Is the censorship of Chinese art misunderstood?

How are Chinese artists pushing the boundaries of what is deemed permissible?

“Censorship is one of the most misunderstood things happening in China,” says Asia Art Archive researcher Anthony Yung. In this post, Art Radar explains his surprising claim and explores the many nuances of art censorship in China today.

Wu Junyong, 'Don't be Silent', 2011, illustration. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Wu Junyong, ‘Don’t be Silent’, 2011, illustration. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.


Art for the market, art for the censors

“The contemporary Chinese artist has already learned to play the game very well,” says Yung, a senior researcher at Asia Art Archive, a respected non-profit organisation that has been collecting primary and secondary source material on contemporary art in Asia for over a decade. In a video interview recorded in late Spring 2014 by, an online gallery, Yung explains that many artists in China deliberately create artworks that will be censored.

Watch the video Artshare Conversation Series – Anthony Yung from on Vimeo.


A lot of contemporary Chinese art over the last twenty years has been made for the market and, it seems, making art for the censors is simply a more sophisticated variation of the same phenomenon. Artists recognise that censorship correlates with international attention and success. It is no coincidence that the most visible and powerful Chinese artist is dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Two of Ai Weiwei’s photographs were widely circulated in 2011 via the internet. According to Si Han, curator of Chinese collections at the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm,

Grass Mud Horse Covering the Middle has a title in Chinese which also phonetically sounds similar to “Fuck your mother, the Party Central Committee”: a sentence which in writing would be completely different – this kind of play on words can only be done and understood in Chinese.

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective - White House. 1995-2003. Gelatin silver print. MoMA

Ai Weiwei, ‘Study of Perspective – White House’ 1995-2003, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

Chinese art dismissed in West

While Ai Weiwei enthralls the West, many Chinese artists have met with a different reaction. According to art critic and curator Barbara Pollack:

We, as Americans, are completely fascinated with the idea of a democracy movement arising in China led by some dissident-artist struggling for freedom.

However, much of the contemporary art coming out of China was “dismissed almost as soon as Chinese artists gained recognition” in the West in the nineties and even today. Pollack adds:

I have had American art critics pointedly question me about the lack of Chinese critical theory and art criticism, smugly certain that their views are valid despite the fact that they cannot read Chinese, nor have they tried to read the translated critical literature in the field.

The art market and a perceived “isolation from the genuine support of museums and the critical community” certainly had a malign influence in the early 2000s, but since then there have been significant developments in the critical and artistic landscape.

Yung agrees, saying:

The whole society [in China] has changed so much … [artists] now … have a lot of access to information… [and] have developed a more mature language.

The maturation of Chinese art has been accelerated by two decades of challenges due to censorship. There are three types of censorship that have dogged the production of contemporary art in the twentieth century, as Si Han explains in a 2012 essay: stylistic, moral and political. Attitudes to each have not matured at equal rates.

Stylistic censorship

Stylistic or aesthetic censorship is often overlooked. According to Si Han,

Artists were not free to choose whatever style they preferred to use or wanted to borrow from the history of the western art. Styles of art were an ideological issue. In 1995, the famous artist Ma Liuming was arrested when he performed his “Lunch Series” in Beijing East Village.

Today, restrictions have been loosened almost entirely. The situation is less happy for moral and political censorship.

Ren Hang, Untitled, 2012 photography. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Ren Hang, Untitled, 2012, photograph. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Moral censorship

Conservative attitudes to nudity and sex have existed in China until recent times. Si Han says:

During the greater part of the Mao era, nudity was forbidden in painting and photography. It was considered too personal, too Western and too pornographic.

Publication or exhibition of nude images is seen as “spreading pornography” and is a criminal offence. Over the last fifteen years, artists like Ren Hang have pushed against the delineating boundaries between what differentiates pornography and art. Today, there are mixed opinions and much uncertainty about what is likely to be acceptable to the authorities. Si Han said on curating the exhibition “Secret Love”, focusing on LGBT-related art:

the answers vary when they were asked if such an exhibition would be possible to show in China. Some of them are sure that it would cause trouble, while others see no problem at all. The suggestion was: just do it. Well, if you never try, you will never know.

Political censorship

Criticism of the Communist Party and its ideology remains fraught with risk. The rules are uncertain and unpredictable. In 2011, Ai Weiwei was imprisoned for 81 days and fined USD2 million after being accused of financial crimes. He told the BBC that “the uncertainty of how he would be treated was frightening.”

Zhang Dali, 'Second History', 2005, photograph. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Zhang Dali, ‘Second History’, 2005, photograph. Image courtesy Groninger Museum.

Playing the art censorship game

Art censorship in China is a long game with high stakes, in which artists pit themselves against the Party. Risks can be as severe as imprisonment, but the prize is heady: international attention. Technology and global market forces are helping artists to be ever more daring.

Whether driven by authentic self-expression or spurred by the shallow allure of success, after twenty years, contemporary artists in China are indeed learning to play the game very well.


This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Alan Breacher


Related Topics: Chinese artists, censorship of art, art in China, video interviews

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