Cynical Realism and Reflections of Contemporary China

November 25, 2016

On multiple occasions throughout modern history, art has been used as a tool against the oppressing matter of politics and the only way of unobstructed creative expression. The term cynical realism alone suggests rebellion and announces a dose of irony that this style within Chinese Post-war art presented through its works. As conservative and strict as we know it, China and its government have put many artists to work, so to speak, with their imposed rules and often unreasonable decisions against cultural development in the country, prompting revolutionary ideas.
The Cynical Realism, in a way, the descendant of the Chinese Pop art from the late 1980s and was triggered by two major happenings from the beginning of the 1990s, which helped form a small, but rather influential group of painters. Their practice was described under the name “cynical realism” in 1992, by the art critic Li Xianting, who saw it as a parody of Social Realism, the only form of officially approved figure painting in the country at the time.

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Yue Minjun - Execution, 1995. Image via Wikipedia

The Emergence of Cynical Realism

Shortly after the infamous protests at Tiananmen Square and the post-1989 gloom that followed the initiative undertaken by Deng Xiaoping and the students, a small number of Beijing painters began creating works in response. Infused with irony, humor and satire, these paintings reflected on the country's rapid growth and ambiguous political ideology, and laughed at the imaginary bliss that the social branch of the style aimed to depict, encouraged by the government. Furthermore, when the China Avant Garde exhibition was abruptly shut down at the National Gallery in Beijing for derailing from what art was meant to represent and promote, artists were forced to go underground in fear, although they realized something more radical had to be done[1]. The paintings they came to produce had the tendency to focus on socio-political issues and happenings ever since Revolutionary China and the year 1911, as well as the country’s rapid development and urbanization.

As the last decade of the last millennium began, in order to prevent the possibilities for anti-government ideas to flourish, the authorities banned public exhibitions and disrupted the market for such artwork. This, however, hasn’t stopped artists, who were able to draw inspiration from the situation and to find new ways of delivering their works to mainstream circles and public. The opportunities and the money were gone, but their will to make a change wasn’t, which resulted in numerous creative discussions and illicit art shows, some of which were under the guidance of Li Xianting. The editor of Fine Art Magazine, organizer of the Stars Exhibition and editor of the authoritative China Fine Art Newspaper, he was an important link in connecting Cynical Realism and its participants to the Western market and collectors, which the country strongly strived to break away from. In fact, even the artistic style of the works by Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang, for example, evolved into a West-inspired one, and even today they stand as some of the most important Chinese artists out there.

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Yue Minjun - Armed forces, 2009. Image via Weng

Characteristics and Style

Although lacking a unifying aesthetic, Cynical Realist works share the same tone of satire and humor, depicting the psychological fallout felt by the population and the artists themselves[2]. Their views are without a doubt critical, however they also employ the ironic feel and even self-criticism to soften the impact. Apart from Social Realist elements they borrowed for the sole purpose of mocking them in return, the artists also leaned on the notions of Symbolism and even Surrealism, perhaps best reflected through clown-like figures and makeup. As it progressed, the movement lost its initial anti-utopian meaning and got its true, cold and realistic approach, though the concept of a “powerless individual” remained throughout, recurring in many paintings. It is the imagery of clear water and blue sky, which the Chinese socialist realists endorsed to display calmness and peace, as well as the figures portrayed as helpless, masked, confused or screaming in silent laughter that stood in juxtaposition with themselves, forming the perfect balance. This approach, whether entirely true or not, was widely accepted among the Western societies, who condemned the government for subordinating individuals to the interests of the state.

Fang Lijun - Two group, No 2. Image via dominickmanco.wordpress

Famous Cynical Realists

Cynical Realism was one of the first Post-war art movements in China to achieve success on an international level, thanks to three major names whose paintings sold for respectable prices. But apart from Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang, we shouldn’t neglect the contributions of Liu Wei and Wang Jinsong. Wei, for instance, is often called the enfant terrible of his homeland, due to his paintings that combine abstraction and figuration to depict a naughty sense of humor. His practice incorporates media like watercolor, oils and ink as they tackle Chinese landscapes and calligraphy. On the other hand, the realist work of Wang Jinsong is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese brush painting, which he practices along with photography, depicting childlike awkwardness intended to mirror “collective blindness”.

Left: Liu Wei - Revolutionary Family, 1992. Image via Sean Kelly Gallery / Right: Wang Jinsong - Parents, 2006. Image via

Yue Minjun

The disquieting paintings of widely smiling figures that have marked the Cynical Realism belong to Yue Minjun, who has in turn rejected the label. His pink figures with big heads and manic grins seem to be hiding a great deal of emotions ready to erupt, as a response to the 1989 student riots and the situation that followed. The artist traditionally mocks himself and his community by venting his emotions in quite an original way, often using European painting as the backbone of his art. His smiling heads appear to be inspired by the works of Geng Jianyi and are used in a variety of settings, like in the Hat series; Yue's grinning head wears a variety of hats - a chef's hat, a Special Forces beret, the helmet of a British policeman, Catwoman's mask… The series is about a ”sense of the absurdity of the ideas that govern the sociopolitical protocol surrounding hats.” It nicely illustrates the way that Yue's character is universally adaptable, a sort of logo that can be attached to any setting to add value.

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Yue Minjun's iconic scupltures A-maze-ing Laughter. Image via vancouverstreetblog

Fang Lijun

Fang Lijun’s art is recognized through excessive appearance of “bald heads”, on the other hand, for which the artist used the stereotype that bald-headed men are viewed as dumb or stupid. In his work, he tries to bring down this opinion, based on physical appearance, and to depict the life of artists in China at the same time, asking the society to look at painters as people and game-changers, rather than as eccentric outcasts. His figures are often portrayed as disoriented, confused, out of place, reflecting on the state of the society post-1989 and the uncertainty felt by young Chinese people. Another famous piece by this individual is the 1991 1991.6.1. woodblock print depicting a bald-headed crowd beneath a larger head with an anonymous finger point to the sky. The print oozes in a strong sense of loss in direction, self-identity, and the feeling of general helplessness and hopelessness.

Fang Lijun - 1991.6.1. Image via teachartwiki

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang’s widely famous Bloodline series derives from the fact the artist’s parents were taken away during the Chinese Cultural Revolution for 3 years for re-education. Predominantly monochromatic, these stylized portraits of Chinese people, usually with large eyes, are inspired by the family portraits of the 1950s and 60s, in which the members stand stiff with no facial expression - yet behind their look, we can see torrents of emotion and inner turmoil. They illustrate how Chinese people should protect themselves, by keeping their feelings and experiences locked away inside them, so as to survive as a member of a big Chinese family. Recently, Zhang Xiaogang put his Bloodlines series into three-dimensional space, by creating sculptures based on the characters he only painted on canvas up until that point.

Zhang Xiaogang - Bloodline- Big Family No. 3, 1995. Image via

A New Form of (Western) Pop Art

Because it was so ironic and tongue-in-cheek, Cynical Realism also embraced the Western aesthetics and ideas. Many thought it wasn’t only because the Pop art style appealed to them, but also because this would likely stir controversy and run against everything that China as a country dictated. Due to such situation, certain Chinese intellectuals and artists wondered whether Cynical Realists were perhaps too influenced, and even manipulated, by the West[3]. Indeed, many exhibitions of their work took place on foreign soil, in lack of permissions for doing so locally, and the collectors in America and Europe were impressed by the pieces on view. Still, this was a form of Chinese painting, and as such was closely related to Political Pop of the late 1980s, when Chinese artists questioned the assumptions of the mainland in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Despite everything, it was an essential stage in the development of modern-day Chinese painting and an important contribution to post-Tiananmen society.

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Yue Minjun’s paintings are immediately recognizable: they are painted in bright colors on large canvases and peopled almost exclusively by laughing male figures, all which are self-portraits either presented as a single figure or replicated over and over again to form a battalion of grinning frozen-faced clones. These figures appear in grotesque poses or in mock execution scenes, creating an atmosphere of tension that oscillates between the lighthearted and the outrageous, the mundane and the excessive, offering an often implicit parody of modern-day Chinese society. Considered one of the protagonists of an art tendency that emerged after the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he began developing his own distinctive iconography in the 1990s, which combines pictorial and historial references.


  1. Dal Lago, F., Il realismo critico della giovane arte cinese’ [The Critical Realism of Young Chinese Art] In Punti Cardinali dell’Arte, Catalog of the XLV Biennale di Venezia, 1993
  2. Groom, S., Smith, K., Zhen, X., The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China, Harry N. Abrams, 2008
  3. Li, X., Apathetic Feelings in Contemporary Chinese Art Trends: An Analysis of the Cynical Realist Current, Ershiyi shiji, 1992

Featured images in slider: Yue Minjun - The Sun, 2000. Image via Wikipedia; Curator Li Xianting. Image via; Fang Lijun -  1996-10, 2007. Image via; Zhang Xiaogang artwork. Image via All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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