Translingual Art Practices: Socially Engaged Art Criticism and its Cross-Cultural Reproduction in Contemporary China

Translingual Art Practices: Socially Engaged Art Criticism and its Cross-Cultural Reproduction in Contemporary China

Yanhua Zhou


Socially engaged art in China has expanded dramatically over the past twenty years to become truly global in scope. Several significant cases including the Bishan jihua (碧山计划 Bishan Project, 2011–2016), the Xuchun jihua (许村计划 Xucun Project, 2010–present), the Shijiezi Meishuguan (石节子美术馆 Shijiezi Art Museum, 2009–present), the Yangdeng yishu hezuoshe (羊磴艺术合作社 Yangdeng Art Cooperatives, 2012-2023), the Dinghaiqiao huzhuzhe (定海桥互助社 Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society, 2014-present), and the Picun xingongren yishutuan (皮村新工人艺术团 Picun New Worker Art Troup, 2002-present) have belied a continuing faith in the market-driven logic of Chinese contemporary art and expanded their connotations to the social interaction by being situated in the marginal areas, collaborating with local residents, and focusing on how to establish a relationship between artists, participants and society. It signifies a revival of what Claire Bishop termed the “social turn” of global contemporary art, which forms what avant-garde we have today—artists devising social situations as a dematerialized, anti-market, politically engaged projects to carry on the avant-garde call to make art a more vital part of life. [1] Moreover, it refers back to the history of “art for the masses” [2] in revolutionary and socialist China, which aimed at mobilizing the vast majority of people in national salvation and socialist construction (Fig.1).

Figure 1. A panoramic view of Shijiezi Village. Photograph by Yanhua Zhou.

Over the past few decades in mainland China, socially engaged art criticism has developed its own scholarship by examining the manner by which engaged art projects confront a number of global neoliberal dilemmas. Its discussions, issues, conflicts, and critiques have become familiar to art professionals and are becoming self-reproductive. This self-reproduction appears in the acceptance and transmission of socially engaged art criticism in a global scope which dismisses the conventional, Western-centric perspective. As Grant H. Kester points out, the emerging scholarly discourse around socially engaged art has been defined by its capacity to unsettle the established, and frankly Eurocentric, historiographic traditions that have long characterized research in this field.[3] I agree with Kester that socially engaged art didn’t simply emerged in the past few decades and has never been a type of art that only exists in the West. Both anti-colonial struggles around the Global South and the international avant-garde movements of the first half of the twentieth century reveal a rich set of predecessors of this type of art in the long history of modernism. They provide an important discursive space for thinking about socially engaged art criticism in non-Western countries (Fig. 2, Fig. 3).

Figure 2. Dinghaiqiao neighborhood. Photograph by Yanhua Zhou.

Figure 3. The front door of the Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society. Photograph by Yanhua Zhou.

This paper investigates socially engaged art criticism and its transmission in the Chinese context. It examines how Chinese art professionals over the past decade have sought valuable ways to evaluate this art phenomenon in local contexts, and how they creatively transformed the vocabularies of socially engaged art criticism to question commonly-held assumptions about participation in Western discourse. I will mainly focus on contemporary China, also known as post-socialist China. After the Reform and Opening Up periods, China has experienced what Homi Bhabha terms a sense of “hybridity,” a “Third Space of enunciation” in which the opposition of Self and Other is eliminated. According to Bhabha, this ambivalent space may help us to overcome the exoticism of cultural diversity. As he claims:

It is significant that the productive capacities of this Third Space have a colonial or postcolonial provenance. For a willingness to descend into that alien territory . . . may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity.[4]

Drawing upon Bhabha’s concept of “hybridity,” I suggest that cultural hybridity also appears in China, even if it is not in a post-colonialism context. In post-socialist China a Third Space also exists in which the opposition of socialism (Self) and capitalism/neoliberalism (Other) is eliminated. The coexistence of the two political systems has reshaped the People’s Republic of China (PRC)–socialism is theoretically the fundamental political system, while neoliberalism has been embedded in governance as part of the administrative system as well as a social norm in people’s everyday lives.[5] In this sense, after first being interpreted and introduced by Chinese scholars, socially engaged art criticism has been transformed and revised according to the hybrid social and political circumstances of contemporary China. This hybridity unfolds a complex idea of the “social” in this country and encourages us to rethink the primary target for Chinese socially engaged art—what it needs to be further developed and in what ways.

I see the process of transmitting and reproducing socially engaged art criticism in China as a “trans-lingual art practice,” a term acquired and expanded from the concept of “trans-lingual practice” developed by Lydia H. Liu, professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at Columbia University. According to Liu, a “trans-lingual practice” refers to the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise, circulate, and acquire legitimacy .[6] By exemplifying literary criticism in modern China, Liu argues that “literary criticism became a discourse of legitimation in China by providing writers and critics with a theoretical language(s) whereby they can work out their troubled relationship to the West and reflect simultaneously on their condition of existence.”[7] In a trans-lingual practice the transmission of meanings does not merely stick to its original representation. Instead, it is a process of reproducing knowledge in a cross-cultural context. Considering socially engaged art criticism in this framework, the acceptance and transmission of socially engaged art in China have undergone a series of complex “trans-lingual” shifts associated with artistic transformation. This implies that meaning-making is not only based on the original text and its culture in local historical contexts but also depends on the recreation of meanings that artworks engender.

Beginning with redefining the term “jieru” in Chinese, this paper will examine the early trans-lingual art practice of interpreting the concept of “engagement” as a preparation for accepting socially engaged art criticism by Chinese audiences. It will then investigate how this process entailed a cross-cultural reproduction of knowledge, suggesting an integration of Western political and aesthetic languages in local dialects. Regarding socially engaged art criticism in China as a trans-lingual art practice, I argue that it involves a process of cross-cultural art knowledge-making in which the original meanings, connotations, discourses and theories of Western socially engaged art have been artistically reproduced in contemporary China, and mutually, the trans-lingual art practices of socially engaged art criticism contribute to the cross-cultural scholarship of global socially engaged art.

Engagement as Jieru

The transmission of socially engaged art criticism in contemporary China dates back to the translation and acceptance of the Western vocabulary of “engagement.” Although “engagement” has had many implications in Chinese modern art and literature movements since the early twentieth century, this word had not been discussed as an art and literature terminology in China until the 1980s when the translation and introduction of Existentialist literature were ubiquitous in Chinese academic circles. Jean-Paul Sartre’s littérature engage (also known as littérature d’engagement) was first translated by Chinese intellectuals, such as Liu Mingjiu, as wenxue jieru (文学介入 literature engaging in society) or wenxue de jieru (文学的介入the engagement of literature), advocating that literature should get involved in social issues and participate in politics and the dispute of ideology. From then on, “engagement” formally became a term in the Chinese lexicon referring to literature and art engaging with social and political issues.

Later on, this literary movement was introduced in the fine arts field, along with the introduction of avant-garde theory. The “Stars” exhibition in 1979 is usually considered an inauguration of the very early discussion of jieru (介入 engagement) of art in the contemporary era because it challenged both political and art institutions by calling for the freedom of individual expression and the pursuit of publicness in China.[8] In the 1985 Avant-Garde Art Movement in mainland China, plenty of artistic practices shared the common engagement approach, such as interactive, multi-medium, site-specific, collaborative, and relational approaches, among others. Artists responded to Sartre’s concept of “engagement” and Peter Bürger’s avant-garde theory in their desire to negate the privileged autonomy of art and to reconnect artistic creativity with the praxis of everyday life.[9] For example, the avant-garde tactic of reconnecting art and life was also evident in multiple social performances conducted by artists from the Chi She (池社 Pond Association) and Xiamen Dada (厦门达达 Xiamen Dada), two self-organized art groups based in Hangzhou and Xiamen, which used various forms of performance, video, and  installation to position art in public as a way of challenging the authority of institutional settings as well as reactivating everyday vitality. They were rooted in social reality, promoted amateurish and collective working modes that rejected individual authorship, facilitated a reciprocal relationship between artists and participants, and aimed at a wide range of participation.

In the 1990s, Chinese intellectuals started to reevaluate the history of jieru in literature and arts. Although the turn of liberal politics was the central social context for engagements in the early Reform era, the Chinese New Leftists who arose after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident felt disappointed with the naïve Liberalists. Therefore, rethinking the value of democracy by going back to Mao Zedong, or at least in an empirical sense, became a fashionable issue. This return resulted in a series of reinterpretations and reconsiderations of the value of revolutionary literary and art criticism. Led by Xiaobing Tang, professor of modern Chinese studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan, this turn in Chinese modern and comparative literature has been known as zai jiedu (再解读 reinterpretation). As a method, zai jiedu reevaluated the positive significance of socialist realist literature and art which had been neglected and devalued due to the revival of Chinese liberalism in the 1980s. Within this literature and art context, the political and aesthetic connotations of jieru of the 1980s were expanded–reexamining socialist and early communist literature and art legacies reshaped the idea of “engagement.”

In this regard, some artists in the early 2000s sought a red visual legacy—reviving some communist/socialist visual forms and Mao’s icons to expand the connotations of jieru. In addition to Political Pop, artists who wanted to keep their distance from the market started taking a more analytical approach toward a red legacy. They set out to investigate how history is manipulated and rewritten through visual experiences. To some extent, they revitalized what has kept this legacy alive in the first place, namely its alleged ability to engage a wide spectrum of the general public as audience and participants. The typical example was the Long March project (2004-2008) co-curated by Chinese curator Lu Jie and artist Qiu Zhijie, which involved over one hundred artists from China and overseas. Artists in the Long March project performed as the Red Army, marching, producing, and displaying artworks on the road. According to the curators, their action not only followed the route of the historical Long March but also adopted its method in spirit and ethics. It aimed to revisit the most idealistic aspects of the Chinese Communist legacy through an attempt to re-experience and reconstruct the memories left by the revolutionary era in its original context. As Chang Tan points out, the artists’ methods of engagement were inspired by Mao’s field research strategy—“to analyze the local social structure, formulate policies that would meet the needs of peasants, and continue to learn from them while guiding them towards common goals.”[10] It is worthy to note that reactivating the red visual legacy does not mean a return of socialist realism, which still dominated the mainstream art genres. In fact, since the early 1990s, there has been a clear line between “official art” (socialist realism) and market-driven contemporary art; the reactivation of socialist components evident in the Long March Project belongs to the latter.

Translating and Interpreting Socially Engaged Art Criticism in Contemporary China

A few years after the Long March, the “social turn” of contemporary Chinese art drew public attention. In 2005, the second Forum of Chinese Young Critics titled “The Sociological Turn of Contemporary Art in China,” was organized by the Shenzhen Art Museum. According to the chairman of the forum, art critic, and curator Sun Zhenhua, the title of this forum signifies a social turn in contemporary art curation and criticism. As he explains, “because many recent artworks have direct relations with urban culture, consumerism, and materialism in China now, traditional methods, such as personal expression or formal analysis, are not enough to interpret them.”[11] Therefore, he called for a necessity of “learning from sociology,” which later on was changed into “learning from society” or “learning from everyday life.”[12] This form drew art critics’ and curators’ attention to the social concerns in their criticism and curatorial practices.

For example, in his book, yishu jieru shehui: yizhong xin yishu guanxi (艺术介入社会:一种新艺术关系 Art Intervenes in Society: A New Artistic Relationship), Wang Chunchen, art historian and curator from the Central Academy of Fine Art, translated socially engaged art as yishu jieru shehui. He focuses on the entanglements between art and the society of China since 1979. Through situating his study in the rapidly changing realities of China and the development of art since 1978, Wang defines the term jieru as “not simply corresponding to the society, or making illustrations or descriptions of the society, but applying artistic freedom and thinking to social phenomena, social environment, social issues, and social system.”[13] Wang is the first person to translate the term “art engaging in society” as yishu jieru shehui (艺术介入社会).

Independent art critic and curator Wang Nanming is an initiator who studies and promotes socially engaged art in China through curating engaging platforms outside institutions. Since 2011, he has collaborated with artist Qu Yan in his curatorial practices. He appreciated Qu’s effort in the communal and humanistic revival of the ancient rural village of Xucun. Through curating the exhibition titled “Xuncun Project: The Social Practice of Qu Yan” (2011), Wang’s idea of “critical art” was familiar to the contemporary Chinese art circle. In the exhibition catalog, Wang positioned Qu as a “social worker,” and suggested that artists like Qu, who employ their artistic training to investigate current Chinese social problems and initiate local-specific strategies of intervention and actual social changes are the avant-garde in contemporary China.[14] Wang’s theory is very much related to his rethinking of the Chinese avant-garde. He has argued that “the avant-gardism of contemporary Chinese art lies in social volunteerism.” [15] Meiqin Wang comments that Qu practices “accentuate the potential of art for cultural and social criticism in order to raise public awareness, stimulate debates, develop new artistic and theoretical discourses, and initiate bottom-up social changes.”[16] In her opinion, Wang’s curation demonstrates the fact that exhibition can be a strategy for engagement.

Notably, early scholars and art critics in mainland China who were doing their research on the engagement of art had never used the term “socially engaged art” to describe these projects until recent five years ago, mainly because of the limited translation of Western cutting-edge scholarship and the ambiguous governmental attitude to contemporary Chinese art that forced artists and critics to find some indirect descriptions of such artistic practices. Nevertheless, since 2018, terms such as shehui jieruxing yishu (社会介入性艺术 socially engaged art) and canyushi yishu (参与式艺术 participatory art) have emerged and been widely discussed within contemporary Chinese art domains. This is firstly due to the increasing translation and interpretation of western socially engaged art scholarship in recent years. For example, Nicolas Bourrioud’s Relational Aesthetics was translated into Chinese by curator Huang Jianhong and published in 2013. Although Claire Bishop’s articles, such as “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” and books, such as Artificial Hell, have neither been translated by scholars nor published in mainland China, artists and art historians could access them through their traditional Chinese translations from Taiwan.

Simultaneously, articles and book reviews on theories of socially engaged art were published in several crucial Chinese art journals. For example, Wang Zhiliang’s article “canyushi yishu de shenmei yu zhengzhi: bixiaopu, baoruiaode, he kaisite zhijian de huayu zhengfeng” (参与式艺术的审美与政治:毕晓普、鲍瑞奥德和凯斯特之间的话语争锋 The Politics of Aesthetics of Participatory Art: The Debate among Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Grant H. Kester) examines the different frameworks and methods the three art historians used in analyzing socially engaged art. According to Wang, the debate refers to two modes of participatory aesthetics—one is based on the idea of antagonism and political activism; the other is based on the concept of negotiation and collaboration. [17] Therefore, the debate is caused by their different political positions. In another article “canyushi yishu de wenti yishi yu zhuti chongsu” (参与式艺术的问题意识与主体重塑 The Problem Consciousness and Subject Remodeling of Participatory Art), Wang reviews Kester’s idea of how and why socially engaged art should maintain activism in order to reconstruct aesthetic autonomy in the cultural structure of a specific site through dialogical and collaborative approaches. He argues that Kester’s theory of socially engaged art demonstrates that truly public participatory art is the combination of specific sites and specific problems, and ultimately aims to achieve the purpose of reshaping the participants.[18]

Based on these reinterpretations of Western socially engaged art criticism, a systematic study has been established. This can be found in some theoretical monographs by young art historians. For example, Wang’s recent monograph on socially engaged art dazhong, tizhi, canyu: qianwei lilun de fanshi zhuanxiang (大众、体制、参与:前卫理论的范式转向 The Public, Institution, Participation: The Paradigm Shift in the Theories of Avant-Garde) focuses on three key concepts of avant-garde art. As he analyzes, artistically engaging in society has become an academic issue, which is based on the development of avant-garde art practice, and the three concepts generalize the features of avant-garde art practices that include approaching the public, institutional critique as a method of engaging, and participation as a politics of aesthetics.[19] Rooted in avant-garde theories, Wang’s socially engaged art criticism is more activist than his contemporaries. Taking the concept “institution” as an example: this term is acquired from “institutional critique,” and sees socially engaged art as a successor of institutional critique, Wang believes in and advocates art’s function of challenging institutional settings.

On the contrary, my monograph yishu de jieru: jieruxing yishu de shenmei yiyi shengcheng jizhi (艺术的介入:介入性艺术的审美意义生成机制 Artistic Engagement: The Aesthetic Paradigm of Socially Engaged Art) begins with questioning socially engaged art criticism in China in the past decade which is too dependent on avant-garde theories. Critical discourses of engaged art often demonstrates an external perspective—the relationship between art and society. This has caused a lack of internal attention to the aesthetic paradigm. This book is based on a semiotic study of the aesthetic paradigm of socially engaged art. Focusing on the concept of theatricality, I explore three of the theatrical paradigms and argue that the aesthetic paradigm of socially engaged art is theatrical, dialogical-based, and inter-subjective.[20]

Socially Engaged Art Criticism on a Global Stage

Generally speaking, socially engaged art criticism in the Chinese context has developed through translation and interpretation of Western scholarship. On the other hand, international scholars’ evaluation of the phenomenon in contemporary China—many of them are associated with the Yishu-Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art and Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art—has brought Chinese socially engaged art criticism to a global stage. In 2012, Zheng Bo’s doctoral dissertation “The Pursuit of Publicness: A Study of Four Chinese Contemporary Art Projects” inaugurated research on Chinese socially engaged art. He focuses on the concept of “publicness” and it’s variations in different situations to investigate how the pursuit of publicness has been one of the critical forces motivating the development of Chinese contemporary art.[21]

The English term “socially engaged art” was introduced in China through the symposium “Contemporary Art, Curating, and Social Engagement in Twenty-first Century in China” held at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai in 2014. Organizer Paul Gladston regarded this art phenomenon as “more direct forms of social engagement” in Chinese contemporary art. As he suggested:

Since Chinese contemporary artists and curators are moving towards more direct forms of social engagement, it is no longer possible to think of the relationship between contemporary art and society in China in the same way as during the 1980s and 1990s when artistic display was largely confined to conventional exhibition spaces.[22]

With this in mind, this conference critically explored different cultural perspectives on the significance of contemporary socially engaged artistic and curatorial practices in China as well as the impact of translation between cultures on such practices. It demonstrated a multi-voiced, trans-cultural exploration to reveal previously overlooked aspects of contemporary artistic and curatorial practice beyond those currently envisaged within and outside China. As part of the conference outcomes, a special issue “Art, Society and Contemporary China” was published in the Journal for Culture Research in 2017. In the journal editorial, Gladston regards the rising of socially engaged art in China as a “social turn” of contemporary Chinese art. Gladston’s idea critically responds to Bishop’s opinion on the “social turn” of international contemporary art circles. However, unlike Bishop, Gladston indicates that the cause of this “social turn” lies in the global economic downturn of 2008.[23] This turn, according to Gladston, signifies a return to oppositional discourse implicitly and explicitly critical of the complexity of institutionalized postmodernism with neoliberal capitalism.[24] Gladston was seeking highly institutionalized art practices, and mainland China was his best example.

In 2017, Zheng opened his online course “MOOC—Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China.” Through examining several key projects from the 1990s to the present, Zheng’s course not only summarized topics on Chinese socially engaged art, including community reconstruction, rural practices, gender issues, and environmental issues, but also provided critical analyses on the relation between contemporary art and Chinese civil society. Similar to Zheng, most international scholars who focus on socially engaged art in China regard the notion of “engagement” as a part of the democratic process, and the concept of “social” signifies the public sphere and civil society. For them, socially engaged art in contemporary China refers to a bottom-up social transformation. For example, in her monograph Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below, Meiqin Wang examines socially engaged art practices conducted in mainland China by seven art professionals who assume the role of artist, critic, curator, educator, cultural entrepreneur, and social activist. Art practices produced by these professionals offer creative and constructive challenges to contemporary China’s unjust and unequal status quo while engendering new forms of cultural expression, public space, and civic participation. Wang argues that what shapes the development of Chinese socially engaged art is the rising bottom-up desire for civic engagement. In Wang’s own words, the desire refers to various forms of activism, such as “cultural activism, art activism, lifestyle activism, social activism, online activism, and environmental activism, which play a significant role in the growth of Chinese civil society and public sphere.”[25] According to her, the potential of these forms of activism contributes to the “voices from below.”[26] What the author is concerned with is not how these artistic practices reflect the sociopolitical reality of the country, but how they address social problems, create new public spaces, facilitate forms of participation, and consequently, promote the growth of China’s civil society. Similar to Zheng, Wang’s ambitious overview of contemporary Chinese socially engaged art and her rethinking of current social and political problems demonstrate her belief in the progress of China’s liberal democracy through art. It provides art with critical political dimension.

While Wang distinctly places her volume under the frame of art activism, Mai Corlin does not explicitly align herself with this radical perspective. She questions Wang’s traditional art historical methodology, which only focuses on artists and works of art and “neglects the many people, communities, authorities or villagers that get implicated in the process of a socially engaged art project”.[27] Her monograph The Bishan Commune and the Practice of Socially Engaged Art in Rural China brings together solid ethnographic studies on the six-year life cycle of the Bishan Commune, the first internationally recognized socially engaged art project in rural China. In this monograph, Corlin analyzes how artists and intellectuals bring utopian imagery to transform Chinese society by starting from a rural village. In Corlin’s view, the political ecology in China shapes socially engaged art not only in an activist way but also through a more complex process. According to her, this process demonstrates “an unstable trajectory of cooperation, negotiation, misunderstandings, opposition, control, coexistence and (im)possibility.”[28] Therefore, she carefully examines artists’ relationship with the local government in her book, and suggests that it is more useful to see their collaboration with the officials as a spectrum that is running from “direct criticizing” to “non-confrontational” to “direct collaborating.”[29] She makes this argument because the methodologies that she applies in observing the project and analyzing texts place her research in a very local position which provides her a micro-view from which to examine the nuanced situation of socially engaged art in China.

Both Wang and Corlin believe that socially engaged art practices have paid attention to grassroots concerns and have facilitated the civic awareness of the Chinese people. Wang’s ambitious overview of the bottom-up impulse of contemporary Chinese socially engaged art belies a distinct optimism regarding the progress of China’s liberal democracy and the catalytic role of art. Unfortunately, a thorough theorization of this stratified social sphere and the positionality and efficacy of the “below,” for instance, is not attempted.[30] In this sense, Corlin’s book bridges Wang’s research gap through a careful analysis of where this below is located and who, exactly, occupies it.

Local as Global: Reproducing Socially Engaged Art Criticism in a Cross-Cultural

Whether interpreted from the perspective of Western scholarship or brought to the global stage, socially engaged art criticism in China over the past ten years had to negotiate with a number of cultural conflicts, due to governmental policies of “revitalization of Chinese civilization” which brought about an intellectual atmosphere that excluded Western culture. One of the questions is how Western socially engaged art criticism can apply to a non-Western country. Indeed, as Lydia H.Liu indicates, “language practice is usually a site of manifested historical relationship where the meanings of Western domination and the anti-imperialist struggle may be reopened and interrogated in a new light.”[31] When translating, we always have to deal with the tension between two different cultures and powers from the West. This postcolonial perspective always exists in the knowledge production process of non-Western regions. In recent years, a growing body of global socially engaged art criticism has emerged. Taking FIELD: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism as an example, its recent special issues tend to be more area-focused, geographically balanced, and culturally diversified. As Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen writes, “Kester seems to be inclined to reduce FIELD’s potential criticism of Western art history to a question of the introduction of socially engaged art from elsewhere as if it is a question of geographic diversity, limiting the critical revision to an expansion of the already existing canon.”[32] Centering around the issue of “Japan’s social turn,” the guest editor Justin Jesty of Issue 7 and Issue 8 in FIELD points out that “the genealogy of socially engaged art in Euro-America assumes the relevance of fields of recent practice that do not necessarily have the same relevance in Japan.”[33] Issue 12/13 of FIELD focuses on new forms of cultural and artistic activism that have emerged in response to the global rise of right-wing populist and authoritarian forms of government not only in the West but also in North Africa, East Asia and Latin America. [34] This cross-cultural perspective is significant for Chinese art professionals to rethink the conventional understanding of socially engaged art and introduces a new way of approaching socially engaged art criticism based on different local contexts.

Transforming and Appropriating Socialist Legacies in Chinese Socially Engaged Art

The history of Chinese socially engaged art can be traced back to the New Woodcut Movement promoted by Lu Xun in the early twentieth century. In order to incorporate itself into the international avant-garde movement, the New Woodcut Movement, a part of the Chinese Left-Wing movement in the early twentieth century, advocated a proletarian culture that should engage in a wide range of mass movements in China for its national salvation and social and political revolution. Indeed, after the establishment of the China Leftist Writers League (CLWL) in 1930, the engagement of literature and art was discussed as the wenyi dazhong hua (文艺大众化 popularization of literature and art), which was also regarded as marking the inauguration of the criticism of artistic engagement. In his 1931 article “The New Task of Chinese Proletarian Revolutionary Literature,” Chinese Left-Wing theorist Qu Qiubai pointed out: “Only aiming at the masses, that is, the realization of the popularization of their movement and organization, and the popularization of artworks, criticism . . . can we create a real Chinese proletarian revolutionary literature.”[35] Since then, Chinese Leftists held the belief that engaging in society was “the first major mission” in the development of revolutionary literature.

Between 1934 and 1936, through the Long March, Chinese Communists moved to Yan’an, Shaanxi, in flight from Chiang Kai-Shek’s attempt to exterminate them. The base area provided an attractive refuge for idealistic, Left-Wing young intellectuals whose arrival portrayed a backward countryside undergoing an exciting social and cultural transformation.[36] In the spring of 1942, Mao Zedong organized a massive program of investigating the activities and ideological beliefs of party members in Yan’an. These purges were most significantly aimed at solidifying Mao’s control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao spoke in Yan’an at a conference devoted to literature and art in the spring of 1942, in a lecture which was later published as the “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (“Talks”).  The central theme of “Talks” was based on the avant-garde theory of “popularization.” However, it codified an ideology requiring the dominative role of the CCP. For example, Mao explicitly and forcefully stated the basic party canon for literature and art in his first talk (May 2, 1942), “we are in the position of the proletariat and the masses. For a communist, that means standing on the party’s side, on the party’s spirit and the party’s policies.” [37] According to him, the party was to oversee all cultural activities, and literature and art should unswervingly serve revolutionary causes. It was the task of writers and artists, Mao pronounced, simultaneously to “popularize” their products and “raise the standards” of the people.[38] The “standards” here refer to the ideological standards of communist literature and art production, evaluation and distribution which also implies the standards of literary and art criticism. Since the “Talks,” engagement became one of the mandatory methods of the CCP’s art and literature making.

I would argue that the avant-garde impulse in the early twentieth century was institutionalized after the “Talks,” and this institutionalized engagement can be seen in a series of mass art campaigns after the founding of the PRC, Socialist Realism in the 1950s, and propaganda in the Cultural Revolution. The reevaluation of socialist and revolutionary art and literature in the contemporary era addresses the issue of how we perceive socially engaged art criticism in a Chinese context, how socialist resources reconfigure the idea of engagement, whether there was a sort of “socialist socially engaged art,” and if so, what constituted its critical methodologies.

Based on their local experiences, contemporary Chinese artists are adept at transforming and appropriating the socialist legacies as part of their strategy of engagement. As Chinese art critic and curator Leng Lin declares, Chinese artists, trained by the socialist curriculum, know how to move art into public space and to communicate with the general public.[39] Indeed, apart from Political Pop, Chinese artists usually adopt concepts such as “mutual-aid,” the “people’s commune,” “cooperatives” and the “mass line” in their socially engaged practices. They also conduct projects aiming to work in/for/against the institution–the governmental administrative system. This local context encourages Chinese scholars to rediscover the visual formats and concepts of socially engaged art in historical materials, such as their reevaluation of engagement in revolutionary and socialist visual practices, as well as to give insight into contemporary socially engaged practices as a method of national campaigning such as the Rural Revitalization movement.

Early in 2012, Chang Tan pointed out that the Maoist strategy of art for the masses in cases such as the Long March Project challenges the Cold War ideology that exaggerated the division between the two geopolitical camps, which not only overlooks the irreducible differences between modernist and communist legacy as both a product of theoretical speculation and a political entity. [40] Zheng Bo also suggested that while we celebrate the resurgence of socially engaged art in China, we must also consider twentieth-century revolutionary practices. [41] In his 2017 MOOC on socially engaged art in contemporary China, he indicated that socially engaged art in China has its own socialist origins. However, the export orientation of Chinese contemporary art veiled it.[42] Scholars in the field of PRC history and visual culture, likewise, have noted that a socialist mode of engagement which emerged in various mass art productions in socialist China is also essential to our understanding of participation, and it can be reevaluated as an alternative approach within contemporary Chinese avant-garde practices.[43]

Institutionalized Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

On the other hand, the increasing interest in how revolutionary and socialist legacies can impact socially engaged art practices and criticism are also related to the emergence of the changing cultural policies propelled by Xi Jinping’s government, including Xi’s Talks at Literature and Art in 2014, which positively responded to Mao Zedong’s Talks at Yan’an Literature and Art, emphasizing the social function of literature and art in serving the people; the Rural Revitalization Strategy proposed on the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2018 indicated a strategy aimed at overcoming rural deprivation through arts-based community development. These changing cultural policies have come to fruition in the ethnographic turn of socially engaged art criticism in recent years, which encouraged a unique art phenomenon in contemporary China. I describe it as “institutionalized socially engaged art.”

Thanks to the ethnographic turn, many anthropologists started to collaborate with artists to engage in the national art movement known as “Rural Reconstruction through Art.” Liu Shuman’s article “yishu jieru xiangcun jianshe de huishou, fansi yu zhanwang: jiyu ‘qingtian  fanshi’ de renleixue kaocha” (艺术介入乡村建设的回首、反思与展望:基于“青田范式”的人类学考察 Retrospect, Reflection and Prospect of Art’s Involvement in Rural Construction: An Ethnographical Investigation Based on the “Qingtian Paradigm”) is based on her one-year fieldwork on the Qingtian Plan, a rural socially engaged art project in Shunde, Guangdong. By contextualizing this artistic project within Rural Reconstruction through Art, it provides a solid analysis of the ethical issues emerging in Qingtian village. It argues that the Plan is aimed at promoting a sense of local identity, respect for local knowledge and customs and the rebuilding of a spiritual homeland in Qingtian.[44] Meng Fanhang and Kang Zenan’s article “cong jieru dao ronghe: yishuxiangjian de lujing tansuo” (从介入到融合:艺术乡建的路径探索 From Intervention to Integration: Probing Ways of Rural Reconstruction Through Art) questions improper interventions brought by socially engaged art in the Rural Reconstruction Through Art strategy. They argue that strong interventions weaken rural value, and the dislocation between the artistic position and rural positions results in resistance to the sustainable development of the countryside. Moreover, different subjects of action have different understandings and imaginations of the relationship between art and rural reconstruction, and also have different judgments on the preset goals and practical effects of artistic engagement in rural construction.[45]

Figure 4. The mode of one of the pavilions belonging to the Shijiezi Art Museum was shown at the exhibition “China Artistic Rural Reconstruction,” 2019. Photograph by Jin Le.

Additionally, the ethnographic turn of socially engaged art criticism also impacted curatorial practices. In March 2019, Fang Lili, the director of China Association of Art Anthropology, curated the exhibition “China Artistic Rural Reconstruction” at the World Art Museum of the China Millennium Monument in Beijing (Fig. 4). Three projects—Shijiezi Art Museum, Jingmaishan Art Project, and Qingtian Plan—were selected as representatives of current artistic engagement in rural China. Fang indicates that this exhibition brings the invisible phenomenon to a visible status. Aiming to explore the significance of artistic participation in China’s current rural strategy, and the ways in which artists and designers could get involved in the reconstruction of the countryside, this exhibition demonstrated the rising trend of socially engaged art in the name of yishu xiangjian (艺术乡建 Rural Reconstruction Through Art).[46] Likewise, the “Yearbook Exhibition of 2018 Chinese Contemporary Art” at the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum in 2019 included a section on yishu yu xiangcun zhenxing (艺术与乡村振兴 Art and Rural Revitalization. This exhibition documented rural art projects and their research, showing a rural turn in Chinese contemporary art. Almost at the same time, seminars and forums organized by Chinese art historians, anthropologists, and cultural researchers in Beijing and Chongqing such as the “Art and Rural Reconstruction Forum” held by the China Fine Art Academy, Hangzhou in March 2019, “Public Art and Community Renewal” co-organized by the University of Arizona and Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in November 2018 and “100 Year, 100 Academies, and 100 Villages: China Rural Art Education Project” held by the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in April 2019, also intensified the theoretical and curatorial system (Fig.5).

Figure 5. The show of the “100 Year, 100 Academies, and 100 Villages: China Rural Art Education Project,” 2019. Photograph Wang Tianxiang.

The ethnographic turn implied a more local understanding of socially engaged art in a Chinese context in which art was considered a representation of “voices from below” and with its characteristics of grassroots social and institutional critique has been widely used by local government officials to promote social change. Ostensibly, the functions of socially engaged art criticism have thus been changed from that of promoting bottom-up civic reform into a top-down enunciation of Communist ideology. Indeed, in conversations conducted by myself with artists and cultural workers who work with rural issues, all admitted that the “governmental discourse of rural revitalization” has been shaped by the tightening of policies, forcing many independent and socially critical rural art projects to be turned into another direction. [47]  Under such circumstances, some artists have closed their projects. Others, however, have attempted to work in the “grey areas” of governmental discourse in order to keep a balance between artistic independence and the demands of government. I suggest that although “Rural Reconstruction through Art” may positively intend to show a local voice of socially engaged art criticism to the world, the excessive governmental interference that diminishes independent discourse needs to be acknowledged.

Nonetheless, these local experiences of socially engaged art criticism—whether it has another purpose or not—have contributed to the concept of the “global.” As Kester suggests, non-Western projects “have a great deal to teach us about the evolving nature of socially engaged art more generally, and will provide a valuable addition to the emerging scholarship on engaged art in the Caribbean, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and beyond.” [48] That means that non-Western socially engaged art criticism has signaled a cross-cultural reproduction of knowledge in which knowledge is shaped by translating from the West and transformed according to local contexts. I will argue in the next section that the mobilization of socially engaged art criticism in a global range is a “trans-lingual art practice.”

Socially Engaged Art Criticism in a Chinese Context: A Trans-lingual Art Practice

 As I mentioned in the introduction, the term “trans-lingual art practice” is derived from “trans-lingual practice,” a concept proposed by Lydia Liu to rethink cross-cultural interpretation and forms of linguistic mediation between East and West. [49] Taking modern China as an example, Liu’s “trans-lingual practice” explores the wide-ranging Chinese contact/collision with European languages and literature (often mediated through Japan) in the rise of modern Chinese literature and its early canonization.[50] She places language and literary practices at the heart of China’s experience of the modern and “of its much-troubled relationship with the West” to deconstruct the East-West binary. Although the cross-cultural interpretation of socially engaged art criticism is not in the modern context, the idea of the “trans-lingual” still functions in the transmission and acceptance of its knowledge making. In this paper, I consider this trans-lingual process an art practice. That means translating and interpreting socially engaged art criticism is not a regular linguistic activity. Instead, it is a linguistic praxis accompanied by artistic transformation. In a trans-lingual art practice, meanings are based on the original text and its culture in local historical contexts, and depend on the recreation of meanings produced by artworks. This is because criticism is instinctively what Oscar Wilde described in “The Critic as Artist” (1891)—as creative a practice as art itself. Consequently, the acceptance and transmission of socially engaged art criticism should be regarded as a trans-lingual art practice which refers to an artistic reproduction of the original meanings, connotations, discourses, and theories of Western socially engaged art in contemporary China. And, mutually, this trans-lingual art knowledge making contributes to the cross-cultural scholarship of global socially engaged art criticism. Below are some examples showing how the transmission of socially engaged art criticism in contemporary China forms a trans-lingual art practice.

Although Chinese scholars had a range of discussions on socially engaged art in the early 2010s, the term “engagement” still had a vague meaning in the Chinese art scene. Some terms, such as “social” and “sociologic,” were even mixed. Over the past five years, when art historians and cultural critics started translating socially engaged art criticism to Chinese audiences, some polemics such as the reinterpretation of “engagement” were even evoked. Since the translation of Sartre’s littérature engage, the Chinese term jieru has been recognized as the official translation of “engagement.” However, when socially engaged art was introduced into the Chinese lexicon in early 2013, Chinese scholars often mixed two different translations–jierushi yishu (介入式艺术 which literally means “interventionist art”) and canyushi yishu (参与式艺术 which literally means “participatory art”) . Some of them succeeded in the Chinese translation of the French term littérature engage. Others criticized the mandatory implications that jieru (介入 or “intervention” in Chinese) provoked and thus proposed to use canyu(参与 referring to “participation” in Chinese), because this term is more collaborative and politically neutral in a Chinese context even though it is politically aggressive according to its English translation “participation.”

The different translations of engagement in Chinese first manifest a trans-lingual perspective on the spread of socially engaged art criticism in which meanings are not translated in a literal way but rather produced and modified through discursive conditions such as history, culture, ideology, and social norms. Jieru could be accepted by Chinese literature and art circles as a keyword in the avant-garde lexicon in the 1980s because of a “de-political” atmosphere the revival of liberal politics brought after the Reform and Opening Up.[51] Due to the cultural left turn in the last five years, including Xi’s talk on literature and art in 2014, jieru, a term that was once popular in the liberal-political reform era, was reconsidered politically provocative. In this sense, canyu has replaced jieru as a less aggressive term depicting how artists engage with the China Dream, including the realization of the Chinese road, to push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, to spread the Chinese spirit which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core, with its ultimate goal being the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. [52]

This national propaganda campaign aimed to evoke grassroots movements led by the CCP. Under such political context, shehui canyu (社会参与 social engagement was encouraged not because it could empower the grassroots, but because it could reunite the grassroots and compel them to be better controlled by the Communist Party. As a matter of fact, shehui canyu is a contemporary rediscovery of Mao Zedong’s “Mass Line” strategy, the political, organizational, and leadership method developed by Mao during the Chinese Communist Revolution. Mao claimed in his talk “Decisions on Leadership Methods” at the Central Committee of the CCP in 1943 that the Mass Line signifies that “in all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily from the masses to the masses.” [53] Technically, party cadres should take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study, turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. [54]   In fact, Mao’s Mass Line emphasizes the method of cadres rather than the spontaneous participation of the masses. Scott Harrison has analyzed the methods of the Mass Line and the strategies of Maoist mass participation. According to Harrison, first, the Mass Line requires cadres to gather the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses; and then, to concentrate these ideas into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle; and finally, to take this line back to the masses, propagating it broadly and persistently and leading the struggle on this basis. [55]  For Harrison, this method shows that the crux of the Mass Line is the Party’s reiterative method of getting access to the masses.

Shehui canyu, the contemporary Mass Line, has been turned into a component of the contemporary “Party Building”[56] efforts of the CCP, which is also used by artists engaging with the national campaign of “Rural Revitalization.” It is one of the strategies of the Rural Cultural Revitalization to emphasize Party-led rural grassroots participation in the revival of rural art and culture. The national art movement known as “Rural Reconstruction through Art,” encourages local people to build their homeland by themselves by renovating their own art and cultural traditions. In this regard, many formerly independent rural socially engaged art projects have been institutionalized as part of the Party’s propaganda models—the Bishan Commune has been transformed into a cultural tourist project; the Qingtian Plan has been involved in a local “Communist Party building” project, and the Yangdeng Art Cooperative has been changed to the Yangdeng Art Association, an official artist association led by Literary Federation of Tongzi County and turned into an art education base affiliated with the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. These changes show that the socially engaged art of contemporary China, which was never considered a critique of the institution and representation of local voices, has been institutionalized as a top-down enunciation of Communist ideology in recent years (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. A Communist Slogan “Revitalizing the Rural under the Guidance of Party Building” is installed on the wall of the Seniors’ Canteen, a charitable canteen run by the Qingtian Plan for people aged over 70. Photograph by Yanhua Zhou.

The translation and interpretation of the term “engagement” in the Chinese context show how a Western art concept was accepted in a non-Western context. This acceptance implies a trans-lingual understanding of the nuance between the local and the West. As an art concept, its acceptance is also related to an artistic and creative understanding of the relationship beteween local context and global scope. For example, the Bishan Commune was initially inspired by Ou Ning’s research on international rural art projects such as the Land Foundation in Chiang Mai. However, due to the “negative public influence” the government criticized, the project was closed. Another curator, Zuo Jing, had to revise their goal from building a utopia in the countryside to promoting cultural tourism to being involved in the local government’s blueprint of the Rural Revitalization.[57] This institutionalization of socially engaged art in contemporary China resulted in a local revision of its original purposes, theories and methods.


To research socially engaged art in a local context, we may be trapped in the prejudice of “here us,” a power relation showing how a Western art phenomenon and its discourse can be transplanted in a non-Western region. This prejudice may exaggerate the subaltern position of non-Western art production and erase the value of diversity. I consider socially engaged art criticism and its cross-cultural reproduction in contemporary China to be a trans-lingual art practice. This means it functions as a linguistic practice oriented towards artistic transformation, which also means that the production of meaning is not only dependent on an original text and its culture in local historical contexts, but also on the recreation of meanings produced by artworks operating in new settings. Regarding socially engaged art criticism in contemporary China as a trans-lingual art practice, this paper addresses the question of how we perceive socially engaged art criticism in a cross-cultural perspective in which Western political and aesthetic languages are integrated into local dialects in a process of synthesis. In this process the opposition of Self and Other is eliminated, and local resources are able to reconfigure meanings, connotations, discourses and theories of global socially engaged art criticism.

Socially engaged art in contemporary China demonstrates a hybrid aesthetic value profoundly associated with the social, political and cultural characteristics of China’s post-socialist world in which socialist and capitalist systems exist alongside each other and mutually inform one another. Through examining the transmission and acceptance of Western socially engaged art criticism in contemporary China and its reinterpretations within the Chinese context, this paper demonstrates the efforts of Chinese art professionals in the last ten years to explore effective methods for assessing this art trend in local cultural frameworks. It highlights their innovative approach in reshaping the language of socially engaged art critique to challenge established Western perspectives on participation. Most importantly, as I’ve argued, this cross-cultural reproduction of knowledge is an essential part of global socially engaged art criticism.


There has been ever-growing literature on socially engaged art in China in recent years, it is impossible to cover all of this material in a single article. Thus, I obey two rules when doing a literature review. First, I selected the most significant and widely-influential (which may not be the earliest) articles and monographs of the first generation of Chinese socially engaged art criticism. Second, regarding the criticism by art professionals outside of China, I mainly selected their monographs rather than articles, since the former can fully represent their research. This research is funded by the China Education Ministry Arts and Humanity Foundation (23YJC760174) and the Chongqing Art and Science Foundation (22ZD08).

Yanhua Zhou is a professor of art history at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (also known as the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts) and an affiliated faculty member at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Arizona. Taking an interdisciplinary approach combining art history, anthropology, area studies and cultural studies, her research delves into the issue of the artistic and geographic politics of contemporary art in Asia, global socially engaged art and neocolonialism, and infrastructural studies in art and sculpture practices in China after the Reform and Opening Up. She is the author of Artistic Engagement: The Aesthetic Paradigm of Socially Engaged Art (China Social Science Press, 2017).  Her recent publications include “The Avant-Gardism of Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Aestheticizing Everyday Lives of Yangdeng Art Cooperatives,” (China Information 37, 2023). Her article “When Public Art Becomes the Mass Line: A Case Study of Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Society” was awarded the 2023 Best Article Prize by the Association for Asian Studies.


[1] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p.13.

[2] Regarding the issue of “art for the masses,” see Joshua J. H. Jiang, “The Extermination or the Prosperity of Artists?,” Third Text 18, no. 2 (2004), pp.169-182.

[3] Grant H. Kester, “Preface,” in Meiqin Wang ed. Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia: Space, Place, and Community in Action (New York: Vernon Press, 2022), p. xiii.

[4] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

[5] Hai Ren, The Middle Class in Neoliberal China: Governing Risk, Life-Building, and Themed Spaces (London: Routledge, 2012).

[6] Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937(Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1995).

[7] Ibid., p.184

[8] Bo Zheng, “The Pursuit of Publicness: A Study of Four Chinese Contemporary Art Projects”, Ph.D. dissertation, (University of Rochester, 2012).

[9] Peter Bürger, “The Negation of the Autonomy of Art by the Avant-Garde,” in Theory of the Avant-Garde, Michael Shaw, trans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp.47–54.

[10] Chang Tan, “Art for/of the Masses: Revisiting the Communist Legacy in Chinese Art”, Third Text, 2012. Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp.177-194.

[11] Sun Zhenhua, “The Sociological Turn of Contemporary Art,” in Pi Daojian and Lu Hong eds. New Vision or Art (Changsha: Hunan Fine Art Publishing House, 2003), pp.119–131.

[12] Sun Zhenghua, interviewed by Li Zhu and Wang Ziyun, in Chongqing, Oct, 2015.

[13] Wang Chunchen, yishu jieru shehui: yizhong xin yishu guanxi (艺术介入社会:一种新艺术关系 Art Intervenes in Society: A New Artistic Relationship) (Hong Kong: Timezone8 Limited. 2010), p.1.

[14] Wang Nanming, “meigeren chixu zuoyigong, zhejiushi yishu” (每个人持续做义工:这就是艺术 Everyone Continues to Volunteer, This is Art) in Exhibition Changes Art, edited by Ma Lin (Shanghai: Shanghai University Press, 2013), pp.1-2.

[15] ibid.

[16] Meiqin Wang, Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below (New York: Routledge, 2019), p. 18.

[17] Wang Zhiliang, “canyushi yishu de shenmei yu zhengzhi: bixiaopu, baoruiaode, he kaisite zhijian de huayu zhengfeng” (参与式艺术的审美与政治:毕晓普、鲍瑞奥德和凯斯特之间的话语争锋The Politics of Aesthetics of Participatory Art: The Debate among Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Grant H. Kester), Meishu Guancha (Art Observation), 2017, Issue 1, pp.135-141.

[18] Wang Zhiliang, “canyushi yishu de wenti yishi yu zhuti chongsu” (参与式艺术的问题意识与主体重塑The Problem of Consciousness and Subject Remodeling in Participatory Art), Gonggong Yishu (Public Art), 2021, Issue 3, pp. 46-56.

[19] Wang Zhiliang, dazhong, tizhi, canyu: qianwei lilun de fanshi zhuanxiang (大众、体制、参与:前卫理论的范式转向The Public, Institution, Participation: The Paradigm Shift in the Theories of Avant-Garde) (Beijing: The People’s Art Press, 2022).

[20] Zhou Yanhua, yishu de jieru: jieruxing yishu de shenmei yiyi shengcheng jizhi (艺术的介入:介入性艺术的审美意义生成机制Artistic Engagement: The Aesthetic Paradigm of Socially Engaged Art) (Beijing: China Social Science Press, 2017).

[21] Bo Zheng, “The Pursuit of Publicness: A Study of Four Chinese Contemporary Art Projects”.

[22] RAM Annual International Symposium: Contemporary Art, Curating, and Social Engagement in Twenty-first Century in China, November 27, 2014, Accessed August 10, 2023:

[23] Paul Gladston, Editorial, Journal of Cultural Research 21, no.1 (2017), pp.1-3.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Meiqin Wang, Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below (New York: Routledge, 2019), p.3.

[26] Ibid.

[27], Mai Corlin, “Meiqin Wang, Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below,” Field: A Journal of Socially-Engaged Art Criticism 16 (2020): http://field-  china-voices-from-below-new-york-routledge-2019. Accessed December 14, 2020.

[28] Mai Corlin, The Bishan Commune and the Practice of Socially Engaged Art in Rural China (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), p.2.

[29] Ibid., p.5.

[30] Yanhua Zhou, “Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China: Voices from Below/by Meiqin Wang,” caa reviews, March 11, 2020.

[31] Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937(Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1995), p.xvi.

[32] Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, “A Note on Socially Engaged Art Criticism,” FIELD 6 (Winter 2017). Retrieved from  criticism.

[33] Justin Jesty, “Japan’s Social Turn: An Introductory Companion,” FIELD 7 (Spring 2017). Retrieved from introductory-companion.

[34] Grant Kester, “Editorial,” FIELD 12/13 (Spring 2019). Retrieved from https://field-

[35] Qu Qiubai, “Zhongguo wuchanjieji gemingwenxue de xinrenwu” (The New Task of Chinese Proletarian Revolutionary Literature), Wenxue Daobao (Literature Review) 1, no. 8, (November 15, 1931).

[36] Ding Ling, one of the most important writers in Chinese Left-Wing Movement arrived at Yan’an in October 1936. Her arrival encouraged a number of Leftist writers and artists. Subsequently, Leftists such as Ai Qing, Zhou Yang, Ai Siqi, Zhou Libo, Tian Jian, Xian Xinghai, Xiao Jun, Jiang Feng, and Wang Zhaowen came to Yan’an.

[37] Mao Zedong, “Zai Yanan wenyi zuotanhui shang de jianghua” (Talks at Yan’an on Literature and Art), Mao Zedong xuanji (毛泽东选集Collection of Mao Zedong’s Writings) 3 (Beijing: The People’s Press, 1966), p.805.

[38] Chang-Tai Hung, War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press,1994), p.229.

[39] Barbara Pollack, The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2010), p.85.

[40] Tan, “Art for/of the Masees,”, pp.177-194.

[41] Bo Zheng, “An Angry Committed Alliance,” unpublished article, p.16.

[42] Zheng Bo’s MOOCs on the website SEACHINA: Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China, accessed Mar 31, 2020.

[43] See Jie Li and Enhua Zhang eds., Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Liang Luo, The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China: Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics (University of Michigan Press, 2014).

[44] Liu Shuman, “yishu jieru xiangcun jianshe de huishou, fansi yu zhanwang: jiyu ‘qingtian fanshi’ de renleixue kaocha ”( 艺术介入乡村建设的回首、反思与展望:基于“青田范式”的人类学考察 Retrospect, Reflection and Prospect of Art’s Involvement in Rural Construction: An Anthropological Investigation Based on the “Qingtian Paradigm”), Minzu Yilin (Journal of Ethnic Art) 2017, Issue 4, pp.5-13.

[45] Meng Fanhang and Kang Zenan, cong jieru dao ronghe: yishuxiangjian de lujing tansuo (从介入到融合:艺术乡建的路径探索 From Intervention to Integration: Probing Ways of Rural Reconstruction Through Art), Zhongguo Tushu Pinglun (China Book Reviews), 2020, Issue, pp. 8-23.

[46] Fang Lili, “yishu jieru xiangcun jianshe dujie” (艺术介入乡村建设读解 An Interpretation of Engaging with Rural Reconstruction through Art). Renmin Zhengxie Wang (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Web), May 30, 2020, retrieved from

[47] I discussed these issues in my formal and informal interviews with artists Jiao Xingtao, Qu Yan, Zuo Jing and his assistant Xing Rui.

[48] Grant H. Kester, “Preface,” in Meiqin Wang ed. Socially Engaged Public Art in East Asia: Space, Place, and Community in Action (New York: Vernon Press, 2022), p.xviii.

[49] Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity-China, 1900-1937(Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1995), p.xv.

[50] Ibid., p. xvi.

[51] See Wang Hui, “Depolitical Politics, From East to West,” New Left Review 41, 2006, accessed August 10, 2023, depoliticized-politics-from-east-to-west

[52] “What Does Xi Jinping’s China Dream Mean?”, BBC News, accessed August 10, 2023,

[53] Mao Zedong, “guanyu dangde lingdao fangfa de jueding” (Decisions on Leadership Methods), Liberation Daily, June 4, 1943.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Scott Harrison, The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement, retrieved from: ovement.

[56] The “Party Building” of the CCP in a broad sense refers to the theoretical and practical activities that a party conducts to lead the country and society and improve its own vitality in order to fulfill its own mission. In the narrow sense, Party building refers to the theoretical and practical activities carried out by Marxist political parties under the guidance of Marxist Party theory to lead the country and society and improve their own vitality. See Shao Chunbao, “lun jiandang he dangjian” (Discussions on the Establishment of Chinese Communist Party and its Party Building), Xinhuanet, June 7, 2021, accessed August 2, 2022,

[57] Early in the project, Ou Ning attempted to revitalize the Harvestival, which had been a local agricultural festival in the village of Bishan. By reactivating the festival as part of the project, Ou aimed at creating a public platform where people from all over the world could interact and exchange ideas. However, the Harvestival drew attention from local officials because the event was slated to involve several cultural activists from outside mainland China. The Harvestival was canceled in 2012 due to its “negative public influence.” This cancellation also initiated disputes in intellectual circles and provoked criticism. Ou Ning was forced to leave China and their cultural activities faced a restricted censorship. Ou Ning’s house was turned into an Airbnb hostel. When I visited Bishan in 2018, I found CCTVs were installed in Ou and Zuo’s house. According to one of the former volunteers in Bishan Commune, after the heavy censorship, Bishan Project has to turn into a more consumer-oriented direction. Terms such as “commune” and “culture” were prohibited by the local government. In 2016, after Ou Ning’s resignation, Zuo Jing had to shut down the Bishan Commune due to the political pressure.