Painting in the Space of Marginality

The Wuming (No Name) Painting Group was active in Beijing between 1973 and 1981, with a prehistory that can be traced back to 1959 when its first two core members met. Its active time overlapped the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). The name “Wuming (No Name)” was not officially coined until July 7, 1979, when the first public Wuming Group art exhibition took place. Just like the anonymity suggested by its name, it is an underground counterculture art group, remaining a marginalized position in social space, cultural space, and urban space. Looking at the Wuming Group’s paintings, most of them being the tranquil landscape, we can hardly feel any strong political expressions. However, being apolitical is itself a powerful political stance in the red ocean of the Cultural Revolution where everybody should serve revolutionary politics. Their practice shows the contradiction between two opposing politics, one based on the will of the state apparatus and the other one on the consciousness of the individual. Surviving in the city of Beijing, they manifest an urban space in the tension between these two political statuses at the height of the Cultural Revolution, its capacity to mediate between them (mostly through providing space to the latter), and its fertility to breed new life in art and culture as a means of expressing people’s political self-consciousness.

In society, the Wuming Group existed in some shadowy space of marginality. The members during the group’s active period were urban youths returning to the city after being sent to the countryside or assigned manual labor work in the factories. None of them received formal academic training in fine art. In 1959, Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu became acquainted at the Xihua Fine Arts Institute, an amateur art school in Beijing. Along with Zhang Da’an and Shi Zhenyu, whom they met around 1962, they formed the core of the Wuming Painting Group. In 1973, twelve or so younger painters joined the group, including Zhang Wei, Shi Xixi, Wang Aihe, Zheng Ziyan, and Liu Shi among others. Coming from two generations and divergent class backgrounds (red and black), they formed a clandestine community and met regularly to listen to music, exchange ideas, circulate smuggled books and catalogues, and experiment with unorthodox painting.[1]

They created art at the very margin of the official art scene where cultural controls were asserted over art. In his Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (Yan’an Talks)in 1942, Mao Zedong pointed out that “literature and art are subordinate to politics”[2], “there is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake”[3], and “they [literature and art] are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine”.[4] He quoted a couplet from a poem by Lu Xun in his pronouncement as the motto for literary and art workers: “Fierce-browed, I coolly defy a thousand pointing fingers, /Head-bowed, like a willing ox I serve the children.”[5] It means that the literary and art workers should never yield to the enemies against the revolution and should serve the proletariat and the masses. Yan’an Talks became an important text that governed the development of Chinese art in this era. The influence of Yan’an Talks reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution. In Summary of the symposium on art work of the army convened by Comrade Lin Biao entrusted by Comrade Jiang Qing in 1966, the revolutionary literary and art theory in Yan’an Talks became the ruling dogma in the cultural domain. In this symposium, Jiang Qing pointed out that “It is the fundamental task of socialist literature and art to work hard to shape heroes of workers, peasants and soldiers.”[6] She spoke highly of the Revolutionary Modern Peking Opera and proposed to “make a good model (yangban)”.[7] In 1967, the model play (yangbanxi) pieces were sanctified as the only models for the nation.[8] The creative principle of model plays is “three highlights” (san tu chu): “Highlight positive characters among all people, highlight heroes among positive characters, and highlight main heroes among heroes”.[9] The “three highlights” principles expanded beyond model plays and became the principle of proletarian literary and artistic creation. Many painters applied the “three highlights” principle to the field of visual art and strived to use closeups in their paintings to highlight heroes. With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in the following ten years, China’s official visual art finally formed the style of being “tall, grand, and complete” (gao da quan) and “red, bright, and shiny” (hong guang liang).

With irreconcilable differences with the official art of the Cultural Revolution, the Wuming Group tacked against the political winds. Unlike the official visual culture, most of the paintings of the Wuming Group were landscape paintings in the manner of “life drawing”. They were produced in different places of the city – their homes, Shichahai, Ming Tombs, Beihai Park, Summer Palace, Fragrant Hills Park, Purple Bamboo Park, Diaoyutai, and scenes from the streets of Beijing.[10] (figure 1) Many of these places were peripheral. In an era of Red Terror when non-revolutionary, non-realistic art was banned and criticized and free association was illicit, to go outside to sparsely populated areas and paint was the safest choice. Therefore, they could be free from the endless interrogations of the neighborhood supervision committees.

Figure 1. Map of the Wuming Painting Group’s activities. 1. Ming Tombs 2. Fragrant Hills Park 3. Summer Palace 4. Purple Bamboo Park 5. Diaoyutai 6. Fusuijing Building 7. Beihai Park 8. Shichahai 9. Dongmeichang Hutong #5 10. Courtyard 203 11. Forbidden City [Drawn by the author]

­The location changes of the Wuming Group’s activities were closely associated with the physical changes of the urban space of Beijing, which were a concomitant of the changes in the larger political situation. According to different locations in the city where they were active, the history of the Wuming Group can be divided into three phases. The three phases manifest how the city of Beijing provided space for a counterculture art group to survive and grow under a hostile political environment, or how it sought space to thrive in the fissures of an urban space immersed in political waves.

The first phase is Diaoyutai and Shichahai period between 1959 when Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu met and 1973 before the younger artists joined the group. Diaoyutai is located in the west of Beijing. On the east side of the lake locates Diaoyutai Hotel, the state guesthouse of the central government. Before the 1980’s when it became a park, it was a sightseeing destination at the fringe of the city with few tourists. In 1958, Zhao Wenliang went to Diaoyutai to paint from nature for the first time, which marked the beginning of the Wuming Group’s outdoor painting history. From that year onwards, the four early members often went there to do “life drawing”. Another important hub for early Wuming Activities is Zhao Wenliang’s home at Dongmeichang Hutong #5 in Shichahai. The place was small and cramped, filled with paintings and few pieces of furniture. The windows and door were fully sealed, making it impossible for someone to peek inside. Zhao Wenliang chose to rent this crammed dark room simply because of its discreet location. Group after group of young people arrived at this room to learn painting and discuss art, literature, and social politics. They often arrived at midnight to avoid the neighborhood committee’s eyes and ears.

The second phase is Courtyard 203 and Fusuijing Building period between 1974 and 1978. In 1973, a circle of young painters returned from their countryside “re-education” and met Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu. Their joining the painting group marked the second phase of the Wuming Group’s practice. In this phase, Courtyard 203 and Fusuijing Building are two important bases for the group’s activities. Ministry of Culture dormitory, also known as Courtyard 203, was located in the Dongcheng District of Beijing. Shi Xixi’s and some other Wuming painters’ homes were in this courtyard. Shi Xixi lived alone, unfettered. The Wuming painters frequented his home to paint still life and portraits of each other and hold discussions. Another site was Zhang Wei’s home at Room #5 on the third floor of Fusuijing Building near the White Dagoba in Beijing’s Xicheng District. The eight-story Fusuijing Building was built in 1958 as a model building of the “Commune Mansion”, as the result of the Communist Party’s decision to experiment with collective living in cities by building the “Commune Mansion” or “Communist Mansion”. Zhang Wei’s family moved there in 1964. Because Fusuijing Building was not far from Diaoyutai and the Purple Bamboo Park, the Wuming painters often hanged the paintings they made at these places on the wall of Zhang Wei’s home to discuss. On January 1, 1975, the first exhibition of the Wuming Painting Group happened in this apartment, which was an underground exhibition open to a small circle of art insiders and friends. They chose to hold the exhibition at Zhang Wei’s home because Fusuijing Building had dusky hallways and isolated staircases, making the delivery of the paintings and the comings and goings of people less noticeable.

The third phase is from 1979 to 1985, after the Cultural Revolution, and can be summarized as Beihai Park period. In the wake of the end of Cultural Revolution, the political environment relaxed and the social environment became more open. Therefore, the Wuming Group’s activities could become visible to the public. In 1979 and 1981, they held two unofficial public exhibitions at Huafangzhai in Beihai Park.

The locations the Wuming Group chose to paint transitioned from the city to suburbs then back to the city, due to the changes in political climate and the control over urban space. They started painting at Diaoyutai quite early on. After the socialist education movement in 1964, the difficulty of making art indoors at home increased and the neighborhood committee residence police often scrutinized them. Therefore, they could only paint landscapes at the suburbs, such as the Ming Tombs and the Fragrant Hills Park. It is as Yang Yushu said: “The farther we got, the better-away from the masses. People were too frightening.”[11] After Lin Biao died in 1971, the political climate relaxed. The Wuming painters were able to return to some inner-city sites, Diaoyutai and later the Purple Bamboo Park, to paint from nature. In 1972, the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, and other historic sites became open to the public. This way, the Wuming Group could paint in their daily surroundings. According to Yang Yushu, “It was a very natural progression. Something else related to the Cultural Revolution was our initial avoidance of the masses before our eventual return.”[12]

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution chaos, the park’s functions of sightseeing and recreation were suppressed, and the functions of political propaganda and political criticism were more pronounced. The Red Guards carried out exhibitions of the “Red Ocean” and recited Mao’s quotations in the parks. “Big Character Posters” were put out on the walls of the parks. Even the flora was carefully arranged and supervised to “represent the thriving of socialism”.[13] The Wuming Group’s paintings let us see another face of the park. Getting through the “Red Ocean” chaos in the social and political environment, they saw the overlooked but ubiquitous nature, which embodied their utopian pursuit of Truth, Good and Beauty. Due to the insecurity of painting in their private homes, public parks became their working space, their private studios, a “diaspora” of the private space in the public parks. The paintings made during the cultural revolution were small because they could only bring a small toolbox to paint outdoors, which could be put into the bag and would not draw others’ attention. The early paintings of Zhao Wenliang, Yang Yushu, Zhang Da’an and Shi Zhenyu were painted on cigarette boxes or other packaging cardboards, sometimes with some writings on the backside of the painting, recording what happened on that day and their feelings.

On the backside of a small landscape painting titled Cezanne in China by Zhao Wenliang (figure 2 & 3), there is a paragraph about people’s gathering in Houhai after the Tangshan earthquake, his house’s not being properly repaired due to his family’s class status, the repairing of his house with the help of his painter friends, and his mother’s being left alone in the earthquake shed. This paragraph reveals his mixed feelings on that day hinted at by the painting. The painting was titled Cezanne in China because Zhao Wenliang thought the figure in the painting looked like Cezanne in his imagination. It portrays Houhai Lake at dusk or dawn. A man with a hat is standing by the lake. Some boats are floating under the willow trees. On the other side of the lake, some yellow paint marks suggest the earthquake sheds, with the reflections glimmering on the water. A cold bluish tone dominates the painting. The only warm colors appear on the red pattern of one boat, the orange glow in the sky and its reflection, and the yellow earthquake sheds and their reflections.

Figure 2. Zhao Wenliang, Cezanne in China, 1976, oil on paper, 32.5cm × 15.8cm, in Gao Minglu, ed., The No Name: A History of A Self-Exiled Avant-Garde (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 372, plate 022.
Figure 3. The backside of Cezanne in China, in Gao Minglu, ed., The No Name: A History of A Self-Exiled Avant-Garde (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 35, figure 049. “The painting was titled “Cezanne in China” for the figure in the painting who looks like Cezanne in my imagination. The painting portrayed earthquake rubble gathered at Houhai after the earthquake in 1976. My mother and I were the first who moved to live by the river. My house was not properly repaired because my family’s class status was bad. The southern wall of my house was rebuilt with broken bricks and mud. You could easily dig bricks out of the mud. The wall couldn’t support the weight of the roof. It would topple with a little push. The eastern wall was also not properly repaired. We had to mud the unfinished surface. The people in charge of the repair workers all left at once. Fortunately, my painter friends came to help. We worked until dark. My mother was left alone in the shed while we worked on the house. She was worried when she saw people moving back to their homes from the shed and could not find me anywhere. She started walking home with the help of a stick. I met her on the way home. I felt guilty that I didn’t pick her up on time. In fact, I was worried about her. I was going to meet her after the repairing. I didn’t think that it would take so long.”[14] [Writings on the back of the painting.]

Paintings like Cezanne in China recorded the cityscape of Beijing. During the Wuming Group’s more than twenty years of active time, the urban space of Beijing had transformed greatly, due to waves of political, revolutionary and developmental forces. In the Cultural Revolution, the transformation in urban space was more non-physical than physical.

Zheng Ziyan’s Winter Viewing from Fusuijing Building made in 1973 (figure 4) shows a cityscape not quite different from how it was before the Cultural Revolution. The painting was made on the balcony of Zhang Wei’s home. The painting portrays an austere winter scene in the city of Beijing. At the bottom of the painting, the barred railing obscures the whole foreground. The left part of the railing is a low solid wall, bearing the painter’s signature and the date. To the right, a companion Communist Mansion building occupies one-third of the paper. Its façade has earthly colors and identical rectangular windows in rows, which suggests the identical rooms behind the façade, and the identical ways of life that the state was trying to establish. In the far opposite, the silhouette of another Communist Mansion edifice towers under the lead-grey sky. Its identical rectangular windows cast gazes back to this building. In between, low traditional courtyard houses creep along the street. Four or three people are walking in a straight street between the houses. The railing of the balcony, the roofs of the courtyard houses and the street are all covered with snow. The Communist Mansions are standing and overlooking the low courtyard houses in between, an urban space in tension between the communist“utopian project towards modernity and the traditional households.”[15]

Figure 4. Zheng Ziyan, Winter Viewing from Fusuijing Building, 1976, oil on paper, 30cm × 38cm, in Wang Aihe, “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (100) (2014): 30, image 2, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24055648.

Perhaps it is not accurate to use “the tension between utopian project towards modernity and the traditional households” to describe the contrast between the Communist Mansion and the courtyard houses. The Communist Mansion can be understood as the “utopian projects towards modernity”. However, even though the physical structure of the architecture remained the same, the courtyards were no longer “traditional households” by the time when the painting was made during the Cultural Revolution. Underneath those snow-covered pitched roofs and behind those concrete walls of the Communist Mansion, the individual households were torn apart and restructured. A transformation without largely transforming the physical urban space of the built environment, but the mind space, the body space, and the domestic space, was taking place.

The logic of the urban space was subverted in the Cultural Revolution. In a normal city, space can be structured along the lines of the distinction of the private and the public. The critical distinction between the public and the private is articulated at length by Hannah Arendt in her The Human Condition. She emphasizes that the boundary between the public and the private should be held sacred.[16] The mental space of the mind, the personal space of the body, and the intimate space of the home belong to the private space or the private sphere. According to Ali Madanipour, “private sphere is a part of life that is under the control of the individual in a personal capacity, outside public observation and knowledge or state and official control. It is a sphere of freedom of choice for individuals, protected from the external gaze.”[17] This definition of the private sphere points out the dichotomy of the individual and the state and emphasizes that the private sphere is beyond the reach of state control. However, in the Cultural Revolution, the boundary between the state and the individual, and thus the public and the private, was eroded by the revolutionary machine. The state control penetrated the private sphere. The state was controlling the mental space of the mind through the “engineering of the soul” and “thought reforms”. The personal space of the body was consumed by the revolution as labor forces for industrialization. The intimate space of the home was broken by the forces of revolution.

The mental space, the most private sphere, was not beyond the state’s control during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s directive in 1967 “to struggle against the private and criticize revisionism (dou si pi xiu)” became the fundamental principle of the revolution.[18] Through confessions, reports and self-criticisms, the mind of an individual was placed under the public scrutiny to weed out the private thoughts and sentiments. The family was converted into a stage where the soul was displaced under the spotlight of public criticism. Children from families in black class categories were forced to denounce and incriminate their parent as a part of class education and thought reform. Parents were supposed to draw a clear line and report their children if they had thought crimes. Liu Shi was seen as a problematic youth. Liu Shi’s father reported his son to his work unit about his son’s having “bourgeois” thoughts at home. He took away his son’s secretively read book – Aesthetics by Zhu Guangqian and forced him to read Mao’s Yan’an Talks instead. He also mailed the book to his work unit, causing Liu Shi to face yet another round of criticism meeting for reading “pornography”. Single Bed was painted by Liu Shi at a “home” like this in his parents’ house (figure 5). Rectangular patches of paint indicate his single bed placed in the corner of a room and his paintings hanging on the wall. The objects are barely discernible but we see the process and movement of painting. It is an action to claim a corner for his inner world in a home that is no longer a haven in the engineering of the soul.

Figure 5. Liu Shi, Single Bed, 1977 – 1979, oil on fiberboard, dimensions unknown, in Wang Aihe, “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (100) (2014): 31, image 4, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24055648.

The body was utilized as labor for revolutionary modernity. The party-state was propagating models like Lei Feng, who wanted to “forever be a nut and bolt” in the communist revolutionary machine[19] and sacrificed his young life for the revolution. The body should be screwed onto the revolutionary machine as its “nuts and bolts”. The physical limitations of the body should be overcome and death should be taken lightly to follow Mao’s decree “first fear not hardship, second fear not death”.[20] The painting Medicine (figure 6) by Wang Aihe is about her own body caught up in industrialization. For twelve youthful years, she was assigned to work at a plastic factory to run the non-stopping machines and later to print the red covers for Mao’s books in the chemical-vapor-filled workshop. Her young female body fell ill and for years she had to take three bowls of herbal medicine a day. She painted her medicine pot and cup and some pears on a stool. It is a painting mostly covered by brown, the color of the bitter liquid she took every day. Even the pears are shriveled and brownish, just like her wounded body.

Figure 6. Wang Aihe, Medicine, 1978, oil on pasteboard, 41.5cm × 45.5cm, in Wang Aihe, “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (100) (2014): 31, image 5, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24055648.

In the realm of the household and the family, not only were the familial ties cut off and replaced by class consciousness, but the family structures were also shattered. The urban families were broken up due to three main forces in the name of modernization and revolution: “the ‘up to the mountains and down to the villages’ movement, which sent 17 million urban youths to the countryside; the sending down of government cadres and intellectuals to May 7th cadre schools, May 7th universities, and medical teams; and the less known but equally massive relocation of industries to the Third Front in preparation for war (1964-1980).”[21] Wang Aihe’s Home (figure 7) was depicting a side of a small courtyard where she grew up, the scene that she contemplated every day when she looked out through her bedroom window. The home portrayed in the painting is dilapidated. The glass of the window is broken. The clay chimney is shaky and about to fall. The winter tree with fallen leaves in the neighboring courtyard adds to the bleak atmosphere. The red brick walls of a catholic convent appear in the distance, with the nuns expelled. There is hardly trace of life or people. Indeed, it was an empty home like so many others. There were seven people living in the home, Wang Aihe, her parents, her two elder brothers, and her two younger brothers. However, by the time when this painting was made in 1973, Wang Aihe was assigned to the street factory and was living alone in the house. Her parents and one of her elder brothers had been sent to different provinces. Her two younger brothers were taken by her father to live with him. Her eldest brother was residing in his factory to carry out revolution. The family was destructed in the political waves, leaving only an empty shell of “home”.

Figure 7. Wang Aihe, Home, 1973, oil on paper, 19.6cm × 27cm, in Wang Aihe, “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (100) (2014): 30, image 3, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24055648.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Wuming Painting Group was active in the fissures of an urban space submerged in the red waves with its normal boundaries of city life violated by political forces. The group maintained a peripheral position with the dominant political and spatial structures. They collapsed public and private space in a way that echoed the state’s erosion of these boundaries by meeting to discuss, gathering to paint, and organizing an exhibition in the domestic space, turning public parks into their working space, and so on. At the same time, they struggled to claim a space for their own inner world in the private sphere that was invaded by the revolutionary machine. They sought to express their political self-consciousness through their apolitical stance by divorcing from the politics from the will of the state apparatus. Their practice demonstrates the wild and powerful vitality in the marginal area, be it in social, cultural, or urban space, and that the marginal area can become fertile land that breeds new life.


[1] Wang Aihe, “Visual Memory, Personal Experience, and Public History: The Rediscovery of Cultural Revolution Underground Art,” in Popular Memories of the Mao Era, ed. Sebastian Veg (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2019), 162.

[2] Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, accessed April 28, 2021, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “中共中央批发《林彪同志委托江青同志召开的部队文艺工作座谈会纪要》及附件,” The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, accessed April 28, 2021, https://ccradb.appspot.com/post/15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pang Laikwan, The Art of Cloning: Creative Production during China’s Cultural Revolution (London: Verso, 2017), 99.

[9] Wang Mingxian, “‘Red Bright Shiny’: Socialist Popular Art Style.” Yiyuan, (October 2008): 6.

[10] Gao Minglu, “The No Name Group: The Tragedy of Refusal,” in The No Name: A History of A Self-Exiled Avant-Garde, ed. Gao Minglu (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 120.

[11] Ibid, 105.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hung, Chang-tai, “A Political Park: The Working People’s Cultural Palace in Beijing,” Journal of Contemporary History 48, no. 3 (2013): 575, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23488422.

[14] Gao Minglu, ed., The No Name: A History of A Self-Exiled Avant-Garde (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 372.

[15] Wang Aihe, “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (100) (2014): 30, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24055648.

[16] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 29-30 (first publication: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[17] Ali Madanipour, Public and Private Spaces of the City (London: Routledge, 2003), 202.

[18] Wang, “Apolitical Art,” 30.

[19] Wang, “Apolitical Art,” 30.

[20] Wang, “Apolitical Art,” 33.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.