A few criticism examples by Chinese artists over time.
Most of my blog posts deal directly or indirectly with art in the broadest sense. This is insofar as I attach great importance to dealing with Asian philosophies and art history in the broadest sense. I don’t touch on political issues, although this post might suggest so. Instead, I will pick out some historical examples of resistance or criticism that are historically significant or that I personally like. Some illuminating details are in the footnotes.
China has a long and complex history of artistic expression, often intertwined with political and social commentary. Throughout various dynasties and political eras, Chinese artists have used their craft to voice their opinions and criticize the system, often at great personal risk.
The literature is full of accounts of artists, mostly writers, who spent the rest of their lives in exile. Su Shi  is certainly one of the best-known in the West. In one of his works, he added the following colophon:
Some artists also mentally went into inner emigration and created pictures of mostly subtle criticism. Subtle and still powerful as they are, they still stimulate many critical artists today.
Eight centuries ago
The Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was a period of political and social upheaval in China, marked by the rule of the Mongol Empire. Despite the challenges faced by artists during this time, many were able to use their work as a means of critiquing the political system and questioning the status quo. (Yuan Dynasty was a time of great cultural and political transformation in China, and the art produced during this period reflects the complex tensions and contradictions of the time.)
One of the most important painters of this period is Zhao Mengfu 1254; † 1322,  who basically managed to stay under the radar. But in pictures like these, he expresses quite clearly the rough wind that is now blowing with foreign rule.
His contemporary Gong Kai (1222-1307?) , Emaciated Horse was already clearer when he addressed the hunger in the population with his depiction of horses.
For centuries, paintings of horses are the pride of the imperial family. Now the ribs came through.
We’ll skip a few centuries and focus on the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution
Perhaps the worst form of persecution of critical voices occurred during the Cultural Revolution. I think, in essence, everyone should be familiar with the subject.
During this period, Chairman Mao Zedong  sought to eliminate any perceived threats to the Communist Party, including intellectuals and artists and those who spoke out against the government faced persecution, imprisonment, and even death.
Despite the risks, many artists continued to create works that challenged the government’s ideology.
An eminent painter of that period, Huang Zhou , was arrested for painting 4 crabs. Painting crabs is not uncommon in Chinese painting. Well, Huang Zhou painted 4. What’s the problem? Crabs go perpendicular to the usual direction and the “4” indicated the “gang of four”. And that was it.
Worse happened to Pan Tianshou . And he was not just anyone but the founder of new art education in China and President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts.
He painted eagles, which were condemned as “subversive” and a proof that he was a Guomin-dang spy. This is what you get when you paint a mangy eagle on a “red” rock.
Dissidents in the late 1970s, early 80s
In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution, a small, fine group of artists formed xing xing mei (星星美), which advocated democracy and freedoms based on the Western model. I was fortunate to meet artists from this group and became friends with a few. I particularly like Wang Keping  (Please check the related story under extra). Ai Weiwei was also one of the group. One of Wang Keping’s sculptures has since become an icon of modern criticism.
The best-known dissident in the West at that time is Xu Wenli , who spent 16 years in prison until the United States, with great “diplomatic skill”, helped him to free himself.
Here again, I was lucky enough to get to know him and I keep a letter addressed to me like a treasure. I might also be one of the few who still owns the first issue of the magazine “wo tu” that he published in 1979. The text of the 73-page issue was written by hand and printed with the simplest of means.
For him, too, his photo after his release has become a kind of icon.
I don’t know anything about the authors of the following poems, but for me, they are among the most wonderful poetic statements and I would like to bring them up as a last example.
It was 1989 (?) when one of these poems appeared in a Chinese newspaper. It was the era of Li Peng , who, after a slight political thaw, resumed the tradition of persecuting those who thought differently. Of course, every article in a newspaper was skimmed by censors – but twice they weren’t smart enough and so the poems ended up in two of China’s most important newspapers.
While artistic and literary criticism in China has often been met with harsh punishment, it has also played a crucial role in pushing for social and political change. Today, China’s growing artistic community continues to use its work to question the status quo and to push for greater freedom of expression and human rights. As the country continues to evolve, the role of artists in shaping public discourse will remain a crucial one.
extra and dedication
When I fell in love with a girl from Beijing in 1983 and we decided to get married, it was a scandal of the extra class. We were one of the first mixed marriages back then. Among other things, it led to my status as a student being revoked and I had to leave the academy. What followed was an extremely compelling story that deserves its own separate coverage. Even though I can laugh about it now, it was a seriously threatening situation back then.
Outlaws now, there was no place to stay right after we got married. No hotel would have given us a room and hardly anyone else would have exposed themselves to the danger involved.
The sculptor Wang Keping, who had become a friend of mine, spontaneously offered us to live in his studio for the time being. We soon found a solution and so it was only 2 nights. Keping had obviously made a great effort to tidy up the studio and so at least the way to the bed was unobstructed. But his expressive sculptures accumulated on the walls and most of all under the bed, and the resulting atmosphere is certainly unique as an ambiance for a wedding night.
Therefore, and not only for this reason I dedicate this article to Wang Keping, an artist who is exceptional not only from an artistic point of view.
 Su Shi 苏轼 (1037 – 1101) was a Chinese calligrapher, essayist, gastronomer, pharmacologist, poet, politician, and travel writer during the Song Dynasty. When Su Shi was first banished, the reason was that Su Shi would have criticized the emperor, although in reality, Su Shi’s poems aimed to criticize Wang An Shi’s reforms. During this period of exile, he began Buddhist meditation.
Su Shi was exiled a second time (1094–1100) to Huizhou (now in Guangdong Province) and Danzhou, Hainan.
 Zhao Mengfu 1254; † 1322, was recommended by the Censor-in-chief Cheng Jufu to pay an audience with Kublai Khan in 1286 at the Yuan capital of Dadu, but was not awarded an important position in office. His work was, however, greatly appreciated later by the Confucian-inspired Yuan Emperor Renzong. Zhao was a member of the “Academy of Worthies“. (source: wikimedia)
 Gong Kai (1222-1307?) Chinese artist Gong Kai’s Emaciated Horse, ink on paper handscroll, 29.9 x 56.9 cm. After Mongol Kublai Khan, leading the Yuan Dynasty, conquered the Southern Song Dynasty of China in 1279, Gong Kai remained a Song loyalist and refused to serve Kublai’s government. This painting of an emaciated horse represents his own poverty-stricken conditions that he imposed on himself since he refused to serve as a government official. (source: wikipedia)
 bǎi huā qí fàng , bǎi jiā zhēng míng 百花齐放，百家争鸣
Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend actually refers to the classical philosophic schools of the Warring States period 475-221 BC, but was adopted for Mao’s campaign of 1956. It was one of the worst tricks used to lure intellectuals out of their shell and then punish them for their opinions.
 Huang Zhou ( 黄胄 ( 1925- 1997). 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, like so many others, he was caught in the crossfire of criticism. And he was forbidden from any artistic activity. (photo with Huang Zhou at the Austrian Embassy)
 Pan Tianshou 潘天寿, (1897–1971) was a Chinese painter and art educator. During the Cultural Revolution, Pan was taken by the Red Guards on 6 September 1966. He paraded the next day on the streets of Hangzhou with more than thirty of his colleagues in dunce caps to be publicly humiliated. For five years, he was regularly taken to public rallies to be criticized and renounced. He was also falsely accused of being a Kuomintang spy, after which the persecution became more intense and he was paraded in the other towns as well. He died in a hospital in Hangzhou on 5 September 1971.
 Wang Keping 王克平 ( born in 1949, near Beijing) is one of the founders of contemporary Chinese art. Mainly due to the key role he played in China’s artistic avant-garde in the 1970s, which led to his leaving for France in 1984. (source: wangkeping.com) (photo with Wang Keping at wedding)
Since then, he has developed a masterful body of work, which explores all that wood can offer and is considered, internationally, to be one of the most important contributions made to contemporary sculpture.
 Xu Wenli 徐文立) (born 1943) played an instrumental role in the Chinese Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s. He served as Chief Editor of April Fifth Forum, the first journal of the Democracy Wall movement to be privately run by civilians.
Xu was arrested on 9 April 1981. Sentenced to 15 years in prison with revocation of all political rights for 4 years.
Arrested again in 1998 and sentenced to 13 years in prison. BBC terms Xu Wenli “The Godfather of Dissent.
 Li Peng 李鹏 (1928 – 2019) backed the use of force to quell the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. During the protests, Li used his authority as premier to declare martial law. He did this in cooperation with Deng, who was the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. They ordered the June 1989 military crackdown against student pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, leading to a massacre.
(image #1) Zhao Mengfu: A Horse and Groom in the Wind, 22.7 x 49.0 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei
(#2) 2 details and a complete painting by Pan Tianshou Eagle (鹰), 99 x 52cm, Artist: Pan TianShou (潘天寿)
(#3) image left: big belly 大肚, 1988, 58 cm
(#4) Upper left photo by BBC News, upper right: unknown source. The illustrations below are from the author’s collection.
(#5) image from a lecture by the author held in Vienna in 2016.