Dong Xiaoling

Luo Zhongli, 1980, oil on canvas, 215 cm x 150 cm, National Art Museum, Beijing. © Luo Zhongli

"Father" by Luo Zhongli


Art historian and philosopher Herbert Read once said that the entire history of art is a history of visual methods. However, from the perspective of the trajectory of Chinese art development during and after the Cultural Revolution visual change is only a symbolic expression of spiritual change.


The work "Father" by painter Luo Zhongli is the most typical among many works of visual transformation after the Cultural Revolution and is well-known to the majority of Chinese people. The artist Mr. Luo Zhongli was a witness of the Cultural Revolution and is a famous Chinese artist who is still active in contemporary China. Although the work “Father“ cannot cover the entire track of the development of Chinese art after the Cultural Revolution, it is a significant landmark in a historical context. It heralds the end of the age of a godhood and the beginning of the age of humanity.


I will attempt to focus on the identity of the "Father" and the opinions of people of different backgrounds or positions in society to this image, analyze the symbolic meaning of this work in a specific historical context and explore the "authenticity" of art. I will also try to explain the changes in the positions in society and the typical identities of different classes brought about by the changes in Chinese society from the end of the Cultural Revolution (1976) to the early 1980s as well as changes of the worldviews and values within society. On the one hand, these changes stimulated the dispersal of aesthetics, literature and art viewpoints from Europe and North America in China in the 1980s. On the other hand, they played a role in "clearing the field" for the transformation of the "modernity" of Chinese art. In today's globalized world, it is important to rethink the contrast between cultural blockade and ideology under the Cold War mentality. In this process, the recognition of identity, the meaning of human nature, and the re-understanding of civilization have all become issues that Chinese contemporary art is constantly contemplating.

  • Dong Xiaoling
    Dong Xiaoling


    "Father” is a huge portrait created by Luo Zhongli (born 1948) in 1980. The picture shows an elderly man with dark skin and fine wrinkles on his face wearing a white headscarf. He is holding an old bowl containing tea in both hands. The old man’s fingers are rough, there is still dirt embedded in his nails and there is dirty gauze wrapped round his fingers. He has only one tooth left in his mouth. In the wrinkles on his forehead, on his brows and on the end of his nose there are glittering beads of sweat. This is the typical image of industrious peasants in China.


    The importance of farmers was of great significance in China in the 20th century. Mao Zedong's assessment of issues concerning Chinese farmers commenced with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Before the founding of the People's Republic of China, the peasants were liberated through a political revolution centered on the Agrarian Revolution; after the founding of the People's Republic, the common prosperity of farmers was achieved through the modernization of rural socialism. The role of the farmer changed from a participant in the revolution to a builder of modernization. Farmers were an important political foundation in the Mao Zedong era. Even today, there are still about 600 million farmers in China.


    As a result, most of the works depicting farmers were created after 1949. Regarding the painting “Father”, the portrayal basically conforms to the definition of ordinary farmers. With the change of context during history, the visual interpretation of identity is very much influenced by the opinions of the post-modern.


    Farmers are considered to be the people society relies on for a living – that  is the reason why the artist named his work "Father". The model for this work was a farmer in the Daba Mountains in Sichuan province of China. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966. Mao Zedong advocated that young people from the cities should go to the countryside to receive re-education through hard labor. In 1968, Luo Zhongli, who was studying at the High School attached to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, went to the Daba Mountains and stayed there for nearly 10 years. One Chinese New Year's Eve he saw an old man squatting outside a public toilet, guarding a pile of faeces as if he were guarding something of great value.[1] This image of a peasant bearing the burden of humiliation made a deep impression on the artist's mind. In 1980, when the artist was a student[2] at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, he created his work “Father” by combining the image of Deng Kaixuan[3], an old man who was the artist’s landlord in the Daba Mountains , with the memory of the old man who had been guarding the pile of faeces. In 1981, Luo Zhongli was awarded the gold medal in the Second Chinese Youth Art Exhibition held in Beijing.




    Controversy caused by "Father"


    Today, the people viewing this large-size portrait may not be able to imagine what the people felt 40 years before when they stood in front of the large-size portrait “Father” for the first time. Those people experienced a visual shock and an impact to their values when they first saw this over 2-meter high portrait of a farmer. At that time, people were used to seeing the huge portraits of Mao Zedong or Marx only, and the monotonous idealized paintings of workers, farmers and soldiers.


    During the Cultural Revolution, works of art were of the "revolutionary romanticism" style that is red, light, bright, tall, large, and full. A picture was required to contain brightness and sunshine as well as strong colors, especially red, and even shadows were not allowed to be painted in cool colors. The characteristics of such a picture is vividness and fine detail, and there are almost no traces of the brush. The themes of the works are mainly revolutionary idols and the history of the revolution. In this artistic style the happiness and prosperity of the country and the people are praised. This form of painting depicts a paradise full of sunshine and no pain, a utopian world of social optimism and revolutionary idealism. The depiction of Mao Zedong was always as an extremely tall well-built man in the center of the picture, in fact completely the image of a supernatural god. Mao Zedong was worshipped as an idol.


    As an intellectual, Luo Zhongli had his own interpretation of this. "True and benevolent farmers and the like make me feel that there are people whose nature is unpolluted. The people are simple, honest, rustic. ‘Men of the earth’ with soil permanently under their fingernails. This kind of simple, down-to-earth nature often makes me feel ashamed".[4] The artist makes use of a huge portrait, a method traditionally used in nation leaders' portraits to express their sympathy, empathy and respect for ordinary farmers. At the same time, the artist tried to use painting to explain two kind of "truths", the moral truth and the artistic truth. This method is to use the truth of art to criticize the hypocrisy of morality. At the time this was however dangerous and controversial.


    In fact, even for a long time after the smashing of the “Gang of Four” in October 1976, the “Mind Emancipation" had not really begun. At the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held in December 1978, the Communist Party of China clearly showed that the core of their work would be shifted from class struggle to the economic construction of modern socialism. However, at this time people's minds had still not been completely liberated from the shackles of the Cultural Revolution. Regarding the standard of artistic "authenticity", artistic creation at this time was still following the logic of the Cultural Revolution.


    Shao Yangde (Chinese art theorist at this time) wrote an article in 1981 titled "Creation. Appreciate, comment, read "Father" and discuss with relevant reviewers"[5]. The article triggered a wide-ranging, long-lasting and intense academic debate on the field of Chinese art theory. Shao Yangde believed that "Father" showed the image of a farmer of the old society: numb, passive, sluggish. Therefore the painting gave the impression that farmers were submissive and pessimistic. He accused the artist of not injecting "noble revolutionary ideals" into "Father". "The image vilifies the peasant”. In fact, the living standards of Chinese farmers had nearly reached rock bottom during the Cultural Revolution while the political theorists were trying to convince the farmers that they were the masters of society and lived in paradise. This view also proved that between 1976 and 1980, many people in China were still living in utopian dreams and were unwilling to recognize reality. Luo Zhongli's "Father" shows a strong critical realism opposite to the rigid thinking at that time.


    A dramatic irony is that before the work was sent to Beijing to join the Section 2 National Youth Art Exhibition, at the insistence of Li Shaoyanchairman of the Artists Association of Sichuan Province, Luo Zhongli replaced the cigarette that was originally behind the left ear of the farmer with a ballpoint pen (image below). In this way he showed that the man was an educated farmer with noble ideas in the new era. The artist's compromise was in the hope that his work would pass the intensive political investigation before a work of art was accepted, and thus been sent to Beijing. However, this modification shows the great irony of utopian fantasy.


    father luo zhongli detail


    When the works were successfully exhibited in the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 1981, “Father”, the image of a farmer who endures the suffering and never complains, deeply moved hundreds of millions of people. The huge size and the hyperrealism of the picture were extremely fresh but tacit to those Chinese people who saw the work at the museum. Li Xianting, the editor of the official media "Fine Arts" magazine at that time, was also moved by the human compassion shown in the work. For this reason, in 1981 he used "Father" as the cover of the magazine. Only through the undisguised expression of reality can art find the truth it has lost.




    Changes in social thinking after "Father"


    In terms of artistic language itself, China originally had its own context of development and its own system of language. However, Chinese art since 1949 has been mainly influenced by the realistic art of the former Soviet Union, coupled with the Cultural Revolution’s censoring of the traditional Chinese context and the ban on Western contemporary art. Under the influence of this aesthetic inertia, representational realism has become the most acceptable visual narrative method for the public.


    Luo Zhongli was inevitably influenced by the American photorealist Chuck Close at that time. However, instead of deliberately hiding traces of personality, emotion, and attitude to create a flat and indifferent picture as Chuck Close did, Zhongli added these feelings to his picture. "I feel that this form is most conducive to powerfully conveying all my feelings and thoughts. The arts of the East and the West have always absorbed and been influenced by each other. Forms, techniques, etc. are just the language that conveys my emotions and thoughts. If this particular language can say what I want to say, then I will learn from it.”[6] The artist seems to have used a more calm and objective approach, but made the most subjective elucidate of a farmer in the work "Father".


    To the general public at that time in China, Chuck Close and modern art in Europe and America were unfamiliar and so far away. Even at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, the school had bought a Japanese-published "Complete Works of the World" but it was locked in a cabinet. The students had to press their faces against the window, brush the condensation from their breath off the glass, and view the book as they would a cultural relic in a museum. Such a book would take 1-2 months to read and absorb –but only under such conditions it was possible to read about Western modern art.


    For a period of time after this work, a group of artists who were contemporaries of Luo Zhongli returned to their innermost selves in pursuit of their own spirits and emotions. They became more willing to pay attention to people's daily life, and wanted to explore and express the beauty of human nature in ordinary life. The spiritual essence of their paintings was the continuation of the humanitarian sentiment.


    It is precisely because of the success of “Father” that the artist was sent by the government to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium at the end of 1983. He developed a comprehensive and deep understanding of European art and phenomena. Later, he held a personal exhibition at Harvard University in the United States, and thus gained a wide international reputation. Since then, his use of different techniques to express the language of painting has become more pioneering and expressive.


    In addition to reflecting on and breaking through the constraints of the political dogma on art, Chinese artists are eager for artistic change. Art theorists have begun to introduce and translate a large number of works on the history of Western modern art, for example Herbert Read‘s: A Concise History of Modern Painting (1979), H. H. Arnason’s History of Western Modern Art (1986) and many more. In the 1980’s, influential art newspapers such as "Art" (reissued in 1976), "Art Translation Collection" (founded in1980), and "World Art" (founded in 1979) began to publish articles on a large number of Western modern art genres and artists. Faced with the influence of foreign culture as well as domestic social pressure to achieve modernization, the ruling party has adopted a more accepting attitude.


    Precisely at that time, Western modern art and post-modern ideas came together and quickly merged in China. There is 1985 Art Trend[7] movement, the 89 Art Exhibition[8] etc. So far, Chinese modern art has entered the experimental stage on a large scale and has been continuously reconstructed.


    However, what is significant is that the village in the Daba Mountains where the artist once lived has now lost its former prosperity. As villagers have started to go to work in cities across the country, the village has become very glum and mediocre, in sharp contrast to the prosperity of the cities. And those farmers who have moved to the city are also working hard to transform themselves into a part of the city. Farmers, who once held an important position in China's social structure, are now gradually being urbanized under the drive of the market economy, and are being marginalized in the city.







    • Michael Sullivan, Art and artists of Twentieth-Century China, Shanghai, 2012
    • Gao Minglu, Chinese Avant-Garde Art, Jiangsu Fine Arts Press, 1997
    • LvPeng YiDan, The Art History of China Since 1979, Beijing, 2011
    • WangYong, A History of Art Exchange between China and Abroad, Beijing, 2013





    [1] During the Cultural Revolution, China's economy was extremely weak and faeces was the most important source of fertilizer in rural areas at that time.

    [2] During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, universities stopped accepting students, and the college entrance examination did not begin again until 1977. Luo Zhongli was admitted to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1977.

    [3] Deng Kaixuan was a farmer in the Daba Mountains. Luo Zhongli lived in the farmer’s home when he was in the Daba Mountains. Deng Kaixuan was also the model for the painting "Father". He has passed away now.

    [4] Gao Minglu, Chinese Avant-Garde Art , ( Jiangsu Fine Arts Press,1997)P70

    [5] Fine Arts" Magazine, Beijing1981Issue 9, P57

    [6] "Fine Arts" Magazine, Beijing1981Issue 2, Page 4

    [7] The 85 Art Trend refers to an art movement towards modernism that emerged in mainland China in the mid-1980ies. The young artists at that time were dissatisfied with the line of leaning to the left of the art world at the time, and with the Soviet socialist realism art stereotypes as well as some values ​​in traditional culture. They tried to find new blood from Western modern art, which triggered a nationwide art trend.

    [8] 89 Art Exhibition, "Chinese Modern Art Exhibition" held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in February 1989. This is the first exhibition of concentrated Chinese avant-garde art including performance art and installation art. The artist Xiao Lu shot her installation "Dialogue" and the exhibition was forced to terminate. The shooting incident of "Dialogue" has therefore become a symbol of the 89 Art Exhibition and has an important position in the history of modern Chinese art.



    published September 2020