Zhang Hongtu: Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World

Zhang Hongtu: Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World

by Luchia Meihua Lee, Jerome Silbergeld

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In this book, leading art experts, art historians, and critics review the life, career, and artistic development of New York based Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu. A pioneer in contemporary Chinese art, Zhang created the first example of "China Pop" art, and his oeuvre is as diverse, intellectually complex, and engaging as it is entertaining. From painting and sculpture to computer generated works and multimedia projects, Zhang's art is equally rich in terms of China's history and its current events, containing profound reflections on China's oldest cultural habits and contemporary preoccupations. He provides a model of cross-cultural interaction designed to make Asian and Western audiences look more closely at each other and at themselves to recognize the beliefs they hold and the unexamined values they adhere to.

From his early work in China during the Cultural Revolution to his decades as an artist in New York, Zhang reflects the complex attitudes of a scholar-artist toward modernity, as well as toward Asian and Western societies and himself.  Placing Zhang in the context of his cultural milieu both in China and in the Chinese immigrant artist community in America, this volume's contributors examine his adaptations of classic art to reflect a contemporary sensibility, his relation to Cubism and Social Realism, his collaboration with the celebrated fashion designer Vivienne Tam, and his visual critique of China's current environmental crisis. Zhang's work will be on display at the Queens Museum in New York City from October 17, 2015 to March 6, 2016.

Contributors: Julia F. Andrews, Alexandra Chang, Tom Finkelpearl, Michael Fitzgerald, Wu Hung, Luchia Meihua Lee, Morgan Perkins, Kui Yi Shen, Jerome Silbergeld, Eugenie Tsai, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Lilly Wei

Co-published by the Queens Museum and Duke University Press.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374756
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/05/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
File size: 73 MB
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About the Author

Jerome Silbergeld is P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Professor of Chinese Art History at Princeton University and the author of Body in Question: Image and Illusion in Two Chinese Films by Director Jiang Wen.

Luchia Meihua Lee is Guest Curator at the Queens Museum in New York City, the Executive Director of the Taiwanese American Arts Council, and the curator of numerous exhibitions.

Read an Excerpt

Zhang Hongtu

Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World

By Luchia Meihua Lee, Jerome Silbergeld

Queens Museum and Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Queens Museum, Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6042-1



Jerome Silbergeld

The back of the Peng-bird measures I don't know how many thousand li across, and when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the Peng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him.

— Zhuangzi

We live in an age of geographical compression, when technology has conspicuously made the world "smaller" and brought all its parts into much closer communication. No one needs to be told this; it is articulated by media and events throughout our daily lives. But what does it mean? What is its impact? Technologically induced compression is by no means new, but only within the past few generations has the pace of compression increased to the point of making it readily visible within some fraction of a human lifespan. In earlier times, it was the visionary or the transcendent being alone who could attain the overarching perspective, or "grand view" (da guan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as the Chinese called it, to adduce the changing nature of things and convey its meaning to those being changed. Metaphorically, to attain this view one had first to become displaced, transported from the normal to the extraordinary, to be like Zhuangzi's ascendant Peng-bird or to climb the Great Mountain. No better description of the human visionary exists than what Mencius wrote of the Master:

Confucius ascended the Eastern Hill, and Lu appeared to him small. He ascended the Great Mountain, and all beneath the heavens appeared to him small. So he who has contemplated the sea, finds it difficult to think anything of other waters, and he who has wandered in the gate of the sage, finds it difficult to think anything of the words of others.


The lesser artist only has to draw well what the eye can see, to transfer things from one medium to another. The "real" artist must be transcendent, one who transmits his insight into something visible so that others can learn from this transcendent vision. His artistic impulse, which he must trust fearlessly, is the mighty wind that will bear him aloft. If displacement is the price of insight, then the life of Zhang Hongtu — punctuated by displacement in his family experience, in his relationship to China and its arts, in his place among the community of artists — should have more than its share of insight by which to fashion his art. Informed by cultural distance, he has (and not without some irony) focused his art on the major cultural characteristic of our time, namely, the expansion of cultures with the compression and convergence of geographies. The purpose of his art has been to liberate his viewers from those local values and outdated views bred into them by a world in which cultures that once seemed to exist as stable entities in isolation from one another now no longer do.


Zhang Hongtu was born into a Muslim family that was regularly on the move and never quite belonged to any of the places it moved to. The family's ancestral home was Luoning, in Henan Province. But Hongtu's grandfather Zhang Wenzheng, who ran a fur and leather business — a common Muslim trade in China — kept a store in Xi'an while maintaining the family residence in Pingliang, a hundred miles northwest of Xi'an, in the northeast corner of the northwestern province of Gansu. Pingliang was deep in Muslim territory, and Hongtu's father, Zhang Bingduo, like many in his family, was devout (Fig. 1). In 1932 Zhang Bingduo was sent to Cairo for six years to study the Qur'an. On his return, he joined with other Muslim students in Chongqing, where he broadcast in Arabic about the Japanese invasion. At the outset of the war, the young man was introduced as an Islamic scholar to the Nationalist government's minister of education, Zhu Jiahua, in Chongqing and refused, as a strict Muslim, to bow with him to a portrait of Sun Yat-sen. The incident drew considerable attention and was brought to the attention of Chiang Kai-shek, but Chiang excused Zhang Bingduo's behavior and even appreciated it for its religiosity. Later at an Islamic gathering, Zhang Bingduo shocked even his fellow Muslims by demolishing a clay statue of the Prophet.

Zhang Bingduo soon moved back to Pingliang. Hongtu was born there in 1943 (he would be the second of four sons with one younger sister). Deeply involved in Islamic education, Zhang Bingduo traveled widely, founding schools to teach the Arabic language. Teaching, translating, producing a book on the sayings of the Prophet, and helping to establish Arabic-speaking religious schools kept him traveling constantly, north to Ningxia, south to Guilin. Then, with the war against Japan over but the Chinese Civil War raging, from 1947 to 1950 the entire family was mobilized. The Zhangs moved from Pingliang in the northwest to Shanghai, Suzhou, and Nanjing in the southeast, and back north to Zhengzhou. During this turbulent period, Zhang Bingduo managed twice to go to Mecca on Haj. When the Communist victory seemed imminent, Zhang Bingduo acquired tickets for the entire family to depart for British-held Hong Kong, but a Muslim professor of history convinced him to remain in China, and the family moved instead to Beijing just as it became the new stronghold of Communist Party politics.

Unlike Pingliang, where Muslims were numerous, in Beijing the Zhangs were cultural outsiders. But Zhang Bingduo took advantage of the situation, and with his linguistic skills he worked for the new government's Minority Affairs Association, where he served as chief editor and translator for a government- run Arabic-language propaganda magazine, Chinese Muslim. He also worked with the government-regulated National Muslim Association and rose to become its vice president. But the family's religious and economic background increasingly became a serious political burden in a state where officially all religions were "tolerated" but the state itself was officially atheist. In practice, says Zhang Hongtu, state policy "mentally, psychologically destroys your beliefs. If the discrimination were physical, you'd be set back but you'd recover, you'd be even stronger. But this way the state destroyed Muslim people's identity." As the political rectification movements of the 1950s gathered momentum, Zhang Bingduo's "revolutionary inheritance" and Islamic activities finally caught up with him: for his father's "capitalist" background and pre-1949 association with the Nationalists ("basically, just making the payoffs required to protect his business," says Zhang Hongtu), for the family's religious activity, and for his public support of a multi-party system for China, Zhang Bingduo was branded a rightist in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957. Hongtu's mother, Zheng Shouzheng, lost her job. His father avoided being sent down for political reeducation; despite his "rightist" label, his language skills were unusual and much needed and eventually he was sent to work with the Arabic languages department of the Xinhua News Agency.

During the Great Leap Forward, beginning in 1958, things got worse. Famine set in as a result of economic mismanagement, and recriminations were directed against the peasantry itself, ultimately resulting in the loss of thirty or more million lives through starvation and mass executions. Zhang Hongtu recollects:

We discovered all the hungry people, beggars from the country so skinny, with no clothes. Every single day, and you're so hungry yourself that you just couldn't sleep but so tired you can't wake up. We heard one thing from school and the newspapers but we saw something else from reality and we felt betrayed. You needed a scale to weigh out food to make sure there'd be some at the end of the month. I'd go with my father to the park to pick plants to eat.

By 1963, Zhang Bingduo was working for the Central Broadcasting Administration. But learning Arabic was no longer welcome around the house. One could no longer pray five times daily, and talk of religion disappeared. A strict fundamentalist whose ideals combined Confucian and Islamic discipline, Zhang Bingduo afterwards became bad-tempered, "angry all the time, even worse than most Chinese fathers." In 1966, at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, the National Muslim Association was disbanded. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it was reestablished and Zhang Bingduo was invited back to his old position, but, deeply disillusioned, he refused. The government's disingenuousness, he said, was just like the old Chinese idiom, "hanging out a sheep's head [advertising lamb] but only selling dog meat" (gua yang tou mai gou rou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).


The Muslim proscription against representational art was not widely adhered to among Chinese believers, but the strict Zhang Bingduo was not a father who wanted his son to become an artist. Hongtu inherited his father's iconoclastic views of art, but Zhang Bingduo was no icon to his son. Given the official intolerance of religion in the 1960s, the father resisted Hongtu's artistic ambitions, but he could hardly enforce his own religious objections to Hongtu's study of art. At the age of sixteen, in 1960, Hongtu enrolled in the high school attached to Beijing's prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts. There he studied Western painting and drawing, as well as some Chinese ink painting. The training was designed to produce "one more screw in the Great Revolutionary Machine." From 1954 to 1957, the academy students were offered training in Socialist Realist–style oil painting by the Soviet advisor Konstantin Maksimov. By the time Hongtu arrived, China's relationship with the Soviet Union had turned hostile, and all the advisors had been sent home. In 1960, Mao's Anti-Rightist Campaign and his disastrous Great Leap Forward obliged the party chairman to cede his position as head of state to Liu Shaoqi. In an attempt to win the educated class back into the fold, discriminatory policies toward China's cultural past were relaxed and ink painting made something of a comeback. But in art education, European history still stopped just before Impressionism, and everything from there onward was dismissed as "corrupt, reactionary, decadent, and declining bourgeois arts." In the 1960s and '70s, bad art and artists were not just shunned, they were displayed in "black arts" exhibitions, paraded in public, and denounced. Hongtu's class was taken to an exhibition of "negative examples" at the National Gallery of Art in 1963. Still, he remembers, "It afforded me the opportunity to see the art of Georges Rouault, which I have loved ever since."

In 1964, Hongtu's graduation year, the Socialist Education Movement was launched as a prelude to the Cultural Revolution and Mao's return to power. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, began her own rise to cultural hegemony with an attack on the Central Academy, with the result that the academy was closed to new admissions. So Hongtu began his professional art studies instead, at Beijing's Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, the nation's leading institution for training commercial artists. While still oriented toward painting, he chose to study in the ceramics department "because Picasso also did ceramics." One year ahead of him in the department was the student Huang Miaoling, with whom he began a shy courtship and who later became his wife (Fig. 2). Two years afterward, in 1966, the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution put an end to Hongtu's art studies, and political activities took center stage.

At the outset of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese trains were made available for free student travel throughout the country under the policy of "linking up" with the people. This served the dual function of bringing the revolution "down" to the masses and educating the educated about the lives of the common people. The well-traveled Zhang Hongtu became a traveler again, first taking the train west to Xinjiang (to Urumqi and Wusu, in Muslim territory, where all of the mosques had been closed down in the cultural "cleansing"), then from there to Guangzhou in the far southeast. In Guangzhou, however, Zhang was stranded: the "linking up" program had become unmanageable, and the free-travel campaign was suddenly ended by the government. With the famous Long March in mind as a model, Zhang and his friends decided on a "long march" of their own across the countryside, using their art in the service of the current political movement. As a "test march," Zhang and one friend first walked southward overland "toward the sea," a goal they never quite reached. Then, a group of five, including Yu Youhan, who was a year behind Zhang at the Central Academy and later would become a prominent painter, marched north over rugged mountain terrain to the Jinggang Mountains in Jiangxi Province, the scene of Mao's earliest organizational activities on behalf of the young Chinese Communist Party. From there, walking week after week, Zhang and one friend headed westward to Mao's birthplace at Shaoshan. Along the way, they bore flags and a portrait of Chairman Mao, held high at all times, and bore on their backs a heavy set of wooden printing blocks they had carved. At each of the villages they passed through, they printed and distributed sets of propaganda leaflets on three political themes: "The Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains" (Mao's propaganda tale about removing the dual burdens of feudalism and imperialism); the "barefoot doctor" Norman Bethune (a Canadian who rose above nationalism to serve the medical needs of rural peasants); and illustrations to a text entitled "Serve the People." After their stay at Shaoshan, the two young revolutionaries returned by train to Beijing.

By the time of Zhang's return, the Cultural Revolution had begun to take its vengeance on the Zhang family. The young artist found himself being criticized as a "black sprout of revisionism" for his family's political background and for his strong interest in Western art. As a result, he was proscribed from painting Mao's portrait. But his "linking up" travels, by contrast, had been "so happy," Zhang remembers. "Nobody bothered me at that time about my family background. It was nice to see the landscape, so nice for a city boy. But after this trip, I changed a lot. The bad part is, I saw people kill each other, literally." He remembers a middle-aged man beaten to death by a group of kids with a belt "for being a capitalist." "I began to ask, 'Is this really the "Cultural Revolution"?' I saw people put so many books all together like a hill and then burn them. I saw so many poor people, it was beyond my imagination. The reality of it didn't fit my imagination of the Cultural Revolution. I got back and instead of being a participant, I became an 'escapist' (xiaoyao pai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])." In Beijing, the family home was searched by Red Guards for counter-revolutionary materials, and although none were found, Hongtu was obliged to criticize his father "again and again, deeper and deeper." He recalls, "At first, I trusted everything Mao wrote. I found Mao's writings so idealistic that I followed him." But all this turned into a sense of betrayal.

I had to criticize my own painting. I was denounced by my own friends with "big character posters." After that, you lose all your trust in people. One friend, who was so good toward me but really was just spying, checked out my diary without telling me, to see how badly I hated the Communist Party. He found nothing and said so, but I was so hurt. After that, I couldn't write anything. That was the worst result of the Cultural Revolution. To this day, people don't trust each other, don't think about the future, they just think about themselves and find security only in making money. That's hard to change now, and most people in my generation just don't want to talk about the Cultural Revolution. But at least people afterward had to reconsider the Communist Party, to re-examine Mao, and maybe if not for that, China today would be another North Korea.


Excerpted from Zhang Hongtu by Luchia Meihua Lee, Jerome Silbergeld. Copyright © 2015 Queens Museum, Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Queens Museum and Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  7
Foreword  10
1. The Displaced Artist Sees Things for Us: Zhang Hongtu and the Art of Convergence / Jerome Silbergeld  13
2. Wall, Gate, Hole: Three Recurrent Motifs in Zhang Hongtu's Art / Wu Hung  37
3. Zhang's Contemporary Cubism / Michael FitzGerald  56
4. The Man in the Moon: A Conversation with Zhang Hongtu / Eugenie Tsai  72
5. "A Hundred Ways to Learn" about Zhang Hongtu / Morgan Perkins  83
6. Restoring the Aura: Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen  101
7. Zhang Hongtu: Playing with Power / Alexandra Chang  114
8. Zhang Hontu's Fashionable Turn / Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu  130
9. Pop, Politics, and Painting / Lilly Wei  138
10. Zhang Hongtu's Queens / Tom Finkelpearl  155
11. What's Next for Us? Zhang Hongtu's Environmental Shan Shui / Luchia Meihua Lee  160
Plates  175
Autobiography  313
Selected Bibliography  323
Guide to Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters  335
Credits  337

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