Creative Ferment: Art in 20th-Century China (55+)

In the 20th century, China was marked by brutal violence, intense pressure to modernize and deeply traumatic experiences for individuals. Rapid development and instability brought political, economic and social conditions that were dramatically different from any in the preceding 2,000 years. Art was the site of experimentation and cross-fertilization with Western culture, where styles, techniques and audiences were contested and renegotiated.

We will explore the relationship between art and the enormous sociopolitical changes in China during the period that encompassed the end of the Qing dynasty, civil war, Japanese invasion, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. We’ll cover shifting frameworks for art-making, processes of representation and the formation of meaning; Western influences; and what constitutes “Chinese” art in a global context.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the development of 20th-century Chinese art in a larger political, social and cultural context
  • Describe how Chinese artists after 1911 saw the world and defined their roles and the function of art
  • Discuss the meaning, complexity and problems of defining Chinese art and “modernity” in relationship to globalization
  • Apply the knowledge learned in class to gain insight into present day events in China

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction: positioning Chinese art

Any discussion of Chinese art and culture is difficult without some background and context. We will review important historic events, philosophical ideas and critical artistic developments that undergird twentieth-century visual expression. The collapse of the 2000 year-old dynastic system in 1911 was a catalyst to reevaluate and redefine cultural traditions.

Week 2: The end of empire

Ideas about art changed as Chinese artists went abroad in the early twentieth century and learned Western modes of expression. We examine the polemical climate that put idealism and materialism in opposition, and how new and innovative styles gained acceptance in response to political and economic pressure toward modernization.

Week 3: Wartime

During the war years of 1920 - 1950 artists shifted modes of representation in the face of displacement and shortage. Governmental change sharpened the debate over the value of “traditional” art and culture. We trace the extraordinary measures taken to protect the national collection from the vicissitudes of revolution and warfare.

Week 4: Soldiers, workers and peasants

After the Communist victory, art was used to promote Marxist ideology as a force to intervene in and benefit society. During the Cultural Revolution, art in academy and socialist realism style exalted the new society. In the highly volatile political climate, artists’ security and careers rose and fell accordingly.

Week 5: Riding the post-Mao “New Wave”: Emergence and revival

After Mao’s death in 1976, new subjects, new media, and new methods of reaching an audience exploded the art scene. Euro-American systems of art proliferated as artists sought alternatives and ways to transform historic modes of art. Oil painting remained an important art medium, as artists engaged with international art trends.

Week 6: “Chinese” art?

Debates about twentieth-century Chinese art encompass its role as a space of ideology and contestation, as the site of cultural authority, and its function in challenging the prevailing hegemony. We continue to examine the themes of continuity and change, and conclude by considering the role of art in resisting globalization.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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