Age of Idealism: Yunnan Oil Painting 1980 – 1990


After the beginning of the Reform and Opening policy in 1978, oil painting entered into a new period of reawakening and rapid development. Chinese art played a role of “critiquing reality” and “soothing wounds.” Thematic creation (that with a literary and dramatic mentality) dominated, spreading across the country from the top down. But in faraway Yunnan province, a group of painters opened up the gates to modern art, boldly absorbing the forms of modern Western art and upholding the independent significance and formal beauty of painting itself. A series of exploratory exhibitions were held in the early 1980s, such as the Shen Society Painting Exhibition and the First Exhibition of the Yunnan Oil Painting Research Society in 1980, and the Yunnan Ten Person Painting Exhibition held in Beijing in 1981, in which artists such as Yao Zhonghua, Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, Wang Jinyuan, Liu Shaohui, Sun Jingbo and Pei Wenkun called for placing formal beauty above theme. These were highly influential nationwide, and strengthened ideas and pursuits of aesthetic beauty and originality in Yunnan painting.

In 1980, the “Geng-Shen” year according to the Chinese calendar, an important art group was established in Kunming, the Shen Society. The group held a striking and innovated exhibition at the Yunnan Provincial Museum. The exhibition foreword reads, “We have come together to form the Shen Society in order to create a clear revolutionary spirit, a new visual world marked by the era, the nation and individual traits, and to create a modern national art of ‘truth, goodness and beauty.’” It struck a powerful blow against the potential influence of cultural despotism, cast aside outdated conventions and habits and broke through old artistic modes while absorbing various recent Western artistic modes of practice, allowing the people to face and probe this long sealed forbidden zone. It was highly significant for the future development of the arts.[1]

The Shen Society was a powerful rebellion against Chinese traditional academy art. It was not a political movement but an artistic one. Artists in Yunnan at the time were concerned with the quality of art, not with imitation of the West. Far from the big cities, Yunnan enjoyed a liberal academic atmosphere. Painters from across the country gathered there and discussed art. Located on the country’s frontier, it is also home to 25 different ethnic groups, bringing together many different cultures. In terms of natural environment, it is also home to one of the world’s most famous tropical forests. Environment and cultural background are two important factors in the formation of a painter’s character and artistic style.[2]
This was an exhibition marked by modern traits in Yunnan art history, with the works presenting an integration between ethnic folk art and Western modern painting. The exhibition “Presented a distinct style and form, a romantic passion and exoticism, an aesthetic, decorative affect of light, clear lines. The subject matter mainly drew from cultural elements and figures of the Dai people, who live in Yunnan’s subtropical rainforests and plant two season rice paddies—elements including clothing patterns, architecture, subtropical scenery and auspicious symbols of Theravada Buddhism. This relaxed, lively and lovable painting immediately drew great interest among the people, liberating them from the red, bright, shiny, tall and large political propaganda mode of Cultural Revolution art.”[3]

In 1981, the Yunnan Ten Person Painting Exhibition was held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The featured painters were Yao Zhonghua, Ding Shaoguang, Jiang Tiefeng, Wang Jinyuan, Liu Shaohui, Liu Ziming, Yao Yongmao, Zhang Jianzhong, Li Zhongxiang and Jia Guozhong. Among the oil paintings in the exhibition, Yao Zhonghua’s Landscape Series stood out for its bright colors and natural brushwork. Liu Ziming’s works, with their clean colors and brushwork, conveyed a state of nature, simplicity and tranquility. Yao Yongmao’s Mother and other portraits had simple, bright colors and forms filled with tenderness.

These exhibitions attracted a great amount of attention in the art world and broader society, and had a profound impact across the country.


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, influenced by the state of cultural ferment sweeping China, philosophers and artists traveled to Kunming to hold various academic lectures, including Gao Ertai from the China Philosophy Research Institute, and Gao Hong from the Foreign Literature Research Institute. The solo painting exhibition and lecture Wu Guanzhong held at the Yunnan Provincial Library, Yuan Yunsheng’s solo exhibition, and the exhibition of Norwegian Expressionist pioneer Edvard Munch all had a great influence on the creations of Yunnan’s young painters of the day. The Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition and the Southwestern Art Research Group organized in the mid-1980s by artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Pan Dehai and Ye Yongqing, and the Yunnan art created under this influence, emphasized the expression of the individual will and the true sense of existence. Young artist groups were being established all over China at the time, forming into the 85 New Wave, one of the most important movements in the history of Chinese contemporary art.

In June 1985, young Yunnan painters Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang and Pan Dehai brought their artworks (including oil paintings, sculptures, color ink paintings, cloth collages, mixed material assemblages and sketches) to Shanghai at their own expense, and joined with several likeminded young people in Shanghai to hold the Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition at the Shanghai Jing’an District Culture Hall. The exhibition was entirely self-funded. It was met with a strong response. A second exhibition was held at the Nanjing City Hall of Education and Health.

The exhibition presented its own academic ideas and slogans: “The Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition calls on more audiences to join in seeking the meaning of life itself. It is in this ceaseless search and exploration that life attains essential meaning—human meaning. What is Neo-Figurativism? It is figurativism of the soul, figurativism of the spirit. This figurativism is the artist’s intuitive grasp of the soul and of life. It employs all manner of artistic means to engage in judgments, suppositions and definitions of the soul and life. Its aims are not limited to these, but also include dialogue with the viewer and the viewer himself. It is more like a revelation which can lead the viewer to begin their quest for life and the soul. Only then will the function of art be fully manifest, and only then that art can truly return to art itself. Only when it exists as a sign full of life, as a kindred spirit, companion and friend to humanity, can it truly shine with that allure Ivan Bunin described as the ‘song of the soul.’ For this reason, the foreword to the Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition stresses: shocking the spirit, not pleasing the eyes, is paramount. As Herbert Read said: art must utter the secrets of the viewer’s soul, even if it displeases them. Art is not a game of skill. It uses various materials to fix in place man’s great, powerful and intimate spiritual activities.[4]

After the Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition, the artists joined together with young artists and theorists from China’s three southwestern provinces to establish the Southwestern Art Research Group. The founding meeting of the Southwestern Art Research Group was held in Mao Xuhui’s home, which at that time was in the Kunming Hepingcun Cinema Company dormitory. The members included Ye Yongqing, Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai, Zhang Long, Su Jianghua, Yang Huangli, Mao Jie and theoretician Deng Qihao, as well as Cheng Xiaoyu and Ren Xiaolin from Guizhou, and Yang Shu and Wang Yi from Sichuan. The group had over forty members in total.

In October 1986, the Southwestern Art Research Group held the third Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition at the Yunnan Provincial Library. The exhibition mainly took the form of slide images and the delivery of thesis papers. The symposium saw broad, heated debate. The group’s guiding academic principle was “enlightenment from intuition”: “The art of today must participate and intervene in the times. They view this mentality as an ‘active mentality.’ In regard to artistic issues, they declare that the issue of the day is not the ‘opposition to tradition’ but the restoration of tradition. They want to return to the tradition of creative activity. They declare that this is an age of application and synthesis. The artistic experiences and outcomes of various time periods do not appear to contradict each other today. All can be creatively ‘brought in’ for use today. They will be mixed into a system of visual signs for describing today’s spiritual reality.”[5] The artists of the Southwestern Art Research Group stated that the art history of the day should participate and intervene in the era. In December 1986, Zhang Xiaogang brought artwork slides and images from the Southwestern Art Research Group, along with some new artworks, to the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute to hold the fourth Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition.

In 1988, spurred by Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang and others, the Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibition evolved into the 1988 Southwestern Modern Art Exhibition, with Yunnan artists Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Pan Dehai, Ma Yun and Chen Heng taking part. Painter Magazine published a report on the exhibition. In February 1989 Yunnan artists Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing and Pan Dehai were among the artists featured in the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition held at the National Art Museum of China.

The creations of the young Yunnan painters in the 1980s have been called “life painting.” Mao Xuhui’s Red Mass and Red Figure series were full of expressive tension and living catharsis. The painted space is filled with exaggerated, distorted forms and expansive bodies. Zhang Xiaogang’s Ghost series conveyed the fragility and hopelessness of life and death with distorted forms. Pan Dehai went from the abstract expression of the Earth Forest geological formations to a system of signs based on corn in which arrays of granules fill the space alongside folk masks, dismembered limbs and organs expressing multiple cross sections of life and elevating inner truth to semantic signs that convey a powerful illusion of the proliferation and growth of life. Ye Yongqing’s works expressed the contradictions of individual existence, with melancholy poetry and surreal imagery presenting a romantic account of life. Most important, this generation of artists was establishing the basis for independent growth. In the foreign and domestic artistic and cultural exchanges in the decades to follow, they were able to maintain individuality. As pioneers, the individual art history they established has become the most important component of Chinese contemporary art. The successful organization of the Neo-Figurativist exhibitions and the Southwestern Art Research Group widely encouraged artistic creation among the young artists of Yunnan.

In October 1986, the Southern Barbarian Painting Exhibition was held at the Teaching Hall of Yunnan Arts University. The participating artists were Li Zhong, Su Xinhong, Ou Xinwen, Ma Xiangsheng, Ma Yun, Yao Yongmao, Wu Jun, Li Jiandong and Hui Yuanfu. All were employed as teachers at Yunnan Arts University. The holding of such an exploratory exhibition on the school campus elicited a strong response. The artists proposed their own artistic idea: the “restoration of that unsullied realm of human nature.” They stated that “pure reason cannot be the final destination for art”. “What we are stressing is a new cultural consciousness, one which does not lead into linguistic and literary conceptual definitions. What we hope for is for the barbaric southern winds of southwestern culture to reawaken this frozen frontier soil.”[6] In the New Oil Painting Works Exhibition held in November 1986, many young painters demonstrated a rich exploratory spirit. “We can see a clear tendency in this series of works—art is beginning to trend toward the presentation and expression of the inner spirit. This is the key to art’s entry into its ontology. Major shifts are taking place in their ways of thinking, ways of perceiving, and ways of shaping. Their works are full of strict, rational thinking on the world and on life, and marked by a powerful natural awareness and enlightenment about the substance of life, and their exploration of ‘realms of mystery’ shows they are soaring to great heights.”[7]


The artistic explorations of Yunnan oil painting in this period were broad, diverse and deep. A careful analysis of the oil painting works featured in the various national art exhibitions through the 1980s can explain the developmental state of the time.

At the Second National Youth Fine Arts Exhibition held in 1980, Zeng Xiaofeng’s oil painting Atop the High Mountains won second prize. The artwork depicts Yunnan’s Stone Forest with bright, resounding colors and decorative lines, and stood out among the realist paintings that made up the vast majority of the exhibition. This was the first time for an oil painting from Yunnan to win a high-level national art award. At the Sixth National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1984, oil paintings by Yao Zhonghua, Liu Ziming, Zeng Xiaofeng, Ma Xiangsheng, Yang Zuolin, Wang Zheng, Gao Zhonghan, Hu Xiaogang, Ye Zhiqi, Shi Xuechang, Jiang Gaoyi and Su Jianghua were selected. Yao Zhonghua’s work Ah, The Land received an Excellence Award. At the Exhibition of Young Artists in a Progressing China in 1985, oil paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Chen Qunjie, Yang Yijiang, Wu Jun, Hui Yuanfu, Ma Yunping and Liu Xiao were selected. Chen Qunjie’s Painting Tools won an Encouragement Award. Zhang Xiaogang’s Daughter of the Mountains and Mao Xuhui’s Red Soil Path were standout works in this exhibition. At the National Fine Art Exhibition for the Sixtieth Anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army in 1987, oil painting works by Tang Zhigang, Gao Zhongyan, Hui Yuanfu, Wu Jun and Zhang Yaxiong were selected. Tang Zhigang’s oil painting Asking the Way won an Excellence Award, and engaged in a valuable exploration of the everyday expression of Chinese military themes in painting.

At the First China Oil Painting Exhibition in 1987, the works of Liu Ziming, Yao Zhonghua, Mao Xuhui, Zeng Xiaofeng, Yao Yongmao, Wang Zheng, Hui Yuanfu, Wu Jun, Yang Huangli, Zhang Weiguo and Chen Heng were selected. Liu Ziming’s Old Street in Lijiang, Yao Zhonghua’s Dance and Red Highland, Mao Xuhui’s Gifts of the Red Soil, and Hui Yuanfu’s Kuoshi Festival were recognized as outstanding works and sent to Japan and the United States for exhibition. In the Seventh National Fine Arts Exhibition, the works of Yao Zhonghua, Yao Yongmao, Yang Zuosen, Zeng Xiaofeng, Pan Dehai, Chen Heng, Yang Yijiang and Luan Xiaojie were selected. There was a marked increase in abstraction among the artworks in that year’s exhibition. Zeng Xiaofeng’s Forgotten Mirage and Pan Dehai’s Split Corn won the Bronze Medal, and were described by critics as Expressionist paintings filled with a southwestern spiritual mentality and magical realism.

The Yunnan oil paintings featured in various national art exhibitions in the 1980s embodied a mainstream of Yunnan regional culture and ethnic traits, marked by a rich variety of themes and formal languages. Among the works with ethnic themes and stylized language, they tended overall to focus on depicting scenes of ethnic life, but they also made bold experiments in a pursuit of diverse formal language. The works of young painters were more often “Attempting to break free of traditional folk depiction styles within minority ethnic thematic creations, using literary and dramatic narrative modes to shift their focus to the state of existence and living perceptions on the spiritual level, and in terms of presentational techniques, using the linguistic forms of modernist art to transform this expression into an experience of life and the sublimeness of the spirit.”[8]


The mid-1980s were a time of turbulent conceptual trends and rich cultural ideas in art. Chinese professional journals such as Fine Arts in China, Fine Arts, The Trends of Art Thought, Fine Art Research, Chinese Oil Painting and Jiangsu Pictorial became important platforms driving discussion and creative practice in the development of Yunnan oil painting. Essays and works by many Yunnan artists, including Yao Zhonghua, Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Pan Dehai, Zeng Xiaofeng and Tang Zhigang appeared in the pages of these magazines and became widely known.

The Yunnan Artists Association theoretical journal Yunnan Fine Arts Communications stands as important documentation of the theoretical research and exchange of ideas in Yunnan art during this period. Yunnan Fine Arts Communications relaunched in 1984, releasing four issues a year until 1989, for a total of 23 issues. After the journal’s relaunch, it strengthened its focus on scholarly research and on new information regarding artistic creation, and carried out wide-ranging discussions on questions of creation and art theory. Many artists and theoreticians young and old published essays in this journal, including Yuan Xiaocen, Li Shiqing, Li Weiqing, Yao Zhonghua, Liu Ziming, Zhang Jianzhong, Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Xiaofeng. All of them demonstrated great passion and focus. Their writings made for a high point of theoretical research in the development of Yunnan art. Much of the theoretical research published in Yunnan Fine Arts Communications stands today as precious documentation of the history of the development of art in Yunnan.

In 1986, the Yunnan Artists Association Committee on Oil Painting organized the Yunnan Oil Painting Art Research Symposium. During the three-day symposium, participants engaged in rigorous discussion on the issues in oil painting over the previous decades of development. During the meeting, Yao Zhonghua, Li Jinghuan, Mao Xuhui and Zhang Jianzhong delivered remarks entitled Remarks on Western Oil Painting, The History of Chinese Oil Painting, Trends of Artistic Thinking among Contemporary Youth, and Postmodernist Art, respectively. This symposium stands out in the history of Yunnan oil painting for its ample time and thorough organization. The act of combining theory and practice did much to promote the overall creative development of Yunnan oil painting in the 1980s.


In October 1980, the restored Yunnan Arts University moved from the Kunming Normal School to the Mayuan neighborhood. This was a replaying of the historical founding of Yunnan Arts University in 1959. The difference was that this truly marked a new beginning. The school has consistently cultivated oil painting talent, and brought together new forces from art academies across the country to form a mainly young and middle-aged creative group that has created a new state of development and laid a solid foundation for Yunnan oil painting.

The 1980s was a remarkably active period of self-awakening, and a time rife with idealism and creativity.

Wu Jun

Yunnan Arts University Gardens, Kunming, July 2019

[1] Yao Zhonghua, Shen She Huazhan de Qian Qian Hou Hou (The Ins and Outs of the Shen Society Painting Exhibition), Hua Tan Journal, 2002, vol. 4.

[2] Zheng Zhong and Wu Guanghan, Ding Shaoguang Shenghuo yu Yishu (The Life and Art of Ding Shaoguang), Yunnan People’s Publishing House, 2001.

[3] Mao Xuhui, Yunnan de Zhongzi (Yunnan’s Seeds), Guoqiao Mixian—Yunnan Nianqing Yishujia Qunzhan (Cross-the-Bridge Noodles—Yunnan Young Artist Group Exhibition), Dialogue Space Gallery, 2010.

[4] Mao Xuhui, Yunnan, Shanghai “Xin Juxiang Huazhan” (The “Neo-Figurativist Painting Exhibitions” in Yunnan and Shanghai), Meishu Journal, 1986.

[5] Mao Xuhui, Yishu Quxiang Neizai Jingshen de Chengxian yu Biaoda (The Presentation and Expression of the Inner Spirit in Artistic Trends), Yunnan Meishu Tongxun (Yunnan Fine Arts Communications) Journal, 1987, vol. 1.

[6] Exhibition Bulletin: Qiangdiao “Zhijue” de “Nanmanzi” (The “Southern Barbarians” who Emphasize “Intuition”), Zhongguo Meishu Bao (Fine Arts in China), December 22, 1986.

[7] Mao Xuhui, Yishu Quxiang Neizai Jingshen de Chengxian yu Biaoda—Jianshu 80 Nianddai Yunnan Qingnian de Meishu Chuangzuo (The Presentation and Expression of the Inner Spirit in Artistic Trends—A Brief Overview of the Artistic Creations of Yunnan Youth in the 1980s), Dangdai Youhua Lunji (Collected Essays on Contemporary Oil Painting), Wu Jun, Peng Xiao, eds., Yunnan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2001.

[8] Wang Yi, 20 Shiji 80 Niandai Yunnan Qingnian Huajia de Shaoshu Minzu Zhuti Youhua Chuangzuo Xianxiang Yanjiu (Researching the Phenomena of Minority Nationality Themes in the Oil Painting Creations of Young Yunnan Painters in the 1980s), 2016, unpublished.