Wang Keping

Criticism: Not amused with the Emperor

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.

Historical examples

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 [1] is certainly one of the best-known in the West. In one of his works, he added the following colophon:

su shi poem

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, [2] 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.

Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫): A Man and His Horse in the Wind, 1254 (image #1)

His contemporary Gong Kai (1222-1307?) [3], 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.

Gong_Kai horse
Gong Kai (龔開), Emaciated Horse, c. 1280 (image #2)

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 [4] 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 [5], 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.

Pan Tianshou

Worse happened to Pan Tianshou [6]. 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.

Pan Tianshou eagles
Pan Toanshou, eagles 1960s (image #2)

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 [7] (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.

Wang Keping
Wang Keping (image #3)

Xu Wenli

The best-known dissident in the West at that time is Xu Wenli [8], 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.

dissident Xu Wenli
Xu Wenli (image #4)


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 [9], 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.

critical Li Peng poems
critical poems (image #5)

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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)

[3] 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)

[4] 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.

[5] 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)

[6] 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.

[7] 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: (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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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 sources

(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.



36 responses to “Criticism: Not amused with the Emperor”

  1. swabby429 avatar

    China’s contemporary dissidents fascinate me because the current regime’s oppression is more nuanced than in earlier times. Yet, the PRC’s influence looms ever-present on the world stage.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Now with all the new technologies it’s harder for artists for sure. What worries me too is the fact that the West follows quite a few of those “inputs”.

      1. swabby429 avatar

        I agree. The technologies are coming in under the radar.

      2. muhwezi jonathan avatar

        Thanks for sharing

      3. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        You are welcome! Glad you like it!

  2. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    An excellent post, Friedrich, rich in it’s knowledge and amazing memories.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your support ❤️

  3. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Thanks for this informative and interesting post, Friedrich. We should never underestimate the power of the creative arts in challenging the narratives of the status quo.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Rosaliene! Yes, the power of art should never be underestimated. Unfortunately, art and literature are also being massively intervened in the West. Not everyone is aware of that.

      1. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

        As storytellers, we face all kinds of restraints and hurdles in getting our work published by the major book publishers. No doubt, the same is true in the visual arts.

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Yes, I know, you writers don’t have it easy either. For me, the question arises as to how much of this is simply market-related and what is controlled. Of course, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories and I know that phenomena often develop a momentum of their own. But when books are censored and pictures are taken down, alarm bells ring in me.

  4. Chinaman Creek avatar

    A wonderful, terrible history, with many moving personal touches. Unfortunately Chinese history seems to be re-re-re-peating itself . . .

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you! You are so right and I feel sad for my Chinese friends 🤐

  5. Edith avatar

    Danke für diese Zeitreise durch die Kunst Chinas. Hatten es Künstler überhaupt je einfach,frage ich mich grad. In allen Landen gab es politische Verfechter und Gegner. Und war man mit einem Regime nicht einverstanden, lag es in Künstlers Hand, dies umzusetzen. Mutige Menschen, die es dann wahrlich nicht einfach hatten – und doch lebt deren Kunst noch heute. Das ist das Gute daran, dass sich Gutes, Gerechtes immer durchsetzt.
    Freunde sind etwas so sehr Kostbares. Dies kommt beeindruckend in deinem Extra heute heraus.
    Leider weiß ich grad nicht, wie ich die Gedichte übersetzen kann, die du rein gestellt hast…. Doch, wenn du angetan davon warst, dann waren sie gut.
    Danke für diesen Einblick in solches China…
    Mit herzlichen Grüßen für dich von mir. <3

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen Dank! Ja, die Kunst hatte immer grosse Bedeutung in vielerlei Hinsicht. Leider wird zur Zeit auch bei uns immer deutlicher eingegriffen. Was die Gedichte betrifft: Die Gedichte selbst sind von keiner besonderen Bedeutung. Die farblich hervorgehobenen Zeichen ergeben aber die Aufforderung an Li Peng zurückzutreten. Und das ist schon ein Meisterstreich.

      1. Edith avatar

        Ja, und dieses Eingreifen in die Kunst – es kommt einem noch bekannt vor und sollte doch total ausgebremst werden!
        Die Zeichen der Schrift faszinieren sowieso jemanden wie mich, die davon keinen blassen Schimmer hat. Doch, wenn sie mithelfen zu verändern, dann ist es immer gut.
        Ich danke dir…

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Ich bin es, der Dir zu danken hat! Ja, chinesische Schriftzeichen gehören zum Faszinierendsten, auf das ich je gestoßen bin. Für eine Dichterin wie Dich natürlich umso mehr. Das, was wir heute allgemein als “Haiku” benennen, hat seinen Ursprung in der chinesischen Literatur….

      3. Edith avatar

        Genau deshalb reizen mich Haiku’s so sehr. Ich bin zwar immer noch in der Übungsgsphase, aber ich trau mich schon raus damit.
        Kannst du die Schrift schreiben oder nur lesen? ❤

  6. Ashley avatar

    This is a fascinating post, opening my eyes to these special human beings. Thank you, Friedrich, for this illuminating post.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I thank you, Ashley, for your attention and kind words! How afraid those in power are of artists. Not only in China.

  7. klotylda avatar

    Die Freiheit ist nicht nur in China wieder auf einem rückwärts Kurs. Schlimmer noch: Neben der Rückkehr zu alten und bewährten Formen der Freiheitsbeschränkung tauchen ganz neue auf, die oft ignoriert werden, und gerade weil sie weniger sichtbar und spürbar sind, umso gefährlicher sind. Was ist zum Beispiel eine externe Zensur im Vergleich zur Selbstzensur? Hätte sich irgendjemand träumen lassen, dass Big Brother in den Köpfen der Menschen installiert werden könnte?
    Die Bilder sind hervorragend gewählt und können nicht nur für zeitgenössische Chinesen interessant sein. Der starke Wind, der die Mähne des Pferdes zerzaust, könnte auch eine Metamorphose eines herannahenden Sturms sein – eine Bedrohung von außen. Der Adler auf dem roten Felsen ist eine Rückkehr zur »roten« Ideologie. Das verhungerte Pferd ist eine Warnung davor, was eine Rückkehr zu den alten Regierungsmethoden zur Folge haben kann – Elend und Hunger.
    Die Welt braucht heute dringend mutige und kompromisslose Künstler, denn sie öffnen uns die Augen für das, was ist, wie die Dinge bereits waren und wie wir enden werden, wenn wir der Angst nachgeben und aufhören, gegen die uns immer wieder auferlegten Fesseln zu kämpfen.

    Sehr interessanter Beitrag, und durch einen kleinen persönlichen Exkurs wird der schwierige und ernste Inhalt für den Leser ein wenig leichter, aber auch realistischer. Übrigens glaube ich, dass diese nicht banale Einrichtung im Schlafzimmer des Brautpaares das Attribut der Einzigartigkeit der Hochzeitsnacht nur noch mehr verstärkt hat.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank für Ihre freundlichen Worte und Ihre Stellungnahme dazu! Sie habe in allem meine volle Zustimmung. Vor allem, wenn Sie die Selbstzensur anschneiden. Das Resultat ist, dass die Intellektuellen sich auch aus wichtigen Themen raushalten. Wer hätte gedacht, dass wir wieder bzw. überhaupt Kinderbücher oder gar die Bibel auf den Index setzen. Ja sogar Pop songs wie Delilah von Tom Jones sind unseren Ohren nicht mehr zuzumuten. Und ich fuerchte, wir stehen erst am Anfang dieser verstoerenden Entwicklung. Herzliche Gruesse aus Wien!

  8. rabirius avatar

    As I don’t know much about Chinese art, your text was really interesting for me.
    Apart from being about censorship, I also liked to learn about what different things signify in Chinese culture. We would probably not be offended by an eagle on a red rock or a horse in the storm.
    I always like to learn about the meanings of symbols in different cultures.

  9. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

    Thank you very much! Yes, Chinese criticism is much more subtle than Western ones. This has an old tradition and is deeply rooted in Confucian thinking. At the same time, however, it can be much stronger than a bold approach.

  10. artsofmay avatar

    Excellent post—very informative and heartfelt. Thank you!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Have a great day!

      1. artsofmay avatar

        You’re most welcome. Good day to you too.

  11. Max Ethan avatar

    This is a fascinating post, opening my eyes to these special human beings. Thank you, Friedrich, for this illuminating post.

  12. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

    Thank you so much! I am glad to hear this post was useful!

  13. internotrentuno avatar

    So interesting! I love Japanese art too. Nice to meet you

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind support 😊

      1. internotrentuno avatar

        😃my pleasure

  14. davidmoncada77 avatar

    Feliz domingo 🌅

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      ¡Feliz Domingo y Feliz Primero de Mayo para ti también!

  15. Rameen avatar

    Fascinating poem

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏😊

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