artists use their bodies as vehicles for suffering, expressing their own anxieties as well as those of others, of people whose misfortunes are the result of China’s social problems. The 1990s are indeed a decade of profound transformation during which the former, communist values of collective living are enmeshed with a new emphasis on individual success, nourished by a fascination for money. What was respected before is now despised. The exalted fighters for the communist dream, the working masses, often poorly educated during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, are for the most part driven to misery, incapable of seizing the new opportunities that have risen from the wild throes of capitalism. The bitterness of losing, the pragmatism of power, the insolence of the nouveau riche all inspires extremely violent tensions within the social body. In this context, the need to return to the body, to nudity, to self-inflicted wounds and all the reflections related to moral conscience and sacrifice regains its relevance.

The body, nudity, self-abuse

Born in 1965, Zhang Huan creates several performances while in East Village. The abysmal living conditions, and the common perception of the inhabitants as pariahs, lead him in 1994 to create pieces such as 12mand 65KG. In 12m2 the artist fully undresses, slathers himself in a viscous fish and honey liquid, and positions himself in one of the village’s dirtiest toilets. After an hour of complete immobility, his body is covered in flies that have stuck to his skin, attracted by the putrid balm. In 65KG, he is suspended, naked, from the ceiling of his studio by ten iron chains. Three hospital doctors are also on location. They set up a blood transfusion station around his body, and then make a small gash in his left arm. For an hour, 250 ml of blood flows drop by drop through the tubes onto a white metal tray placed in the middle of a bed covered by a white sheet. At least three meters separate the artist from the tray. Beneath the tray, a small portable stove keeps the blood at a constant boil. Chained to the ceiling, Zhang Huan is forced to breathe in the smell of his own heated blood, since his mouth is bound by a black ribbon. As the performance wears on, the suffering of the artist’s body is transferred to the spectators. Witnesses describe that the smell of blood filled the room, giving the audience a sense of imminent death8. The artist has a great appreciation for Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic9, whose pieces often test the limits of their physical and psychic stamina. But beyond that inspiration, is the approach to the body and to nudity fundamentally different in China and the West? In other countries, contemporary art, invented in the West but now practiced universally, may impose the media through which expression takes place. But behind all apparent uniformity hides another logic; one emerging from the history of Chinese art.

Zhang Huan, 12 m2

Zhang Huan, 12 m2, performance, Beijing, China.

Zhang Huan, 65 kg

Zhang Huan, 65 kg, performance, Beijing, China.

Zhang Huan, 65 kg

Zhang Huan, 65 kg, performance, Beijing, China.

The socialized body

The place of the body has a long history in Western art; the Nude originated in ancient Greece as the glorious image of the hero. The Renaissance renewed this tradition; God placed man at the height of his Creation, and for this reason, man is worthy of representing God’s perfection. One could say that nudity is man deprived of modernity without God. And this nudity is often the one exposed in performances. This is not at all the case in the Chinese tradition. In ancient China, the first subject of the learned painter10 is a landscape in transformation (mountain-water, shanshui), where man only plays a small role. The Nude has no relevance. Starting in the 1910s, however, modern intellectuals grew interested in introducing Western practices, and art pedagogy is reformed into academic learning, where it is common to study the Nude. These reforms were initiated by one person in particular: Cai Yuanpei11. He understood that the artistic expression of a people and the ensemble of values in which they recognize themselves are connected. He saw this transformation of artistic practice and the introduction of Western methods as powerful ways to change Chinese society profoundly.

Long repressed during the Cultural Revolution, study of the Nude is rehabilitated as early as the late 1970s, remaining a fundamental element of art school curriculum even today. The study of body language in Western performance undoubtedly drew enormous benefits for young Chinese artists, who were familiar with the Nude and the anatomical knowledge its study involves. The long observation sessions necessary for academic study puts them in contact with bodies much more frequently than young Western art students at the time. Chinese artists were therefore already in a culture of the body borrowed from the West. Yet they still did not forget the ancient knowledge. One must imagine, therefore, that they mixed the two heritages. Although the high moral standard of the learned person makes images of the body irrelevant, it is steeped in a tradition rife with ancient anecdotes about the act of disrobing. The Taoist thinker Zhuangzi (369?- 286? B.C.) tells of a true artisan painter, an illustrator (of geographical maps) who gets undressed and comfortable, naked to the waist, in order to finish his oeuvre12. Here, the act of “disrobing” is a behavior in line with the natural order.

By evoking the figure of the artisan painter, Zhuangzi indeed reveals a conception of the body that differs from that of the Greek world. In traditional Chinese thought, the body is not considered a closed form (sôma, corpus), rather a system of circulating breath (qi) or even a shape “in the midst of actualizing itself”, tuned to the transformation of the world, married to its breath. Alongside this Taoist thought, a Confucian culture developed in which being human is to inherently be in relation with the other, in a relationship that is ritual in nature. Human behavior is ritual behavior 13. Without all the extensions and attributions provided by rite, there is no distinction between body and community.

To be aware of one’s own body means thinking the body alongside the body of the other. In contemporary times, despite the violent replacement of Confucian thought by the ideology of the Cultural Revolution, the body nevertheless persists as existing exclusively within the social group. In Maoist ideology, its value is solely manifested as a worker’s body melded with political propaganda. Despite the revolution’s outcome, this aspect remains present in mid-1980s performance art through the call for a “socialized body”. While Taoism suggests a wisdom of the body that embraces the respiration of the world, Confucianism, in a complementary way, offers a socialized body. This twofold understanding lives within Chinese artists, in dialogue with Western teachings.

Moral conscience and sacrifice

Zhuang Huan’s body is therefore not a body closed upon itself, meeting its end through self-inflicted suffering. It is an intermediary between “oneself” and the other: “The tendency of self-torturing is not just a personal problem. It is a common phenomenon, especially so in the present circumstances of China today. In the suburban area of Beijing where we live, there also live thousands of peasants who come from all over the country to make a living selling vegetables. Every morning they have to get up at four o’clock for their work. I believe they wish they could have more time for sleep, like the rest of us. But they can’t. If one has to do something one doesn’t want to do, that’s a kind of self-torturing14.” Such a statement shows true indignation toward Chinese society, where some people must endure real suffering while others are spared. The artist’s action at first seems masochistic, but gains another dimension when one imagines that he is taking another’s misfortune upon himself. Through performance, the villager’s suffering becomes his own, taken up through his own body. Zhang Huan’s body is open, welcoming and embracing the suffering of others. “I often found myself in conflict with my circumstances,” adds the artist while relating a physical experience, “and felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence… This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me15.” Not only does the artist become aware of the difficulties faced by Chinese farmers, he also rebels against the artistic repression marginalizing him and the economic oppression he is subjected to. His act of self-abuse encompasses this dual dimension.

He Yunchang, Golden Sunshine

He Yunchang, Golden Sunshine, performance, October 3, 1999, Anning Prison, Yunnan, China.

He Yunchang,Keeping Promise

He Yunchang, Keeping Promise, performance, 2003, Lijiang, China.


He Yunchang, born in 1967, is another artist fully conscious of the social problems in contemporary China. At the turn of the 21st century, he also created several performances involving various kinds of self-inflected abuse. In Golden Sunshine (1999), he exhibits his body, painted yellow, by suspending it in front of a prison building in Anning, a city in his native region Yunnan. A mirror in hand, he tries to reflect the sunlight into the prisoners’ cells as a sign of hope. Exposed to the sun for 127 minutes, the artist faints on two occasions. For Dialogue with Water (1999), we find him bare-chested, suspended from a crane above a river, upside-down. He holds a sword in both hands and appears to be trying to separate the river in two. As the action goes on, incisions are made into both his arms, some 30 centimeters in length and one in depth. Blood flows from his arms into the river. The performance is supposed to last thirty minutes. According to his calculations, knowing that the sword’s blade measures 28 centimeters and that the water flows at a speed of 150 meters per minutes, after half an hour one should see a trail of blood 4,5 kilometers long floating on the river, as if dividing it in two. Keeping Promise is created between October 24 and 25, 2003. The artist’s left hand is walled in by an imposing concrete column. Yunchang remains naked from the waist up, kneeling for an entire 24 hours. The performance is inspired by a story told by Zhuangzi: “Wei Sheng made an engagement to meet a girl under a bridge. The girl failed to appear and the water began to rise, but instead of leaving, he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the bridge and died16.” The young man dies for love having held his promise. The story teaches us the dignity of living for a promise, a conviction, a belief; a message that no longer seems consistent with our society.

He Yunchang, Dialogue with Water

He Yunchang, Dialogue with Water, performance, 1999, Lianghe, Yunnan.

The bloodiest performance is entitled One Meter of Democracy (2010) and consists of two parts. In the first, before a gathering of about twenty friends, the artist announces that he plans to cut into the right flank of his body to make an incision one meter in length and 0.5 -1 cm deep. He offers to put this decision to a democratic vote. The results are twelve votes in favor, ten against and three abstentions. The second part takes place in an empty room with a bed covered in an immaculate white sheet. The artist lies down on the bed, completely naked. With the help of a young woman playing a nurse and the cooperation of a few of his friends, the incision is made in the right side of his body, before all the participants. The raw wound is then stitched, and finally gauze compresses are applied, drawing a white line one meter in length. One Meter of Democracy is therefore a creation by the artist along with a collective of participants.

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy

He Yunchang, One Meter of Democracy, performance, October 10, 2010, Caochangdi, Beijing.

Sisyphe and Kuafu

In the face of austere prison conditions, lost dignity, and a rigid political regime, the artist’s actions remain ineffective or even ridiculous, despite all efforts and persistence otherwise. Because the sun cannot be moved, nor can a river be divided. Democracy remains a utopia. So why such stubbornness? In a text entitled “Fairytales for adults”, He Yunchang tells the story of how all these performances began: “Once upon a time, in 1997 to be exact, a young man went to the butcher’s to buy hundred ounces of pork. The meat-seller considered this amount too small and refused to sell it to him. Finally the young man told the meat-seller that he worked as an engineer at a factory, and that he and his wife both lost their jobs at the same time. It has been a very long time since he bought any meat, and their five-year-old son was fussing. The meat-seller immediately cut off a piece weighing 2.3 pounds and gave it him, refusing to take any money. The engineer took the meat back home, and after discussing with his wife, put rat poison into the pot in which the meat was cooking. After eating the meat, the family of three all died.” The story takes place during a period of complete industrial restructuration for China. Many are those who, like the engineer, find themselves unemployed overnight. “At the time I heard this distressing story,” continues the artist, “my own circumstances were far from good. It made me realize that there were countless thousands of other people facing similar situations17

Like those of Zhang Huan, He Yunchang’s performances are born from a deep empathy for artists and their like. In the face of so much misfortune, they have an immediate reaction to the intolerable parts of society. This spontaneous movement echoes reflections made by moralist thinker Mengzi (372-289 B.C.): “Every man has something he cannot tolerate that he sees happen to others18.” Any man penetrated by a ‘sense of humanity’ will understand this indignation toward all things that harm human beings. Here, a ‘sense of humanity’ can be understood in the sense of a human being’s objective existence based in a relation to others. In other words, the subject “I” does indeed exist, “but rather than being perceived in its isolated dimension… it is imagined as inherently part of a relationship19.” This is how moral conscience is nothing more than “affect circulating between humans” (gantong)20. It is the expression of a subject rising up for the sake of an other. But how? He Yunchang choses to submit his body to all manner of hardship and danger. The fragile body attempts to rival the forces of nature, struggle against hard industrial materials, and confront the white weapon head on; in vain. This absurd persistence is reminiscent of Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll down again once it reaches the summit. The figure of Sisyphus is comparable to Kuafu in Chinese mythology, who tried to chase the sun so that his people could use more of it, only to die of thirst and exhaustion. Is the twenty-first century artist not trying to perhaps establish his own myth? A contemporary myth concealing an homage to the unwavering will of the people, vulnerable yet capable of triumphing over all of history’s trials: “However wretched their circumstances, and however great the pressure they were under, none of them chose to abandon life like that engineer. The sharp blade of reality can only pierce their limbs; it cannot wound their will. The persistence and tenacious spirit of these disadvantaged groups inspire me21. »

A kind of restrained, yet intrepid life

The cruelty in these performances can also be understood from the perspective of an aptitude for sacrifice. He Yunchang quotes Lin Zexu (1785-1850), an official of the Empire with a strong moral conscience, known for his opposition to the opium trade which launched the campaign against Great Britain: “To make myself useful to the country, declares Lin Zexu, I am ready to sacrifice my life. Nothing in the world would make me waver from this duty. This courage is very rare,” comments He Yunchang, “there are many things we are afraid to fight… Not just the artist and art must struggle, but simply as individuals, we owe it to ourselves to face things… 22.” Nowadays it is truly exceptional to hear a contemporary artist speak in terms of moral conscience, and in this respect He Yunchang follows suit with the Chinese intellectual tradition in which the dignity of humanity is maintained first and foremost within one’s personhood. It is true that in Confucian thought, self-mutilation was so forbidden that one could not even ”rip a hair out of one’s own body” if one hoped to be truly pious. But if the very good of human beings is at stake, one must pull out hairs. In other words: one must sacrifice the private interests of individuals in defense of the public good. “One Meter of Democracy”, adds the artist, “is precisely to show that an ordinary Chinese person is capable of enduring. It is a kind of restrained yet intrepid life […] Under the current circumstances, I think it’s necessary to make this piece. It’s a bit of a bloody piece. Which is normal because today’s society is also very cruel.” “Life is what I want, dutifulness is also what I want,” the moralist Mengzi tells us. “If I cannot have both, I would choose dutifulness rather than life23.” Is this kind of moral conscience still pertinent in current Chinese society? In his statements, He Yunchang is clearly aware of the apparent ineffectiveness and even the absurdity of his gestures. All the same, this persistence, like the “meter of suffering”, exerts, one might think, an invisible effect that works on changing our hearts.

The Western reader may have a hard time understanding what drives these Chinese artist-performers to serve the community to such a point that they renounce even the expression of their most personal feelings. This relative erasure, however, is carried out with utmost awareness of their responsibility and the dignity it imparts upon them. Because the artists cited above have inherited a tradition of the learned artist. And above all, this traditional intellectual works for the good of the Empire. He is a model civil servant and when necessary, reminds those in power of their obligations. He is a good man whose commitment to the world serves to balance the scales in the game of universal forces. By functioning as such, he may write poems and do painting. Here we see everything that separates him from the personality and role given to the modern or contemporary artist in the West. Despite all the changes that occurred throughout the twentieth century, despite exposure to so much violence, this learned tradition nourished a number of artists who went through the Cultural Revolution24. For these artists, the body’s role is to be the site where Western input meets Chinese concepts, and their insistent reference to the learned tradition in their propositions is no barrier to embracing a democratic ideal of Western origin. This encounter between the West and China, when lived to the fullest, is undoubtedly this generation’s most original quality.


Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to Sylvie Coellier

Cover image: He Yunchang, Golden Sunshine, performance, October 3, 1999
[wp-faq-schema accordion="1"]
Do you want to react?
[wpforms id="17437"]

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