Yang Zi, recipient of the inaugural Sigg Fellowship for Chinese Art Research, investigates how artists in the 1980s and 1990s adopted elements of folk religion in their practices.
On 5 February 1989, the exhibition China/Avant-Garde opened at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. Riding in the hard-seat class on an overnight train from Datong, Shanxi, three members of the WR Group (wuren, or ‘five guys’) arrived at the opening reception to stage an unauthorised performance. Datong Dazhang, Zhu Yanguang, and Ren Xiaoying entered a washroom on the east side of the museum and wrapped their bodies in the kind of white cloth commonly used in mourning rituals, leaving only their eyes exposed.
When Gao Minglu was about to conclude his opening speech, the artists stood in a line and slowly moved forward, beside a black banner lying on the floor. On the banner was written ‘China/Avant Garde Exhibition’ in large, bold characters, followed by the no U-turn logo designed for the exhibition by Nanjing artist Yang Zhilin. The WR Group and other performance artists were promptly escorted out of the museum. Writing in his diary after the event, Datong Dazhang states, ‘The new wave art has victoriously and grandiosely entered the National Art Museum of China, with a view to establish a new dynasty. Our act is based on this antagonistic view.’
The WR Group’s ominous ritual can be read as a send-up of absolute power, one that drew from practices of Confucian ancestor worship. Filial piety and patriarchy in the traditional Confucian religious and social system extend from the family and the clan to the larger structure of governance, and funerary garments were a means to express distinctions in social rank and position, even in death. Clearly, the artists’ appropriation of traditional funerary practices was not meant as an expression of their admiration of Confucian feudalism. Their radical, disruptive attitude was a direct critique of China/Avant-Garde, which they saw as the construction of a new power system through the legitimisation of the avant-garde. They viewed the objectives of economic progress and the reformation of socialism as lies, and the push for the development of socialism as an archaic and irrelevant ambition. But what specifically was the WR Group’s intention with this performance? What significance did funerary rituals have for their avant-garde ambition?
To understand this question, it is essential to consider the larger context. Chinese avant-garde art is multifaceted and difficult to define. It can be framed as a set of practices in the 1980s and early 1990s that deviated from the formerly dominant style of Revolutionary Realism, which is characterised by heroic depictions of smiling workers and party leaders in bright colours. In 1976, as China began to open and introduce reforms, cultural references from the West were suddenly accessible to artists. At a time marked by rapid economic growth, the art world enthusiastically consumed this increasingly abundant supply of information.
The rapid, dramatic changes that took place in the twentieth century are reflected in the absence of continuity in art from this time. Works of art instead reveal a turbulent and disjointed context, with even Revolutionary Realism’s apparently total coherence changing in subject in response to changes in political life. In contrast, sacrifices, celebrations, and other rituals in Chinese folk religion have remained remarkably consistent over thousands of years. For example, the sacrificial practices documented in oracle inscriptions and other excavated artefacts are very similar to contemporary folk rituals. Folk religious references remained deeply influential for the avant-garde. Is the presence of traditional religious imagery in avant-garde artworks indicative of something more? Does it signify antiquity’s influence over modernity? If so, how did this influence come about? These lines of inquiry underlie the question of the WR Group’s intention. To respond, I examine examples of avant-garde art and compare them with elements from folk religious rituals.
Igniting the Fire
There are two points that must be clarified before beginning. First, ‘folk religion’ is a foreign concept derived from Western anthropologists’ observations and categorisations. In 1892, in The Religious System of China, Dutch sinologist J. J. M. de Groot developed the concept of popular religion through his study of the traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He used it to describe the various religions that integrated practices of ancestor worship and deity veneration with these three ancient ideologies. Folk religion was diffused among various social classes, from the emperor to inhabitants of rural villages. According to C. K. Yang, this diffusion stood in contrast to the institutionalisation of religions elsewhere. Scripture, teachings, and priests serve only to organise activities such as worship, sacrifices, gatherings, and temple fairs.
The second point it is necessary to clarify is that my research emphasises the visual comparison of artworks and folk religious rituals; textual sources relating to each artwork are used only as references. This differs from most studies of folk religion in relation to avant-garde art, in which scholars rely heavily on historical texts. Here, I discuss two key elements of Chinese folk religion: sacrificial practices and the idea of a single, all-encompassing monistic world in which people coexist with divine beings.
In folk religions, it’s very common to see the setting of fires and igniting of firecrackers, whose high flames and loud sounds can deliver a devotee’s prayers to heaven, connecting the devotee with spirits and deities. This description could also apply to several performances by the avant-garde group Xiamen Dada. On 12 November 1987, Huang Yong Ping, Lin Jiahua, Wu Yiming, and others tied themselves up with ropes and buried a colleague in a dried-up lake. Following this, they formed a circle, tore out pages from catalogues and art theory books, and set them on fire. Huang ignited the firecrackers that lined his trousers with a cigarette.
The use of fire in Xiamen Dada’s art-burning performance the year before invites deeper contemplation. On 23 November 1986, outside the Xiamen People’s Art Museum, Huang Yong Ping, Ji Tairan, Cai Lixiong, Lin Chun, Jiao Yaoming, and others from the research laboratory of the Xiamen Modern Art Museum set fire to paintings from the Xiamen Dada exhibition, which had just ended. As can be seen in documentary photographs and recordings of the performance, the artists drew on the ground not only slogans such as ‘Dada is dead’ and ‘I’m not at peace when I’m not burning art’, but also a white circle, as if to designate a bonfire area.
The act of drawing a circle is frequently seen during the burning of paper money for ancestors in Fujian folk practices. According to Zhang Guangzhi, in Chinese folk religion, ‘burning is a way to transform certain materials from one world to another’. If exhibiting the works is considered guarding the coffin, then burning the works is cremating the body. In his manifesto for this performance, ‘On the Burning’, Huang Yong Ping compares paintings to bodies whose souls have departed, writing: ‘People say, “Let’s have a look at your works.” And we say, “They have been burned.”’ Like the WR Group’s act of mourning, Xiamen Dada’s burning action implies a break with Revolutionary Realism.
Sacrifice in Blood
Animal sacrifice is another common imagery in Chinese folk religion. Xu Shen’s Eastern Han-era text Shuowen jiezi defines the character ji (祭) as ‘Sacrifice. Holding meat in hands’. In many religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam, cooked or raw animal parts are forbidden from being used as offerings. Animal sacrifice can be found in only a few extant religions, including Judaism and Chinese folk religion.
In 1998.11.07, for the exhibition Trace of Existence: A Private Showing of Chinese Contemporary Art ’98 curated by Feng Boyi, Gu Dexin placed one hundred kilograms of raw pig brains purchased from Beijing’s Yaojiayuan market on a table covered in a red cloth. Another red cloth was hung in front of the table. The installation recalls bai san ceremonies, which are typically held before major construction projects, as well as red flags symbolising the blood of revolutionary martyrs.
Meat and blood recur in Gu’s work. As early as 1983, his painting A10 depicted four severed heads—two cow heads and two human heads—on a table, facing away from the viewer. Blood drips from above and below, appearing to fall from the heads and a blue cloth that hangs overhead. A pigeon is perched on the edge of the table, its eyes blood red. As in 1998.11.07, the violent symbolism of A10 seems to combine political commentary with allusions to religious sacrifice.
Human sacrifice was practised in China until the Warring States period, when it was gradually banned by Confucian doctrine. In the 1990s, artists of the Beijing East Village community frequently used blood and human and animal bodies as materials in their work. In part, this was due to their inability to afford other materials, but it also indicates their interest in a certain spiritual symbolism with deep historical resonance.
In 1993, two years after arriving in the East Village, Zhang Huan realised his first performance, Angel. In the western courtyard of the National Art Museum of China, he smashed a can filled with red paint and a dismembered doll. In the process of reassembling the doll, the ‘blood’ spread across both the doll and the artist’s bodies, suggesting a strong will to survive. The work recalls the Shang-era religious practice of filling a ceramic vessel with bones of an infant. Archaeologists concluded that the bones were remnants of a sacrificial ceremony to bring good fortune for the construction of a house.
Ma Liuming created Dialogue with Gilbert and George in 1993, on the occasion of the British duo’s visit to Beijing for an exhibition of their work at the National Art Museum of China. He placed red paint in the ceiling of his East Village space, pierced the paint container with his finger, and let the ‘blood’ drip onto his naked body. The work seems to imply the presence of a supernatural being hidden just out of view. It also references the connection between blood and sacrifice as articulated in Shuowen jiezi: ‘Blood: animal blood offered in sacrifice’ and ‘Ancient people devoured hair and blood, offering blood to god.’
Sacrificing internal organs is another characteristic of folk religion in China. In Crystal Landscape of Inner Body, produced in 2000, the year of his death, Chen Zhen used crystal glass to create the forms of eleven human organs and placed them all on a table. Kong Yingda, a Confucian scholar from the Tang dynasty, writes: ‘Zhou dynasty sacrifices lung, Shang dynasty sacrifices liver, Xia dynasty sacrifices heart’ to ‘harmonises the yin and yang’ and restore the earth’s natural rhythm.
In the triptych Eternal Love (1988), shown at China/Avant-Garde, Zhang Xiaogang combined elements of ritualistic sacrifice to create a system that exudes an air of mysticism, obscurity, and gravity. Combining ‘tradition from medieval altar art, Giotto’s allegorical characters, and Chagall’s fantastical scenes’, the work depicts an offering of a lamb’s head and a man and woman at a burial (or perhaps a sacrificial) ground. The geometric shapes on the tapestry that signify life, the roots and flower branches on the ground, and the entranced character at the centre of each panel together convey a desire to return to tradition and nature.
After the dominance of exuberant socialist imagery began to wane, many artists felt an urge to recover past ways of life. However, unlike the realistic portrayals of the Scar Art and Life Stream movements of the 1970s and 1980s, Zhang turned to symbolism and an exploration of the subconscious. Despite the clear influence of Western art history, the work can be seen as a deeply rooted explanatory depiction of folk rituals from Chinese tradition.
People's Sacrifice, Official Sacrifice
One early morning in 1988, before dawn, four young people climbed the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Zhao Jianhai, Sheng Qi, Zheng Yuke, and Kang Mu of the art collective Concept 21 took off their clothes, wrapped their bodies with red and black cloths, and carried out a series of performances, titled Wine Offering to Heaven, Crying Out to Heaven, Unearth, Holy War of Go, Great Tragedy of the Watchtower, and Great Wall Wrapped in Red. The Great Wall is an awe-inspiring ancient defense system with watchtowers built atop steep hills, connecting heaven and earth. Shen Qi describes the acts, location, and colour of the fabric as all referring to memory.
The Great Wall has a long history, and although it was never used as a site of worship, it has represented national ideology and harmony between ethnic groups. The performances by the young artists recall shamanistic rites from antiquity. Traditionally, respected social leaders in the Confucian system could be considered wu (figures similar to shamans) if they performed rituals such as dancing to entertain deities and praying on behalf of the people for good weather, abundant crops, victory in battle, and survival of the community.
Imagery relating to sacrificial practices remained a widely used motif in avant-garde art practices throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Blood and meat, bodies wrapped in cloth, and atmospheres of solemn mystery recurred across works from this time. Using an anthropological methodology, it is possible to identify two categories of sacrifice to which these works refer: official sacrifice by a state wu (a figure similar to a shaman), and people’s sacrifice led by a public wu.
A sacrifice to heaven held in an outdoor public space is considered an official sacrifice (though performances like Concept 21’s ‘wine offering to heaven’ seem to transgress authority and social norms) and sacrifices of internal organs only appeared with the emperor’s worship of heaven. Conversely, folk traditions such as lighting firecrackers and burning paper, along with the kind of sacrifice ritual in Gu Dexin’s 1998.11.07, could be considered people’s sacrifice—rites that would allow the public wu to communicate directly with god. Gu explained that the reason he used pig brains was their ‘physical nature most closely resembles that of the human brain.’
Despite the distinction, the state and public wu are equally effective. The role rests on faith in heaven shared by the people and the emperor—heaven is an ambiguous concept of a cosmological god that frequently shifts between anthropomorphic and non-human forms. Building on the Qin dynasty’s attempt to unify religions, the Western Han dynasty invented a system of institutionalised religion that supported its military and political campaign to unify China.
During the period of Xin dynasty Emperor Wang Mang’s rule, amendments made by Confucian scholars to the system cemented the foundation of official and popular sacrifice and loosened the state’s tight grip over faith. The emperor worshipped on behalf of his subjects, and the people were able to worship directly as well. Since destiny was controlled by heaven/god (through the balance of the five elements along with the effect of yin and yang), people naturally believed that there was a direct connection between the emperor’s act of worship and wellbeing on earth; the belief that god decides everything, from national issues to personal matters, made the public more willing to be governed.
In accordance with the Confucian idea of theological teaching, state officials gave tacit approval to superstitious beliefs and improper sacrifices in communities, with the view that practices such as these would lead the people to adhere to social and moral codes. C. K. Yang writes that Chinese folk religion’s ‘theology, ritual, organization, and secular system are closely tied to other structures and concepts of social order.’ In other words, folk religion, diffused though it may be, supports the state system.
Folk Religion in New China
The Communist Party of China saw religion as fundamentally incompatible with its ideology and agenda. The party’s project of national productivity and development along socialist lines had no place for religious rituals and concepts such as heaven and gods. As early as the 1940s, the party worked to wipe out religious practices and beliefs at the local level. After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 and through to the end of the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s, a purge of religion was carried out that saw the destruction of temples and the arrest of spiritual leaders. However, the party’s attempt to unify thought did not eradicate folk religion, which had been ingrained in Chinese culture and society over millennia.
In its project of unification, the Communist Party also gradually realised it could take advantage of a basic idea in Chinese religion. In traditional belief, humankind inhabits the same monistic world as gods. Monism is a central idea in Marcel Granet’s Thoughts of the Chinese People, in which he argues that in Chinese civilisation, there is no world outside of the human world. This is entirely different from the dualism inherent in European religions.
From the party’s earliest days, officials attempted to transform culture alongside purges of dangerous elements in order to absorb the power of folk religion. A prominent example is the socialist effort to transform traditional lunar new year paintings into a national cultural project, drawing on the appropriation of this art form for a nationalist agenda during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The party’s nationalisation of a folk art form resulted in propaganda works such as Dong Xiwen’s The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (1953). In 1980, the Central Academy of Fine Art established a new-year painting and lianhuanhua department.
The socialist system in China produced a situation in which folk religion’s fundamental monistic dynamic was disrupted. Wu, heaven, and gods remained, but the continuity of their religious ideology was no more. After China’s reform, people began to invent religious concepts that reflect individual desires and the context of marketisation. Gods of cars and stocks emerged, as did near-sacred statues of deceased political leaders. Ironically, the appropriation of Mao’s image by avant-garde artists was perhaps the clearest example of the new quasi-religious iconography that emerged in the socialist era.
It is generally believed that Mao’s portrait was ‘deified’ in the period between the founding of the People’s Republic and the Cultural Revolution. Many avant-garde artists used portraits or pictures from this period to depict the former leader in a state between god and man. In Mao Zedong: Red Grid No. 2, Wang Guangyi highlights in bright red the grid he used to copy a Mao portrait from the Cultural Revolution, underlining the portrait’s status as a standard image that could be endlessly reproduced, like a poster icon. Wang’s appropriation reflects a folk practice of worshipping prominent deceased individuals evolved from ancestral worship and shares the capacity to elicit feelings of security and comfort. In post-reform China, individuals could create a pantheon of familiar figures, recreating a monistic world in which deity and devotee coexist. This dynamic is best illustrated in Yu Youhan’s Chairman Mao in Discussion with the Peasants of Shaoshan (1999), in which three party leaders—Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin—share a domestic space with a grinning family.
On the other hand, by repurposing the monistic principle of folk religion, Revolutionary Realist art presents a sacred world in which the perfect political figures live. Avant-garde artists challenge it by making the ‘holiness’ mundane again. In Big-character Poster, Wu Shanzhuan papered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the Zhoushan Mass Art Gallery with Cultural Revolution-style dazibao. Phrases such as ‘Today no water’, ‘Lao Wang: I’m home’, ‘Buy now’, ‘Come in for a haircut’, ‘Peeing prohibited’, and ‘Nonsense’ appeared instead of propaganda slogans, but were rendered in red, white, and black—the basic colour palette of Cultural Revolution imagery. Posters were papered over with other posters or torn down over the course of the exhibition’s run, mimicking the way dazibao were placed and replaced during the Mao years. By the time the exhibition closed, the installation was an assemblage of obscured, fragmented, and meaningless messages. Wu created a world in which the sacred is down-to-earth, accessible, and ultimately ambiguous.
In his work 2002.11.18, Gu Dexin again turned to religious references to comment on reality, this time the obsession with wealth that saturated Chinese society in the early 2000s. He painted ‘In God We Trust’—the motto of the United States, which appears on all American currency—in revolutionary red. The words are flanked by columns that recall the candlestick platforms of Chinese folk altars. The work is a comment on the entanglement of state power with a relentless market economy. The presence of religion in both text and image, however, suggests that the traditional monistic worldview endures. Gu’s intention and the impulses of the avant-garde, which continue to be felt in contemporary practices, point to a deep historical past and an understanding of art as an important way to express the religious traditions and spiritual ideas that tie society together.
The remarkable strength and adaptability of Chinese folk religion make it an incontrovertible element of society. Its images and concepts are woven so deeply into the cultural fabric as to be inextricable. Artists of the avant-garde appropriated not only these images and concepts by updating the social contexts, but also folk religion’s fundamentally transgressive and flexible character—something that has allowed it to endure and thrive throughout history. In its connection to folk religion, avant-garde art in China is rooted in Chinese culture and tradition; this is perhaps the most important and distinctive unifying feature of a set of practices that transformed contemporary artistic production in China.
Want to learn more? Check out Yang Zi’s public talk, ‘Diffused Religion and the Origins of Chinese Avant-Garde Art’.
Yang Zi is a Beijing-based researcher and independent curator. From 2012 to 2014, he was an editor of LEAP. In 2015, after joining the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), he acted as executive editor on a series of catalogues and curated exhibitions and public programmes; he became a curator and the head of public programmes in 2018. His curatorial projects include La Chair, Secret Chamber, Pity Party, Land of the Lustrous, In Younger Days, and numerous solo exhibitions. He was a finalist for the Hyundai Blue Prize in 2017, a judges of the Huayu Youth Award in 2019, and the recipient of the inaugural Sigg Fellowship for Chinese Art Research in 2020.
Power Station of Art, Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art, Datong Dazhang (Hangzhou: China Academy of Art Press, 2015), 200.
Li Tiangang. Jinze: jiang nan min jian ji si tan yuan (Beijing: Sanlian Shudian, 2017), 8.
Li Tiangang. Jinze: jiang nan min jian ji si tan yuan, 459.
Zhang Guangzhi, Notes on Archaeological Anthropology (Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Sanlian Shudian, 1999), 238.
Huang Yong Ping, “Statement on Burning,” in Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, trans. Wu Hung (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 95.
Li Tiangang. Jinze: jiang nan min jian ji si tan yuan, 461.
Huang Zhuan, ‘Maze of Memory’, Poetry Calligraphy Painting, no. 2(2016): 144–171.
C. K. Yang. Religion in Chinese Society (Sichuan People’s Publishing House), 116.
Gu Dexin, quoted in Xiaoyu Weng, ‘Gu Dexin: Iconoclast’, Leap, no. 2(2012): 140–149.
C. K. Yang. Religion in Chinese Society, 116.