The Inner Logic of Rebellion—Examining the Writings of Tang Zhigang

It was the autumn of 1965, I had just turned five, and since my father was busy with work, he took me out of the army preschool and sent me to my mother. My mother was a correctional cadre at the Kunyang Labor Farm, what we called a lady prison guard. From that point on, my childhood was linked to the prisoners at the labor farm.

(Memoirs of a Lonely Boy)

We have in our hands a text from Tang Zhigang in 1998 recounting the environment and experiences from his early life. In this account, Tang Zhigang gives us the historical context of his childhood in vivid detail: everyday life, ordinary people, and people who appear ordinary, but are actually convicts who are strictly limited in their interactions with others. A child only a few years old knows little about the world of adults, and could only view this world through innocent eyes:

As the fog dispersed, I could see female convicts soaked head to toe standing above the stove and shoveling out a mixture of rice, cornmeal and broad beans with coal shovels. The steam washed over their bodies, plastering their hair to their faces and necks. Beneath their drenched clothing, their breasts quivered in the steam, clearly visible.

(Memoirs of a Lonely Boy)

This is Tang Zhigang’s visual memory, but given the unique circumstances of the time—Tang Zhigang’s mother, out of extreme wariness toward these convicts, countered the ordinary human response and refused to allow him to accept their food—his mother’s anger left a very deep impression in these memories: “My mother slapped the food out of my hands and onto the ground, shouting, ‘That’s filthy! You would eat food from convicts?’” Was this really just an ordinary, insignificant childhood memory? Of course not. Every person grows into the individual they eventually become under the influence of a very specific history. The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until 1976 formed the early context for those born in the 1950s and 60s. Their personalities, worldviews, habits (and even eccentricities) took shape in this period. Tang’s childhood joy came from catching birds, fish and frogs in the fields together with the convicts, and their careful, vague and awkward way of speaking cast shadows on the boy’s soul. Tang admits that his own unsociable eccentricities took shape in this environment.

In those days, Tang Zhigang of course did not understand what a political offender was—there were KMT war criminals, reactionary capitalists, businessmen, rightists, Yiguandao followers, current and historical counterrevolutionaries, and “many of them were highly educated and once enjoyed high social standing, with quite a few university professors among them”; nor did he understand what criminal offenders were—thieves, con artists, rapists, murderers, but the words and actions of these “characters” left a different kind of imprint on his memories, memories that would later emerge, in altered form, directly and indirectly in his images. This is perhaps the subconscious reason why Tang Zhigang’s painting, after being conceptually opened by modernism, would be able to so brazenly convey “distorted” faces and “unexpected” situations. Meanwhile, nature has power over anyone pure of heart, and in his early years, Tang Zhigang took notice of another side of his living environment. He objectified those people around him of uncertain identities to view them as part of the natural landscape:

The Kunyang Farm was located at the end of Lake Dian, surrounded on one side by the lake, and on the other three by rivers. It was a wetland. It was a broad stretch of flat land, with many fruit trees, ponds and herds of farm animals, with pairs of male and female convicts scattered in between. It was like a 19th century French landscape painting.

(Memoirs of a Lonely Boy)

This kind of perception not only persisted in the future, it would go on to become a source of the rebellious spirit that would gradually take shape in him—an unadorned acceptance of truth. Tang Zhigang also recalls his impressions of horses from when he was in primary school in Kunyang. Horses appeared frequently in his works for many years, and often corresponded to the way he saw them as a child:

The horses at the farm were well bred and fed fine feed. They were all plump and healthy, and much larger than the horses at the market. It seemed as if they all enjoyed stretching out their organs in front of crowds, long, thick and pink like a big stick of meat, with an unsettling milky white flakes on the middle and at the base, secretions that had built up after long periods without washing. They always sparked endless curiosity among the boys. We were always thinking about how to scrape away that dry white skin that left people so nauseated. We were always shooting them with slingshots and hitting them with bamboo strips to get them to retract.

(Going to School, October 20, 1998)

In his later painting experience, a horse would appear in a poetic pastoral scene—it was a war horse, the image of a soldier bestowing the horse with function (1984). A year later, the identity of this white horse would begin to soften (Stream, 1985), more in the service of emotional expression in the natural scenery. Interestingly, Tang Zhigang’s painting techniques in this period were quite similar to the modernist styles of the 85 Art Movement unfolding at the time, implying that with a change in social background, Tang Zhigang had begun to rebel against the once familiar painting approach of Soviet Socialist Realism. By 1996, Tang Zhigang, who had by then left the army, could brazenly employ expressive brushwork and satirical, exaggerated emotions to paint his early memory of a crazed horse with a long extended reproductive organ. The childhood subconscious stubbornly refused to fade, and by 1997, the horse that appears in Exhaustion lays on the ground, completely worn out, yet the function of the sexual organ has been forcefully strengthened, beyond even the state of arousal. Many years later, Tang Zhigang recalls a friend of his sticking his hand into a cow vagina, “moving in and out, seminal fluid flowing out by his elbow” (Brilliant Sunlight, 2003). This description is seemingly provided without any worry about touching on linguistic or narrative taboos.

Powerful and problematic memories of course also arise in his later experiences growing up. By 1976, Tang Zhigang had become a soldier, and by 1979, he had taken part in the Sino-Vietnamese War. As a result, when he pondered what to paint, the soldier’s life and the experience of life and death in battle remained a constant presence. In October 1999, Tang Zhigang wrote the essay Shit Falling from the Sky, a memoir of his experiences as a war reporter, in which he gave a detailed account of the “engineer corps shit fields” on the battlefield. Though Tang Zhigang has not depicted it using realist techniques, “shit” appears in his painting quite often. In directly facing human secretions, Tang Zhigang demonstrates that he has already formed a psychological habit of placing all things on a highly materialized and equal footing. In human life, each and every thing may have meaning in its existence, or form some metaphorical meaning. When this awareness is linked together with social and historical judgment, it voices values that differ from those espoused by official propaganda. This is why, at a time when people still had expectations for epic heroicist themes, Tang Zhigang decided to draw the soldier’s life down to the level of the common citizen. After running into trouble for “Adult Meeting” in 1997, Tang Zhigang decided to transform the various details of military life into children’s stories. Meetings, fighting, defecating, playing pranks, watching animals copulate, these are all portraits of adult life. These children in military uniforms, their expressions and movements, all became metaphors for serious life. People seem willing to forgive the childishness and mischief of children, but the stories under Tang Zhigang’s brush all come from his own experiences. He is merely using this childhood identity to speak of things that took place later.

Maintaining the viewpoint or perspective of a child as he looks out on the world is perhaps the outcome of Tang Zhigang’s judgment on life. In 2008, in a short essay titled Playing Myself, he reminds the reader:

People live their whole lives as fourteen-year-olds. The life they live from one to fourteen determines their entire life. The saying about seeing the adult in the three-year-old, and the old person in the five-year-old, widely spread across the Chinese speaking world, shows us that people can’t actually grow up as they get older. For instance, all studies and experiences after the age of fourteen are nothing more than the accumulation of experience and suffering. Even if you live to eighty, you really just look like a dwarf with a face scarred by time’s passage.


Following this view, Tang Zhigang’s artistic practice never entered into an “adult” mature stage. He has always striven to retain an honest perceptivity, going as far as to cast aside the knowledge he gained from his elders at the Central Academy of Fine Arts so as to present a “child’s” understanding of the world and himself. He wrote this in 2008, at the age of fifty. The year before, he had held the solo exhibition Never Grow Up in Seoul. This implied that Tang Zhigang was by this point treating “never growing up” as a matter of principle, or a judgment on the boundaries of truth. Sometimes, when evaluating the art of his friends, he decides to express his own views on art and life, expressions evidently meant to defend his own artistic practice.

From youth to old age, it seems people are always painting a circle linking beginning to end throughout their lives, coming out of the womb and returning back into it. This trait of human life determines that the essence of human aesthetics is to play oneself when facing the passage of time. This play is actually the meaning that art can give to people. It soothes the soul.


Of course, in terms of the language and practice of art, it would be truly naive to view Tang Zhigang’s art as pure self-amusement wholly unrelated to art history. As an artist who actually has a long understanding of art history, he certainly sought out differentiation in his practice in order to establish his own artistic traits. In 2011, he wrote an essay on the history of oil painting in Yunnan. He was quite clear on the history of such artists as the Korean War-era Yunnan student of the National Arts University Li Bohui, on to the later overseas students Liao Xinxue and Liu Ziming, followed by the early People’s Republic artists Xiao Qing and Lin Ling, and on to the artists who emerged in the 1970s, such as Yao Zhonghua, Sun Jingbo, as well as Shang Ding, who was highly influential in Tang’s own artistic education. Tang Zhigang noticed the artistic changes that took place in Yunnan in each period. This observation and sensitivity helped to enhance his own understanding of art. This understanding meant that he could not stop at familiar painting methods—whether it was the Outdoor Light School that best represented the older generation of Kunming art, or the abnormal expressions of the “Shen Society”—of course, Tang Zhigang’s personal character certainly kept him away from the sickly sweet language of Yunnan heavy color painting represented by Ding Shaoguang and Jiang Tiefeng. Tang Zhigang took note of the experiments of his peers, such as Mao Xuhui and Zhang Xiaogang. In his painting from the 1980s and 90s, we can see his practice of modernist techniques, and when Cynical Realism and Pop emerged as trends, he had no aversion to the use of realist methods to satirize reality.

The use of children as subject matter continued unabated, and though the expressions and themes strayed far from accustomed perspectives, illness gave Tang Zhigang the time and environment to ponder his art. Not long after the turn of this century, Tang Zhigang came to a new understanding of painting from the mindset of a sick man. He passed the time with plein air landscape painting, and that relaxed state of mind, and the perception of nature through the lens of a new emotional state, led him to shift from “modeling” brushstrokes to a more writerly smear that ignored shape altogether. By 2015, Tang Zhigang was quite clear about this:

Due to the influence of realist painting, aside from the narrative aspect of the Children’s Meeting series, I was never free in terms of language, and my painting was always led by the nose by its content. Plein air painting allowed the colors to free themselves, and in language, I was truly free to face spiritual issues. To face myself in an army-issue rain cloak on the high walls of the Kunyang Labor Farm under the wind and rain, to face myself reflected in the eyes of the big black stallion in the shadows of the Fourth Labor Convict Horse Cart Team stable, to face myself imitating a great historical figure towering over the shoal at Beidaihe Beach after joining the army, to face myself stepping away from the lingering gaze of my departing father, to face myself basking in the sun like a dog on Laoshan Peak during the Sino-Vietnamese War, to face myself becoming a dark horse in the art market in 2007, to face myself lying on the sickbed at Xiehe Hospital pondering life and death after 2009.

(The Shape of the World, 2015)

The period of illness was, for Tang Zhigang, a period of introspection. He pondered the meaning of art all over again, and felt that there were some old questions—such as Paul Gauguin asking over a century ago, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”—that required repeated rumination. This mental state led that solid, tangible brushwork to recede. Once he no longer needed that forceful affirmation in his heart, it led to the liberation of his hands. Thus, in 2012, we began to see clear traces of a focus on liberation. Though Tang Zhigang continued to paint stories about adults using children, in the painting The Boss, we can see a clear relaxation of brushstrokes, and less interest in rigid modeling. By 2013, “form” had become insignificant. In Purple Conference Table, Tang simply did without the content of the subjects’ faces. In 2014, Tang Zhigang wavered between his past style and the experiments he had carried out after he had tired of it. He simplified his compositions as much as he could, retaining only the basic relationships, reduced sometimes to a mere diagonal line (Shape of the World–Swimming Pool, 2014), with the figures reduced to a few blocks of color. In some of the flat-painted works on paper, almost nothing remains of the original spectacle of the children’s world. By 2015, there were no further pauses in this trend. Memories and stories of course remained, but unlike the children’s stories from before, due to changes in his techniques, those memories and stories seem to have emerged from the depths of the subconscious, sediments drudged up from the muddy waters of awareness by the artist. Tang Zhigang had always sought a change from his famous style, and just as was the case with his shift from adults to children, such a shift would require a precipitating event, that event being his continuing illness. As long as he sincerely confronted and drew from this event, the artist was able to naturally find a new method and path. In Idle Chatter–Plein Air Painting (2015), Tang Zhigang writes:

Today, we live amidst an unchecked explosion of animal desire, while our spirituality awaits a moment of self-awakening, one which finds its expression in the landscape, with brushwork its emotional carrier. This is not only the emotional truth of the painter, but the spiritual choice of the beholder as well.


When discussing landscape painting, Tang Zhigang once again looked back on the Yunnan artists who came before him. He also recalled the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, which had been exhibited in Kunming in the 1980s. These taste preferences served as supports for the shift in Tang Zhigang’s mental state. Is emotion the artistic attitude of Expressionism? This is a question of experience and practice. Tang Zhigang used his introduction of a friend’s art (Pride in Striving Forward) as an opportunity to convey his views:

I personally think that a person’s life goes through two stages, one being old age, and one being youth. If we look at it as the interplay between reason and emotion, everyone’s situation is much the same. The general situation is that in youth, people are more rational, and as they get older, they definitely become more emotional. Compared to his early art, Mao Jie’s works from recent years tend to use more resolute brushwork to convey bright emotional tones. The rigor and precision from before have mellowed after so many years of tempering. By this stage in one’s life, whether idealistic or realistic, things can fit either way. They are no longer so strict or conflicted. He has begun to follow his heart and his whims. As he puts it, “I used to think life was for art, but now it is the other way around.” The late Yunnan artist Liu Fuhui once wrote something I found quite moving: “Art must be able to soothe the self before it can soothe others.” Looking at Mao Jie’s new paintings, I’m thinking that if they are able to soothe his old heart, they must be able to soothe the rest of the world.

When the mind’s gaze shifts from the external world to the depths of the soul, experiences and stories are further transformed into perceptions and insights. By the time Tang Zhigang traveled to Dhaka in late 2016, his thoughts had retreated from the individual to a search for human commonality. In writing a foreword for Bangladeshi artists (2016), he wrote, “Looking at them, and listening to them speak, I suddenly realize that humanity is nothing more than a group of birds of different breeds. Aside from our colors and the languages we speak, our other habits are no different from a collection of strange birds.” He went on to quote an artist from Dhaka:

The sun had risen, but the sky was dark night. On the second day, the sun rose again, but the sky remained a dark night. Our tears became black, and flowed together to form a great river. In this dark river, we still held out hope that tomorrow’s sun would light us like a lantern…


Only those who care about the problems shared by all humanity can feel how these words emerge from the depths of the heart. Only those who have disentangled themselves from the concrete problems of reality can gain insight into those problems all of us must face. This shift, and the rebellion against his earlier success, required a higher level of insight into life.

Thoughts on “life and death” are the final thoughts one reaches in life. Though people have different views on life and death beginning in their youth, it is only when you confront this issue directly, only when you grow old or gravely ill that this issue becomes concrete and unavoidable. And when a person is able to face such issues with clarity and poise, and especially when they are able to view “life” and “death” as part of a normal cycle, rather than some dichotomy between “something” and “nothing”, “more” and “less,” or “present” and “absent,” then they will not find themselves hopelessly mired in the troubles of the mortal world. This is the reason behind the basic mindset and linguistic character of Tang Zhigang’s painting over the past few years. When this much is understood, all life becomes the same, and shifts in artistic style and technique go without saying. They are all perhaps natural outcomes, forms of expression for the soul that is appended to the body. Questions such as whether or not to hold a meeting, or whether there are concrete or abstract legends no longer seem to be questions. Images become less concrete, and the techniques and brushstrokes become freer and more writerly. On July 9, 2018, the anniversary of his mother’s death, Tang Zhigang wrote the following words expressing his understanding of the world and of himself:

I’ve started to almost believe what they’re saying about Runrun being a reincarnation of my mother. It’s not just because that priest said it, but more importantly, Runrun has a few facial expressions that are just like hers, and then there is that patch of white fur on the top of her head. The first time I noticed it, I had to grudgingly admit it. July 9 is the anniversary of my mother’s death. On that day, Runrun was particularly riled up, much more than normal, to the point that we forgot about the offerings we were supposed to make that day. After walking Runrun at dusk, I suddenly scolded her for the first time ever, and astonishingly, she seemed to sigh in understanding. It was like she was expressing disappointment that we had forgotten her anniversary. When my mother was still alive, she loved to eat meat. At the age of eighty she could still eat a whole roast duck in one sitting. The ability to eat so much meat without issue really set my mother apart from others of the same age. As she said herself: “Nothing belongs to you. It only counts when it’s in your belly.” Perhaps because of my genes, I was also quite the carnivore for a while, but I never did have quite her metabolism. Like my mother, I was also born in the year of the dog, and one of my connections to dogs in my life is that I’m usually stark naked in my dreams. Runrun’s arrival in my life was quite miraculous, and brought me a revelation: the embarrassing scenario I often dream about, where I can’t find my pants, and shit on the street in front of passersby, must be from a previous life. Runrun and I have deep karmic ties. My mother must have reincarnated as Runrun so she could stay close to us. A dog’s lifespan is about twelve years, and in this way, my mother can be with us for another twelve years, by which time she’ll have lived on this earth for just over ninety years, about the amount of time she originally wanted.

The use of words understandable by others of the same stripe to explain one’s insights into life reveals the artist’s attitude. Furthermore, in those many sketches on paper, we can see this attitude given free rein. In this sense, we are no longer appreciating paintings, but instead reading the artist’s thoughts and mental state. Thus, the rebelliousness we see in Tang Zhigang’s artistic path is comprehensive: rebellion against the political reality of his early life, rebellion against official standards, rebellion against established artistic methods, rebellion against the self, rebellion against success, and finally, rebellion against all habitual ways of thinking. In fact, it is only through rebellion based on one’s inner needs that the meaning of a life can be explained.

The research for this exhibition was a joint effort with Zou Kunling, Ma Ning, Luo Fei, Zhang Guanghua and Xuan Hongyu. Each of them had a clear focus for their research work, engaging in research, interpretation and reading of a different period of the artist’s work. This exhibition’s documents include their research essays and materials. As a result, a full picture of Tang Zhigang emerges through documents, essays and artworks, providing the viewer with a more complete understanding of his art.

Lü Peng

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Translated by Jeff Crosby