🇬🇧 Art in China – an Effervescent Battleground

April 8, 2016

My essay from Museum of Modern Art in Århus, Denmark, ARoS’ catalogue for the magnificent exhibition A New Dynasty – Created in China, Nov 2015-June 2016

Faces without contours spewing out donkey heads, their stodgy lives literally making them puke. Portable, collapsible metropolitan cities made of textiles. Paintings, installations, pottery, textiles, parachutes. A mammoth tiger skin made of thousands of cigarettes. Original and insistent springing from millennial Chinese traditions, the present and, sometimes, the future.

Sui Jianguo, Motion And Tension, 2009 © ARoS

ARoS offers us China with their major autumn exhibition, A New Dynasty – Created in China, featuring 25 of China’s greatest contemporary artists. Artists, mind you, who live and work in their native China. What kind of China might that be, you ask? Not just made in China, but created in China?

How do you express yourself in a society that routinely imposes prodigious restrictions on the scope for self-expression? While at the same time fostering creative responses to the very same suppression. Much like the way China placed the first stone in the Great Wall around 700 BC (and the last in the 1600s) to keep the Chinese in and the barbarians out, so Chinese rulers of the 21st century have built the world’s largest wall in cyberspace adding yet another invisible wall around the opportunities for Chinese people to express themselves in writing, speech, and art in China. Expressing oneself freely and openly in China is an art in itself, and one that demands a good deal from the recipient, too. Art poses questions and, to a large extent, presents the answers to the abysmal crisis of confidence prevailing in China today.

The Origins

China boasts – and rightly so – the world’s most enduring and uninterrupted culture. The Chinese began drinking tea in 600 BC. Chinese characters can be traced back 6000 years; wealthy Chinese dressed in silk as early as 4000 BC (just when we stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers), and for the past two millennia, Chinese calligraphy has been a highly acclaimed art form. The oldest existing Chinese silk painting dates back to 168 BC.

The cultivation and perfection of the personal self, of art, writing, of tea, food, and also of nature have always been an integral part of Chinese culture encompassing a formidable variety of peoples and regions. The concept also incorporates a degree of submission; man and nature must submit to the order of things. Art has – like in so many other places – been the preserve of the elite; whether within administration, philosophy, or religion, in life or death (even today, it is practically unthinkable to separate art, culture, and faith in e.g. Tibet).

The silk painting that was draped over the distinguished Mrs Dai’s grave around 168 BC near Mawangdui, in present-day Hunan, has neither faded in its appearance nor its significance in the almost 2200 years that have elapsed. It remains superb art even today as do countless other millennial Chinese art objects.

For a couple of millennia during the Chinese empire, one might, somewhat briskly, argue that society, including art and culture, certainly did evolve, but the underlying philosophy, the ideals, and the execution remained the same.

China’s greatest and best known philosopher, Kongfuzi (551-479 BC; one of only two Chinese philosophers to also have a Latin name, namely Confucius), evolved the doctrine of government based on family structures. The father was top of the hierarchy followed by uncles, sons, his first wife, subsequent wives. At the very bottom – but above the servants – was the youngest daughter of the latest wife. Confucianism assumes that the father rules by good example rather than by decree. Children will emulate the good example set by their parents and live accordingly; they will become exemplary people.

Confucius transferred the family hierarchy to state government so that the emperor became the father figure of the Chinese Empire. Above him, the singular ‘Mandate of Heaven’ – i.e. the right to rule. The Mandate of Heaven presupposes a good ruler who takes care of his subjects as if they were his own children. In turn, the ‘children’ – the subjects – are expected to emulate, obey, and respect the fact that the father/emperor knows what is best for them. The most recent and contemporary classic example of an exemplary Confucian ruler was the founder of modern Singapore, the newly deceased Lee Kuan Yew.

The Confucian system of teaching is based on repetition and rote learning. In continuation of Confucianism, the prime task of an artist is to learn – to emulate – the techniques and facture of past masters to perfection, to be capable of reproducing their works accurately. Only then, according to Confucian thinking, will artists be ready to leave their own mark to continue the progress through history and time alongside those of earlier masters.

Forced opening to the world

Imperial China was self-reliant and was, with her vast regional and climatic diversity, sufficient unto herself and regarded other cultures as inferior. China exported to other countries and cultures via the Silk Road, but imported practically nothing, since it was considered unnecessary. Consequently, no point in having relations to the surrounding world. Until 1911, China did have a ministry, Tsungli Yamen, for the reception of gifts from vassal states, but no diplomatic service or foreign ministry, as such, to cultivate mutual relations with other countries. At that time, China had no use for the rest of the world. For the West, the opposite was true.

The European merchant fleets reached far-flung destinations. Portuguese merchants settled on a peninsula and a few small islands in Southern China as soon as the 16th century and created the small enclave Macao. From here, commodities such as tea, porcelain, and spices were shipped out of China for the first time. Initially, there were only few Chinese living in this area. The trade was effectuated between European commercial establishments with Chinese ‘compradores’ – intermediaries – to forge contacts and do business with the mainland.

In tandem with the cultural mix taking place in Macao, the Macanese – of mixed Portuguese and Chinese origin – often became compradores. They were familiar with both cultures – and languages. Foods and tradition also mingled in Macao. Great Britain tried to force China to open up and to import goods in order to create a balanced trading relationship. China still saw no need to import anything from the outside world, but British, especially Scottish hongs – commercial establishments – were putting on pressure to be permitted to sell opium to the Chinese through Macao, the narrow gateway to trading with the mainland. The Qing Emperor was – not surprisingly – vehemently against turning his people into drug addicts and opposed the idea. This led to the Opium Wars in 1839-1841 and in 1856-1860. Foreign powers – headed by Great Britain with support from the USA and France – won the battle and China was forced to open more ports for shipping: Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), Fuchow (Fuzhou), and Amoy (Xiamen). In addition, the British obtained the sparsely populated and malaria-infested Hong Kong as booty. Hong Kong never evolved a culture comparable to the Maccanese in Macao.

Not until the early 20th century did outside influence penetrate China in earnest, notably in the form of invasion and abuse resulting from the defeats sustained in the Opium Wars as well as the gradual dissolution of the empire over the following decades culminating with the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The outside world forced its way into China whereas, until 1900, it was a capital offence for the Chinese to even leave the country without special permission.

The fact that tens of thousands of Chinese nevertheless braved the travel ban and made the perilous journey across the Pacific to America during the second half of the 1800s is an indication of the onerous living conditions in China at that time. In America, they lived under slave-like conditions, too, underpaid and humiliated with no or few civil rights. First, they were working in the Californian gold mines, but were later hired to build the railways across America, a task no one else was willing to undertake. Rough estimates indicate that 500-1000 Chinese or more lost their lives while working on the American railways.

Foreigners came to the primary destination, Shanghai, around 1850 and to Beijing around 1900. The victors of the Opium Wars shared Shanghai between them in concessions belonging to the respective countries as well as a densely populated Chinese area. The city flourished and became the pivotal point of the Orient – for industry, trade, folly, depravity, education, new ideas and also culture and art – Oriental as well as Western. Even today, in very many ways, Shanghai is China’s most advanced city in respect of e.g. urban planning and combating pollution. Shanghai’s native inhabitants regard themselves, with a measure of arrogance, as the country’s most distinguished and, by far, the most sophisticated.

Following the collapse of the empire in 1911, the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China, but during 1916-1928, the country fell apart due to internal power struggles among nationalists as well as communists: the Guangdong-Guangxi Wars in 1917 and 1921, respectively, the Zhili-Anhui War between local warlords in 1920, and the Yunnan-Guangxi War in 1925 about Nationalist Party control after the death of Sun Yat-sen. The new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, declared war on the communists. Japan began their occupation spreading from Manchuria in the north, culminating during World War II. Following this, the civil war between the nationalists and the communists flared up again.

‘The Liberation’

The communists defeated the nationalists in 1949, whereupon the losers fled to Taiwan and continued the Republic of China there. On 1st October, 1949, from the podium above the entrance to the Forbidden City, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed at the world’s largest parade ground, Tiananmen Square, by one of the founders of the communist party, its absolute leader, Mao Zedong.

No doubt, most Chinese were ‘liberated’. The majority of Chinese people were living in abject poverty and fear, unable to read or write, with little or no influence on their own lives. Most had lived their lives in slave-like conditions, they were bought and sold, forced into the nationalist army, had rarely enough food to eat, many millions were internally displaced by war and civil unrest, and there were people who did not even have clothes to wear. For these people, there was precious little room for art in the daily struggle for survival.

This was the China that Mao Zedong took over and governed according to Confucian teaching, mostly in the form of decrees, it seemed, and with increasing arbitrariness; incredibly authoritarian, but not especially Confucian. Mao turned China and her 500 million inhabitants into his personal social laboratory. An overwhelming majority were illiterate, so his most sophisticated instrument was expressive propaganda, especially theatre, radio broadcasts, and posters delivering inflammatory messages. One of Mao Zedong’s finest achievements was enabling the Chinese to read and write. He simplified the complex characters and inaugurated a phonetic script to standardise the 120 dialects, of which some were mutually unintelligible, although the characters are universal and have been for more than 2000 years. Today, around 95 per cent of all Chinese are able to read and write. When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, the figure was less than 20 per cent.

Art for the masses

Art, previously the province of the elite, had to conform. Culture, its underlying purpose, and whom it was to benefit was defined within a narrow framework. Already during the civil war in 1942, Mao decreed – with reference to Lenin – that literature and art were primarily intended to guide and educate China’s masses. He declared that 90 per cent of the Chinese, at that time, were labourers, farmers, soldiers, and urban lower middle classes. ‘These four categories of people constitute the overwhelming majority of the Chinese nation, the popular masses in the broadest sense,’ decreed Mao and, dictatorship of the proletariat or not, Mao’s word was final.

So much for 90 per cent of the Chinese population. According to Mao Zedong’s logic, the remaining 10 per cent of the Chinese were suspect, which included 10 per cent of the artists. Mao’s logic told him that these 10 per cent were clinging to bourgeois theories and hence incapable of serving the masses. ‘They focus especially on a small group of bourgeois intellectuals. This is the basic reason why some of our comrades are unable to solve the problem of art “for whom” correctly.’ Mao believed that these perplexed comrades simply were incapable of producing correct art.

Sophistication and sublimation of art – in fact, sublimation of anything, at all – was deemed counter-revolutionary. With his Hundred Flowers Campaign: Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend, Mao, in 1957, invited artists and intellectuals to launch constructive criticism and create edifying and dynamic inter-ideological debate to urge China on. Mao Zedong encouraged ‘healthy criticism’ and distrusted those who, taught by experience, remained silent and did not contribute. Gradually, a cautious trickle of critique and proposals for improvements began to emerge.

Encouraged by Mao, critique and proposals increased – some even directed at China’s Communist Party. This was too much for Mao; he retaliated and promptly launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, condemning millions of democratically minded intellectuals and many others to labour camps and internal exile.

One of those branded a rightist was the poet Ai Qing, an illustrious communist who had served the revolution impeccably since the early 1930s. Ai Qing was internally exiled in Xinjiang where he cleaned toilets for 20 years. Consequently, his young son believed that a ‘poet’ was someone who cleaned toilets. Like many other victims of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Ai Qing was not rehabilitated until 1979 when he was again permitted to publish his poetry. The numerous Chinese and foreign honours bestowed on him include the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The Anti-Rightist Campaign was one of many systematic campaigns in China designed to persecute artists and other creative thinkers who were not afraid to stand out from the masses and who often possessed ideas and strength that could invigorate China.

Mao Zedong continued his dramatic social experiments and megalomaniacal power struggles in one destructive political convulsion after the other. The most dramatic was the industrialisation campaign during 1958-1961, the Great Leap Forward, whose brutal and totally abortive attempt at effectuating a shortcut from agriculture to industrialisation on a scale comparable to the West led to the greatest man-made famine disaster in history, costing almost 40 million lives – a campaign which, in China, is dismissed as a ‘natural disaster’.

Farming collectives were afraid to report anything but totally unrealistic and inflated harvest results to the central power in Beijing, while, in reality, millions of fields lay fallow because farmers had been ordered to produce steel from their agricultural implements and household tools. A few from the inner circle around Mao Zedong, among them Deng Xiaoping and Peng Dehuai, went on inspection trips across the country and discovered that the campaign had failed miserably and that people were eating soil, starving and dying; there were examples of cannibalism and people being executed for stealing a potato, or less.

The Cultural Revolution

Moderate members of the power élite including Deng, Peng, and others succeeded in putting a stop to the madness and to lead China on to a more constructive and efficient path in respect of government, presidency, administration, and the general framework of things. Mao Zedong was vehemently against this and was sidelined to Shanghai where he was grumbling about the normalisation of China, which he considered revisionist and counter-revolutionary. Again, he did what he was best at: mobilising the Chinese masses in a giant power showdown, plunging China into a new disaster.

The war declaration was delivered in dribs and drabs in newspapers and via big-character posters culminating with Mao Zedong’s call to ‘bomb the headquarters!’ The masses had to destroy the command centre of the counter-revolution, Mao’s term for the government. A showdown with the ‘Four Olds’ was sounded: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. Once more, China was engulfed in destructive internal conflict.

The Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 is high on the list of Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaigns claiming many lives and unspeakable costs in terms of human misery. Officially, it is mentioned only reluctantly, and then merely as a ‘mistake’.

Since the Cultural Revolution, China has abandoned the explosive, disastrous campaigns and chosen a far stabler course which, via far-reaching economic reforms over the past 35 years, nevertheless has revolutionised China more than the sum total of Mao’s brutal campaigns. And secured the industrialisation which he failed so miserably to achieve around 1960.

Since the establishment of the new China in 1949, rulers have combated critique and demands for change with varying degrees of brutality. In recent years, the system has been refined, as the thousands of Chinese who live with surveillance, harassment of whole families, disappearances, imprisonment, and torture are painfully aware of. Media are being kept under surveillance, editors regularly receive instructions via text messages about what to say, how, and what is tabooed at the time.

The 1980s saw the only – from a Chinese perspective – relatively unrestrained phase when the leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, with his economic reforms gave a free rein to the wonderfully enterprising spirit of the Chinese. In the wake of this opening, enterprising Chinese people carefully began experimenting, inquisitively, curiously, and creatively. It was a real opening and a new liberation following three grim decades.

This was the time when people began to look to the West, to individualism and to modest measures of enjoyment for its own sake, which, for the past 30 years had been deemed counter-revolutionary and brutally punished. Not exactly decadent, the urban Chinese welcomed the freedom to enjoy themselves, to feel happiness, appreciate beauty, come out of their shells, dress colourfully, paint their nails, perm their bristly hair – in short, break ranks. This period saw openly experimental and flourishing art before the brakes were pulled with the brutal decision by the rulers in June 1989 to deploy the military against demonstrators in Beijing and in other Chinese cities – the first time, The People’s Liberation Army opened fire on Chinese people.

This also spelled the end of the relative freedom of expression of the 1980s, the joy, the creative endeavours. A severe and dismal focus on economic development followed while the freedom to believe, think, and express oneself once again was curbed.

Developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union induced fear into the Chinese power élite, who maintained that if the Chinese were given money and something to spend it on as well as food to eat, the critical voices would fall silent and everyone would be happy.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics

The man who engendered political stability in the wake of Mao Zedong’s campaigns and introduced the severe economic reforms in 1979 was Deng Xiaoping. He dubbed China’s new, strongly market-oriented system ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – a startling code word for the brutal and pure capitalism resembling the one in the West around 1900.

Deng Xiaoping was central in the circle around Mao Zedong from the onset. Not that the two were particularly close. Deng was small in stature, a brilliant military strategist who always brought a billiard table along in the field. He was deeply engaged in the communist cause, deeply loyal to the Communist Party, and consequently, at times, critical of Mao Zedong to an extent that caused him to be purged on several occasions – e.g. during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent to a tractor factory in Anhui for his active participation in establishing an actual government structure following the Great Leap Forward. He was effectively the last absolute ‘emperor’ of China – even after he had relinquished most of his important posts. However, he kept his post as head of China’s Bridge Society to the very end.

Deng’s finest legacy to China is his particular Chinese variety of socialism that lifted China and the Chinese people out of abject destitution and heading for the 21st century with all guns blazing as, in many respects, one of the world’s leading nations.

Whatever one might think about China’s rulers and their ways, the country has never been richer or more politically stable; the Chinese have never been better off, never been so well-nourished, freer, and had so many choices in their lives. Nor have they ever had so much freedom of expression despite the prodigious censorship.

If you compare conditions in e.g. Denmark with the newly won freedom of the Chinese, there are obvious flaws, but by far the majority of Chinese perceive it as wonderful – previously unthinkable – progress. Since 1949, Chinese life expectancy has more than doubled from 35 to 75 years due to the absence of hunger (despite the Great Leap Forward), a drastic reduction in infant mortality, adequate health care, vaccination programmes, education, etc. It is clear that both rulers and most people who have experienced the destructive campaigns greatly value political stability, food on the table, and clothes to wear. There is room for improvement, a fact that the avant-garde in certain parts of the art world and in civil society generally are attempting to address by respectively pushing and pulling China forward.

20-25 years ago, the Chinese were not free to choose their education (if one was on the cards, at all) or where they wanted to live; nor were they able to travel freely in their own country. The fact that there are no longer any strings attached to education represents great strides – if one is clever or rich enough to get into an educational institution, that is; one is free to change jobs at will if there are any to be had. Despite the relatively narrow framework for free expression, the Chinese have never been able to express themselves as they do today. Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms have combated poverty to a degree hitherto unknown in world history and created the economic conditions for China’s middle class now counting 500 million people or more.

Such dramatic developments come at a price – paid, not least, by the environment. If at all possible, young well-off Chinese go abroad, preferably to Europe or North America when their babies are born, giving them an opportunity to breathe fresh air for at least the first month or two of their lives as opposed to the heavily polluted air in Chinese metropolitan cities. For maximum protection, a mask filtrating 95 per cent of the air is necessary. Nobody can live with that, especially not a newborn baby.

Extensive corruption is a big problem, rendering it feasible for people with responsibilities to bribe their way out of them – this includes both private and public positions. Moreover, excellent bodies and authorities responsible for the environment and food quality simply have insufficient allocations of funds to enable them to implement their legal obligations.

The Chinese, therefore, are desperate in the face of the extensive corruption, toxic food, the constant lies of the rulers, a patchy and insufficient health care system, being ruthlessly turned out of their houses by corrupt officials who, illegally and usually with impunity, confiscate their land or home to make room for ‘development’. They are frustrated that there is no option to file a complaint, and that independent lawyers are systematically disabled by threats, imprisonment, disappearance, or beatings – depending on their stubbornness and endurance.

Social enemies with Chinese characteristics

While economic and social structures, like China’s absolute Communist Party, have undergone a complete change, the new China has retained the self-destructive habit of making enemies of their best assets. People who try to help solve the country’s problems and form the future; those who provide help and education and take on tasks that really should be undertaken by the state: guidance and help to the sick, to ‘illegal’ children, victims of violence and victims of China’s impetuous growth, the incredible greed of corrupt officials, miscarriages of justice, and much else. People who, without being asked, put their livelihood and freedom at stake, engage themselves in society, and help the weakest that are ignored by the state.

Abandoning the old system from the 1990s known as the Iron Rice Bowl that guaranteed the Chinese lifetime employment from cradle to grave in return for submission helped set people free; however, the majority were not prepared for the freedom and to stand on their own two legs. This has created an enormous moral vacuum and desperation in a society where ideologies have disappeared to be replaced by one thing only: the opportunity to make money. This has given rise to a growth in piety – within and outside the denominations approved by the Communist Party. As far as I am aware, China is the only country in the world where the Vatican keeps the appointment of bishops secret, since China does not recognise them: she would persecute and imprison them and appoint her own instead.

The majority of Chinese no longer trust the power élite nor do they have any influence on politics. Many believe that politics has nothing to do with them. Chinese politics is fraught with secrecy. When both China and the USA had to elect a new president in 2012, the differences were staggering: the US candidate, Obama, criss-crossed the country detailing his key issues. In China, there was absolute radio silence about any future plans prior to the 18th Party Congress which, not surprisingly, appointed its own party leader. While Obama is repeatedly voted down in Congress and so has difficulty in realising his election promises, China’s president and party leader is pressing on at high speed with his plans, the nature of which the man in the street can only guess at.

Since China’s communist party wields absolute power, there is no official or legal opposition to challenge power. All relevant political opposition takes place within the party – behind closed doors, since the party cannot allow the slightest disagreement to leak out. Later, one or the other decision might be publicised as being unanimous. Sometimes rumours abound about internal controversies, and older rulers have died during stormy meetings. The current president and party leader, Xi Jinping, is engaged in a large-scale purge of former adversaries who are accused of corruption and consequently brought down.

The Communist Party’s acute aversion to critique means that China’s persistent and very destructive corruption is taking place within a party that has evolved into a lodge where government posts, tenders, and favours are traded. China’s Communist Party had 55 million members in 1989. Today, there are more than 83 million. No other communist party in the world can boast similar gains. Everyone knows that membership is crucial if you want to get on in life. Not for political or ideological reasons, but because all important decisions are made by and inside the party.

Social enemies with Chinese characteristics

This absolute power is a major reason why the Chinese mistrust the system and the Communist Party. Despite 83 million members being a considerable figure, it only amounts to just under 6.5 per cent of China’s population. The rest – more than 1200 million people – are outside this ‘inner circle’.

Most ordinary Chinese have to bribe their way to decent medical care, to secure their child good education, obtain a driving licence, a licence to run a business, an exit permit (at least no longer linked to capital offence, although it is frequently denied), and a host of other everyday services that, on paper, are freely available for everyone on equal terms. Often, it is impossible to lodge a complaint about bad treatment, irregularities, and abuse. Food scandal upon food scandal very often occur with impunity. Abuse by police and government officials is an everyday occurrence and usually go unpunished, too. The air, lakes, and rivers are toxic and no one is planning to clean up after 35 years of intensive development causing massive pollution.

There are exceptions and developments are heading – often with considerable retrogression – in the right direction, but it is a very slow process. When people, from time to time, manage to take the system to task, it is thanks to indefatigable activists mentioned earlier who head illegal civil movements and are permitted to operate in a lawless grey zone if deemed harmless or essential to society by the state, who may decide to turn a blind eye – until a certain point as in the case of the several hundred lawyers this summer.

More than 250 human rights lawyers and activists were either arrested or disappeared in China over a period of two weeks in July in an unusually comprehensive action. This kind of witch-hunt points in two opposite directions: either it can be interpreted as disquiet on the part of the rulers due to the growing influence of lawyers engendered by the population trying to secure legal rights, inevitably leading to a mistrust of the system; or quite the reverse, namely that the Communist Party feel extraordinarily sure of themselves. Since Xi Jinping came into power in 2012, the party has punished and excluded 450,000 corrupt government officials, most of them within the party’s own disciplinary system of secret interrogations and prisons, but quite a few were also brought to trial in the usual manner.

Whatever the reason, the persecution of human rights activists by the Communist Party has triggered concern and anger even in people who normally keep their thoughts to themselves. A former farmer, now a business man with 3000 staff, relates how he, his brothers, his wife, employees, and others around him were arrested in 2003. Further, he gave an account of how three fearless lawyers backed by the penal code got the family and the business out of the grip of the judicial system.

His crime – and nothing to do with his family, friends, or employees – was to found a small local savings bank where the farmers could lend money to one another in order to expand production. This case was among the first and most famous victories to lawyers who had the guts to oppose the system, put their faith in the penal code, and take on a case that seemed lost in advance, since the Chinese prosecuting authority, in principle, rarely loses a case.

The farmer, Sun Dawu, who thus regained his confidence in the judicial system and is now a business man, was so incensed by this summer’s witch-hunt on lawyers that he, risking once again the wrath and punishment of the rulers, wrote an article reproduced on the website ChinaChange.org, a good source of topical debate and general currents in Chinese civil society. Sun Dawu wrote:

‘They try to break down people’s power of resistance, terrorise people into curling up in fear and being humiliated like primitive insects. The terror is due to fear; you know you are innocent, but also that you will have to take on the responsibility if you are charged. The odd thing is not knowing when or how you will be punished, or how serious the punishment will be. All these factors are unknown and terror comes from the unknown.’ Further, Sun Dawu offered 100,000 yuan (about GBP 10,000) to foot the bill for the defence of a lawyer unknown to him, but whose arrest was the last straw.

A fearless journalist, Zhai Minglei, wastes no time, either, in denouncing the attack on the legal profession. He calls it a ‘preamble to fascism’ and a step back towards the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Zhai Minglei is a journalist and writer living in Shanghai where he writes about civil society in China. His latest book has not been published in China but is available in Hong Kong whence it illegally filters back to the mainland in print or digitally. The article is also reproduced on ChinaChange.org.

There are now quite a few writers who publish approved literature in China and prohibited works in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Many of them amused at the idea of pirate copies and similar illegal versions penetrating censorship and spreading across the mainland.

Abysmal mistrust

The loss of confidence in the power élite by so many Chinese is due to the fact that they do not consider the State to be fulfilling its part of the deal in matters of government; the rulers have jeopardised what is comparable to the Mandate of Heaven from the days of the empire. Ordinary people are – with good reason – afraid of the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the drinking water. Children, old and weak people are often told to stay indoors because the air is harmful. A couple of years ago, tens of thousands of dead pigs floated to Shanghai along the Yellow River. The authorities assured people that it was perfectly safe to drink the water and to eat pork. The people did not believe a word of it.

There are food scandals, the like of which defy imagination; in 2015, for example, meat, frozen down in the 1970s, was sold. There are meat rackets where rats, foxes, or similar are sold as mutton, pork, or beef at exorbitant prices. Often tenderised using toxic chemicals. There are recurring scandals featuring ‘drain oil’, which floats and is sucked up from the sewage sludge emanating from the restaurants, purified with carcinogenic chemicals, rebottled and sold as new. There are recurring scandals involving infant formula where the powder is ‘diluted’ with pulverised melamine, which destroys the kidneys of the newborn. All of it for ill-gotten gains and strictly prohibited, but here, too, it is possible to bribe your way out and nothing much is done to enforce the law.

300,000 infants sustained kidney failure caused by the toxic infant formula scandal in 2008, six losing their lives. Since it happened shortly before the Beijing Olympics, which had to proceed with harmony, any press coverage of the case was banned. Since then, melamine has been discovered in infant formula time and again, which has led to rationing so that the mainland Chinese are allowed to buy a maximum two tins for private use in Hong Kong where food safety – despite a rise in food scandals there, too – is far better than on the mainland.

In 2013, a law was passed to the effect that members of the Chinese parliament had to eat the same food as everyone else. It was hoped that this would improve food safety. However, there is no evidence of any improvement, as yet.

China’s heads of state have a considerable problem of legitimacy that is not merely put right by enforcing drastic political purges justified in fighting corruption. Although the Chinese are now better able than ever to criticise the system, it is still a discipline fraught with difficulties and danger, contained by self-censorship and with short shrift if the invisible line is transgressed.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are banned in China, who has her own varieties such as e.g. Sina Weibo. Despite the censorship, the Chinese have, as already mentioned, never had better chances of having their say than at the present time and they are used to public mass communication. Throughout the history of the new China, propaganda has poured forth from the so-called ‘big-character newspapers’, posters with instructions and requests for this, that, and the other. The Internet has now taken over the role of the wall posters, providing more scope for the masses to communicate, too.

Beware of water meter control

The language is evolving with great speed and ingenuity with the aim of circumventing censorship and the censors can hardly keep up. An entire universe has emerged centred on the fantasy animal caonima, which looks like a llama and, in Chinese, sounds like grass mud horse. Both the grass mud horse and its ‘natural’ environment, malegebi, are also, incidentally, derogatory terms for the female – more specifically your mother’s – genitalia and sound just like that in putonghua, the Chinese chief dialect, also known as Mandarin Chinese. But enough of that …

The grass mud horses succeeded in quashing the invasion of hexie – river crabs which are banished from the steppes, from the grasslands. Hexie almost sounds like ‘harmony’. Around 2010, the former president and party boss Hu Jintao reached far back in history to Confucius who, 2500 years ago, defined the perfect – the harmonious – society as one where everybody lives and works with joy. Hu Jintao was banging the drum of Confucian harmony to such an extent that ‘harmony’, via the image of the river crab, became synonymous with censorship.

The grass mud horse emerged as an apparently innocent children’s song and this and others with a similar content penetrated China’s massive firewall in cyberspace and became a way for ordinary people to confront censorship with a touch of humour. The vast Chinese wall of censorship is constantly scanning the movements of what you might call the vast Chinese intranet – the Chinese part of the Internet.

Words like human rights, Taiwan, democracy, censorship, Tibet immediately trigger instant blocking – as do pornographic words. But the filter does not, of course, seize innocent words or syllables such as ‘grass’, ‘mud, or ‘horse’, which, together, form the equally innocent grass mud horse – but which sounds precisely like a really obnoxious swear word.

On the Internet, ‘water meter control’ refers to an unscheduled visit from the police and Mao Zedong’s old mantra about serving the people is reproduced as ‘serving the smog’, a reference to the growing pollution, or ‘serving the renminbi’ (China’s currency) referring to the party government officials, who serve their own and not the people’s interests. The ‘red second generation’ refers to the filthy rich offspring of the great veteran revolutionaries, who have made their money by virtue of the family relations. ‘Using the Internet for scientific purposes’ sounds very plausible, but denotes the cunning skills required to circumvent censorship.

The inventive coded language elegantly circumventing censorship is used by many – not least in art, and it is often refined, adding a number of layers that create special bonds between sender and recipient. If you see a llama or a river crab in art, you know that censorship is in the line of fire.

The Chinese Dream

Just as Hu Jintao, in his time, strove to achieve Confucian harmony, Xi Jinping’s vision is the Chinese dream. Xi defines his dream as a ‘rejuvenation of the nation, improved living standards, prosperity, building a better society, and military strength.’ Young people should ‘have the courage to dream, work hard to realise their dreams, and contribute to invigorating the nation.’ Xi’s vision is officially launched as the people’s dream of prosperity, collective effort, socialism, and national honour.

Xi models his view on art on Mao Zedong (who modelled his on Lenin), when he stresses that art should serve the masses and not the market. In a major and widely publicised speech to a group of state-approved artists in Beijing in the autumn of 2014, Xi said e.g. that the artists’ emphasis on quantity rather than quality had led to a plagiarising, stereotype culture producing vulgar and lustful ‘mechanised fast-food art’. He instructed the artists to, with realism and romance, ‘throw light on real life, using the light to defy darkness, goodness to defy ugliness. Let people see the good things, feel hope, have dreams’, nurture his Chinese dream.

The message was crystal clear. The artists must execute ‘politics of art that tow the party-line’ – and not immerse themselves in the excesses of market economy or get lost in trying to address Mao Zedong’s old question about whom art was intended to serve. The answer is – according to both Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping – quite simply: art should serve the people and socialism.

Difficult Art

Chinese artists often balance on a fine line; a usual practice when wanting to express yourself in China. This is true of many creative souls and movements. Small independent film festivals which, taught by experience, avoid applying for official permission, make random showings here and there; a kind of parachute film festival. Enlisted viewers receive a text message with short notice indicating the film title, time and venue for the film show in e.g. a café or an anonymous basement somewhere. It is a tough life, but manages to foster marvellous films and an energetic and dedicated film environment. The obstacles are themselves a favoured subject for Chinese artists.

There are, for example, many excellent indie films, documentary or fictional, made by persecuted artists who have had to leave town (any town where the authorities take a dislike to them) and roam the country for longer or shorter periods. Here, some of them document their lives in present-day voluntary internal exile or they evoke it in literature.

This is how the masterpiece Língshan, or Soul Mountain, by the dramatist and writer Gao Xingjian saw the light of day; a keen and sober account of China and the Chinese. Gao had to leave Beijing in the mid-1980s when his theatre productions became a trifle too provocative for the power élite. He went a-wandering writing Língshan (a holy mountain in China. Not yet translated into Danish, but available in English entitled Soul Mountain, as well as in French, Swedish, Norwegian, and German) in the process, which went on to receive e.g. the Nobel prize in Literature. Gao Xingjian emigrated to France in the 1980s. Língshan is perhaps the finest example of a literary and filmic road movie, but there are countless similar descriptions from the present that are well worth seeing and reading, e.g. on social media.

How wonderful when the film director Jia Zhangke, controversial in his native country, but widely recognised abroad, was so fed up with not being permitted to show his film at home that he produced a deeply ironic film about the theme park Beijing World Park where visitors e.g. can see the Arch of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower from Paris, the Pyramids, sphinxes, and the pharaohs from Egypt, a traditional Dutch windmill, the Taj Mahal from India, Big Ben and the Tower of London, and the Statue of Liberty from New York – all of it without having to set foot outside Beijing.

The World, as the film is called, is about two employees who are lovers and bored stiff at work, but are experiencing problems in their relationship. The film ends with them both dying. The censors thought it was a wonderful film while it was actually taking the mickey out of life in China.

Another example of attempts at circumventing the efforts by the power élite at curbing the imagination, the practice, and the expression is Yue Minjun. His social critique is unreserved and brutal – and swathed in artistic methods that utterly perplex the censors.

Yue Minjun has e.g. created an archaeological retrospect on the beginning of the 21st century – seen from the perspective of 3009. Both cynical and satirical, but with a cheerful eye for contemporary reality. It features thermos flasks like the ones owned by all Chinese, or the straw helmet that all construction workers had to wear for the sake of appearances, a telephone and many other contemporary daily necessities. And, to symbolise the human fallibility of the archaeologist, also in 1000 years’ time, a (Chinese) Audi is parked by a lake with playful dinosaurs in the background. And the censors? Are they really that stupid? Do they all lack the imagination and ability to ‘see’ the works? Or do they perhaps decide to turn a blind eye once in a while and let things pass? We hope so.

Mao Tongqiang, who is producing a new work of art for A New Dynasty at ARoS is, among much else, known for his translation of Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, I have a Dream, which he had translated into tangut (an extinct Tibeto-Burmese language only mastered by very few scholars today), after which he asked a distinguished calligrapher to reproduce it. Then Mao Tongqiang had the speech engraved in stone – 385 black stone tablets. With the classic reproduction of King’s dream of a just society, Mao Tongqiang exhibited the absence of civil rights in China.

Zhang Dali is the man behind the donkey-spewing people at ARoS. He is also China’s first graffiti artist. At the end of the 1990s, he spray-painted 2000 giant reproductions of his bald crown next to 拆, chai, the often inconspicuous handwritten character on houses, sometimes the only warning given to people informing them that their home is due for demolition – like crosses put on trees picked out for felling. Zhang has also created the work Offspring, consisting of 100 full-size migrant workers formed in resin with the title of the work, Zhang’s name, and a number tattooed on their bodies. Sometimes the sculptures hang upside down to accentuate their bewilderment.

The exhibition at ARoS offers a noble glimpse of contemporary Chinese art, its specific position at this moment in time, and showing how the suppression and the creative process, at times, cross swords, causing sparks to fly – imparting to the rest of us a good measure of sheer joy, experience, and wisdom.

The toilet cleaner’s son

The national poet Ai Qing’s son, who believed a poet was a toilet cleaner, spent the zippy 1980s in New York. He grew up with parents who were internally exiled, relegated to China’s barren north. After his father’s rehabilitation, he managed to achieve both state and international recognition as an artist before he, too, stepped on the toes of the power élite. He helped design Beijing’s dashing national stadium, called the ‘Bird’s nest’, built for the Beijing Olympics, 2008. He was provocative even then. I certainly remember catching my breath when he openly explained that there were ‘democratic bubbles’ inside the building; invisible acoustic pockets swallowing the sound so that people could talk without anybody listening in.

Ai Weiwei, for yes, it is he, grew up in the shadows of his parents’ disgrace. Since his father’s rehabilitation, he profited from the family relations as is customary in China. His father’s fame – and possibly also the unjust fate the family shared with millions of other Chinese – gave Ai Weiwei protection for a number of years when flirting with provocation in his own art.

But when he became actively engaged in social issues by helping desperate parents whose children had been killed in the massive earthquake in Sichuan in May 2008, not quite three months prior to the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, the authorities had had enough. They tried to hide the fact that party offices and town halls were built far better than schools. While schools were collapsing and pupils and teachers were killed, government officials got off very lightly, indeed.

Ai Weiwei joined the parents’ fight for openness and publicised 5385 names of school children that had been killed. This was too much for the power élite. A good thrashing by the official hit squad, cerebral haemorrhage, and more to boot. He retorted with the exhibition Remembering in Haus der Kunst in Munich: 9000 colourful school bags together forming the words She lived happily on the earth for seven years, as one of the bereaved mothers in Sichuan had said about her daughter.

Ai Weiwei came out as a full-blooded and full-time democracy activist. He began counting the victims of a fire on a building site in Shanghai. That is not allowed, either, in China where the power élite conceal casualty figures of this kind – for the simple reason that fatalities claiming more than 10 dead will have consequences for the mayor, the party boss, or others. This is why the authorities routinely under-report accident fatalities happening on their patch.

Ai Weiwei was punished by first being forced to pulverise – before he had even moved into it – the combined home and studio for which Shanghai’s government themselves had given him the plot and encouraged him to build. Since then, he has been illegally imprisoned, been in house arrest, and been banned from leaving China for four years.

Ai Weiwei got a new passport this summer. A week later, he landed in Berlin where he was reunited with his six-year-old son, who lives there with his mother. The power élite is likely to be glad to see the back of this troublesome artist. It will be interesting to see whether he will be allowed back in.

Art as a partial answer to the confidence crisis

Ai Weiwei is just one of many artist activists and social critics in China fighting for a just society; bloggers; people who help the sick; lawyers who help ‘illegal’ unregistered children born over and above the legal quota; they draw attention to the conditions of migrant workers or help people when their homes are branded with the fatal 拆, chai (demolition), meaning that they are forced to yield to ‘development’; or they might be people who fight for the environment, or against the all-consuming corruption, for democracy, or similar.

They share the common feature of being resourceful people who want to make China a safer and just place to live. They have ideas and power to strengthen China, who does what she can to curb their development potential, cut them down, and put them in prison. Ai Weiwei is just one among many (albeit a minority in Chinese terms), but his story is a fine example of what China engenders with her suppression of strong positive forces.

China’s power élite are unable to keep up when art holds up a mirror to their harassment, surveillance, and abuse. Art tears the mask off the power élite who become even more enraged, powerless, and ridiculous in their excessive persecutions.

Art and the system cross swords

The contrast between the system and democratic forces create areas of tension where art can step in and unfold – when art provocatively mirrors the authorities’ constant abuse of power and ingeniously and suavely steals under the radar of the censors, soaring above their minds and miles above their imagination and humour.

Through constant suppression, restrictions, and curtailment, the power élite have themselves contributed to engendering and nurturing an aspect of China’s vigorous contemporary art. So A New Dynasty – Created in China also provides a glimpse of how artists brave, challenge, and conquer China’s zealous censorship which, in its costly and far-reaching attempts at obstructing free expression, instead acts as a filter penetrated by art.

This supple and acrobatic elegance designed to perforate censorship adds an extra aspect to Chinese art. Not because art by all means must be in opposition, but because the power élite by its sheer lack of imagination and its inherent control-freakishness practically forces the artists to cross certain borderlines. Censors fear, with a measure of paranoia, that everything that stands out is synonymous with critique. This needs never be the case were it not for the line being drawn by the lack of imagination.

Mette Holm is a journalist and writer specialising in China. She is currently living in New York.