Rebecca Catching

One Country, Two Systems:
A Hegemonic History of Public
and Private Museums in China

By Rebecca Catching for Yishu Magazine in 2019.

Though I began my career as a contemporary art curator working in various capacities as a gallery director, museum curator, and critic, recently I began working as a museum consultant on the planning side. Planning involves consulting on things such as the positioning of new museums, creating the architectural specifications, and designing the overarching themes of the exhibits. Through this, and my work running a series of training courses for museum professionals at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, I often find myself straddling two very different worlds—both firmly within the museum industry but also having vastly different ideas about the identity and social function of a museum. This essay is an attempt for me to resolve this museological schizophrenia, to map out these two different realms, to understand where they branch off into different territories, where they bleed murkily into each other, and, finally, to shed light on the historical context that led to their development.

Dusty Old Bowuguan

The first model I will discuss is the older model that I am calling, for lack of a better word, bowuguan. The term bowuguan literally means “a hall brimming with a multitude of objects” and harkens back to an older temporal modality, something more akin to the Victorian conception of the museum or the wunderkammer, with its reverence for objects, scant interpretive text, and authoritative stance toward the public. This involves a view of the museum as a pedagogical tool—a means of elevating or educating the public—but also a “base” of socialist or patriotic education and, in many cases, a stage for the performance of state power. In the context of China, I use the term bowuguan to refer to state-run institutions (both art and otherwise) that exhibit a kind of “state-run” mentality. These institutions include most of the provincial and municipal general museums, such as the Shanghai Museum, the Shanxi Museum (Xi’an), the National Museum of China, the Palace Museum, National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), the Ningbo Art Museum, and the like.

National Museum of China, credit: Daniel Case

The directors of these museums often come from a background of archaeology, history, or Chinese studies; many in fact are from Peking University with others from Fudan, Tsinghua, or the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Although these directors often possess strong academic accomplishments, they also have strong ties to the government. These bowuguan are either line-departments of various government agencies, universities, or provincial or municipal governments (for instance, the Chinese Aviation Museum is under control of the Chinese Military Commission, whereas many university museums are under the Ministry of Education). In fact, it is common for many high-level management positions to be filled by members of the party, most of which have risen through the ranks of the museum system. If a museum director is not a party member, there will be a party member installed in the institution in order to sign off on all important decisions. 1 Most of these directors are men, and the working culture tends towards the hierarchical. Staff of state museums is notoriously underpaid due to government salary restrictions, a fact which is often lamented by the museum management itself. 2

Beijing’s Capital Museum

In the 1980s and 90s, these museums were characterized by lifeless displays covered in cobwebs and staffed by surly employees. Shen Chen, a senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum who grew up in Wuhan, provides us a vivid, or perhaps not so vivid, portrait of this type of moribund institution in recounting the pre-millennial days of the Hubei Provincial Museum in Museum Development in China: Understanding the Building Boom:

I remember how the Hubei gallery of ancient history . . . was illuminated by fluorescent lamps, at least one of which was always out of order and buzzing continuously as the light struggled to flicker on. Artefacts, which seemed to be valuable only to archaeologists and historians, were displayed within a long case along the walls of the rectangular gallery, and objects were placed with a business card–sized label of black ink on white paper noting the object name, date, and location where it was unearthed. The museum building was empty most of the time, except when school visits were scheduled during the spring session. But there were always two or three ladies sitting on a bench behind a wooden classroom table at the end of the gallery, either gossiping about their neighbours or office mates or quietly knitting—their attention locked into the movements of their needles. Attempts to get their attention were mostly futile. These gallery sitters probably didn’t know or care to know, that most of these notable objects on display were replicas—a fact that was not mentioned on the labels or shared in any way with the public. 3

A Rhetoric of “Change”

Despite the lip service paid to new museology, these bowuguan have found it difficult to shake their sarcophagal reputation (sarcophagal in the sense that they are places where culture goes to die). For instance, Shanghai Museum director Yang Zhigang talks of creating a “super-connection” with visitors, 4 despite the fact that the museum’s outmoded storytelling programs and scant interpretation leaves much to be desired. 5 Through their interactions with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and other international bodies, these museums have access to trends associated with new museology—for instance, the focus on open-ended narratives, a visitor-centric or public-oriented approach to exhibition-making, using alternative histories and narratives to promote a sense of diversity and a shift away from the curator as king model and the collections-based approach. “Spicy” issues such as the questioning of the epistemological status of objects (how for instance they might support certain narratives), or issues relating to control, authority, and authenticity are as fearsome as a roiling cauldron of Chongqing-style hotpot, which no one at the table has the courage to tuck into. Though new museums rise from the landscape every year, the software has not been updated. That’s not to say that the bowuguan have failed to improve. Today’s institutions are certainly more friendly, with better exhibition design and better access to information and services. They are more technologically savvy, with virtual reality and augmented reality apps (the Palace Museum has over ten dedicated apps including a kind of Second-Life-style online community), and even the most remote museums now seem to have some kind of new-fangled ticket turnstile or retinal scanner. But despite such state-of-the-art gestures, the attitude of these twenty-first century bowuguan has not changed greatly from the bowuguan of the 1980s in terms of their interest in fostering community or challenging hegemonic power structures within institutional systems.

The Contemporaries: Privately Funded and Public Facing

The other category of museums—what I will call the “contemporaries” are privately funded art museums that are successful precisely because they are not funded by the government. Rather, their patrons are banks, real estate companies, other private enterprises, or private collectors. Examples include the Minsheng and OCAT museum networks, the Rockbund Art Museum, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Today Art Museum, Fosun Foundation, Long Museum, Yuz Museum, Guangdong Times Museum, Red Brick Museum, and Luxelakes A4 Art Museum. Many of their staff have graduated from art history or curatorial programs and have been educated abroad, and among their ranks are a number of foreign curators and directors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, the UK, France, and Korea. The contemporaries are linked up to an international network of museums, art fairs, and galleries. They hobnob at biennials and swan their way through Art Basel to network, absorbing the latest international trends and theories, whereas the bowuguan directors go to the more formal and diplomatic ICOM conferences to exchange name cards and pleasantries with other prominent museums or participate in government-sponsored exchanges with other high-ranking institutions.

Contemporaries Embracing New Museology and Criticality

Unlike the bowuguan that rely exclusively on the government for funding, the contemporaries must create attractive programming to generate foot traffic. The contemporaries tend to see the museum not as a classroom but as a space of inquiry, wonder, and spectacle. With installations by Yayoi Kusama, Random International, and James Turrell, however, these spaces inadvertently become a backdrop for selfies and a stage for the performance of certain urban upper-class identities; for example, the recent Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Long Museum required a 50 dollar CAD/250 RMB entry ticket. But there are other museums that are more committed to accessibility with reasonable admission fees of 5 to10 dollars CAD—with the current funding models, the free admissions policy espoused by the bowuguan is simply not possible for the contemporaries. These institutions are known for providing experiences, but also try to present relevant artists, and even attempt to determine the art history of tomorrow through exhibitions such as the Hugo Boss Asian Art Award and other similar endeavours. We see them speaking in tones of open-ended inquiry and even activism. Some even manage to achieve the higher functions of a museum as defined by Elissa Frankle Olinsky in her hierarchy of museum visitor needs based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the bottom of the pyramid includes items such as accessibility and safety, physiological needs such as restaurant and bathrooms facilities, and then moving into basic psychological needs (what will I do here? What can I learn here?) to the top two levels of the pyramid, the “Highest Psychological Needs” (How does this affect my life? How can I take action on this?) and “Self-Actualization” (How will this change my perspective on life.) 6 This last element has been discussed by Claire Bishop as creating a “politicized engagement with our historical moment” or trying to “mobilize the world of visual production to inspire the necessity of standing on the right side of history.” 7

ADL, “Land Also Moves,” video, 03:16, 2017

These “top of the pyramid” needs are taken on, almost exclusively, by private art museums seeking to generate awareness and social change as bowuguan rarely engage in this kind of debate. For example, Pan Yuliang—A Journey to Silence at the Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou, took aim at the role of institutions in the writing of male-dominated art histories. This was framed around the obscure position of Pan Yuliang, an early modern painter who was simultaneously leered at and overlooked by the art establishment many of the writings about her life focus on the more lurid details of her personal life. Meanwhile, the UCCA exhibition, “New Directions: Musquiqui Chihying“, dug deep into the trenches of colonialism, collection, and coercion by exploring the networks of trade and exchange between China and Africa, which existed during the Ming Dynasty. Finally, at OCAT Xi’an, Howie Tsui, a name familiar to readers in Vancouver, presented his Retainers of Anarchy exhibition, which explored notions of otherness and exclusion using the metaphor of wuxia martial arts culture. In a sense, foreign artists seem to have more of a license to explore social topics; for example, as seen in the exhibition “Tides of Sand and Steel” by the international collective ADL (Felix Kalmenson, Rouzbeh Akhbari and Ash Moniz) at the Sishang Art Museum, which addressed anthropocentric notions of managing the Gobi desert and the people who live there.

Mia Yu, “This is Not Serious Art History . . .” Series—“A Journey to Silence,” 2017, mixed-media installation in the exhibition Pan Yuliang—A Journey to Silence. Courtesy of the artist and Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou

The bowuguan, on the other hand, tend to avoid such difficult topics and do little to highlight the histories of marginalized voices. Given that their directors are almost in all cases party members, they are simply not permitted to embrace the more radical tenets emerging in new museology. Rather, these bowuguan are saddled with the burden of providing legitimacy to the state, enforcing state ideologies, and demonstrating a form of internal soft power; that is, using the allure of Chinese culture and history to bolster the image of the state. In order to understand why the bowuguan have assumed these functions, we must return to the founding of the Republic in 1911 and the founding of modern China, both of which are deeply intertwined with the history of Chinese museums.

Xi Jinping showing off 5,000 years of history at the Palace Museum, while Trump looks on smugly and Melania thinks, “Hmm I wonder if they make that in my size!”

Museums Tasked with Bestowing Legitimacy Upon the Regime

From ancient Egypt to the Crusades, to the Nazi looting spree in WWII, to the colonial plunder of Asia, displaying one’s loot in an impressive building has been a well-known expression of state power. China was not only the victim of looting carried out by foreign powers, but also became the stage for violent internal disputes over who should possess its antiquities, as described in vivid detail by scholar Geremie R. Barmé in “The Transition from Palace to Museum: The Palace Museum’s Prehistory and Republican Years.” 8

When the Old Summer Palace was wantonly looted and then burned by British and French troops in 1860, the forces made off with large amounts of porcelain but did not even think to take the precious bronzes, which ended up liquefied in the fire. With the smoke still lingering in the minds of the Republican government, when the emperor was removed from the throne in 1911, the protection of the Palace antiquities became an urgent matter—even more so after the discovery that goods from a royal hunting lodge in Chengde were finding their way to antique markets throughout China. 9 During the founding of the Republic, when various forces were jockeying for power—warlords, the Republican government, and the imperial family—the topic of who maintained control over the country’s treasures became a matter of legitimacy for the newly appointed Republicans. At the same time, it became necessary to “squat” or occupy the land within the Forbidden City to prevent the imperial family from moving back in, should they gain enough support from restoration activists who were lobbying to have them returned to the throne. Therefore, a hasty decision was made to convert some halls in the southern Forbidden City to a museum in order to house the treasures from the summer retreat. 10

The Guwu Cheliesuo (Hall of Antiquities and often referred to as the Government Museum), China’s first official state museum, opened in 1914. As the Government Museum slowly reclaimed more real estate in the Forbidden City, it nonetheless had to fight off the thieving hands of the emperor and his consorts as well as high level Republican officials, who would frequently enter the museum and remove objects, which they would gift to various parties in order to gain favour 11 . At that time, Beijing was also seeing the construction of other museums with different purposes and different collections.

While the Government Museum was founded to claim real estate and protect royal collections, Barmé writes that it did not have a particularly forward-thinking admissions policy—with a high ticket price, only wealthy foreign residents and cultural elites could visit, with free admission reserved for a few student groups. 12 In contrast, another museum opened in the rear halls of the Forbidden City in 1925, which aimed to be more populist in its approach. Barmé notes that Gugong Gongli Bowuyuan purposely employed the word gongli, meaning “public” instead of guoli meaning “state.” It is an important distinction in that the Republican government, which was in desperate need of public support, opened the museum to the public with modest admission fees to improve the reach of its soft power initiative. Later, the Government Museum also dropped its admission fees and saw a huge increase in visitors—16,000 in 1916. This had the added benefit of sullying the palace floors with the footsteps of commoners, abetting the Republican’s desire to occupy the palace space, which had seen a recent attempt to restore the monarchy in 1915. 13

Seldom do we find a situation in which museums have played such a central role in the survival of a regime, where the occupation of the imperial chambers by common people served to cast away the magical aura of the emperor, which lingered still in the gloom of the darkened halls. The museum staff took great efforts to preserve the palace buildings in order to provide a glimpse of the opulent lifestyle of the imperial family (perhaps to arouse the jealousy of the common people), but they also included in their exhibits an element of propaganda in presenting documentation about the failed restoration attempts of the emperor in 1915 and 1917. 14 The inclusion of these documents offered a subtle message to visitors: “You see this palace? It is empty and shall remain that way.” Though they may have lost control of mainland China, the Kuomintang (Republican Government/KMT), would still hold on to the best of these talismanic objects, which linked their party to a long line of emperors (including the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of the Chinese people). The KMT took great pains to preserve these precious objects from the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War, shuttling them all over the country before they absconded with them in 1948 and 1949, keeping 2,972 crates of the best antiquities, which now form the basis for the National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

Tools of Political Propaganda

In addition to supporting the government’s bid for legitimacy, through a kind of domestic soft power offensive, traditional museums have also played a role in promoting various hegemonic narratives, be they Marxist, Socialist, or Nationalist. Many institutions were built with the express purpose of glorifying the exploits of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) such as the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, which opened in 1961 (since merged with the Museum of History to become the National Museum). 15

In his writings, which explore the organizational structure and the inner-workings of Chinese museums, Chang-Tai Hung examines the complete lack of control the curators at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution had over their exhibition storylines in the 1960s and 70s. They were forced into the historical framework laid-down by Mao Zedong, walking a fine “Red Line.” It was, as he describes, “an interesting amalgam of political supervision from the top, official historical interpretations, historical displays, and a reflection of internal party struggles.” 16

Just as the Palace Museum sought to display political artefacts relating to the failed attempts of monarchal restoration, the Communists sought to collect artefacts which recorded their struggle and ultimate victory. ChangTai Hung describes the story of historian Wang Yeqiu, who was absolutely frantic to get his hands on a scaffold that had been used by a warlord to hang communist martyr Li Dazhao. 17

Painful Exhibition Making

Chang-Tai Hung characterizes the exhibition-making process at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution as a long and tortuous journey, with years of debate between different departments, museum employees, and various cadres. 18 Though this may be an extreme example of a very political museum, the bowuguan of today often suffer from the same constraints and, as a result, a lot of the interpretive text in state museums is stilted. Only the most dry and indisputable facts are presented, interspersed with the line of hyperbolic phrasing about the glowing feats of the party or shrill condemnations of China’s enemies. It is still remarkably rare to find a museum narrative that is diverse, egalitarian, visitor-focused, or even the least bit lively in tone. Curators play it safe, and the role of an “interpreter”—a person who takes texts provided by the curators and edits them in a way as to make them more accessible and/or interesting for the public—scarcely exists, though interpreters have been part of many large Western institutions since the 1990s. This attitude, when taken to the extreme, produces the sort of museum that is only visited by those coerced by one’s “work unit” or those possessing a certain morbid curiosity towards political affairs.

There are plenty of these museums still around, focusing on the Revolution, on labourers, martyrs, on the Reform and Opening-Up, but overall one can see that the “red” flavour of these museums has become diluted in the past three decades according to art historian Edward Vickers. “[There has been] a shift in emphasis within state ideology from socialism to patriotism—a shift that has been particularly marked since the early 1990s. 19

Cultural Nationalism is the New Red

Cultural nationalism came to replace socialism, explains scholar Marzia Varutti, because the Communist ideology was no longer “the main cohesive force in Chinese society” and the government sought to use museums to create “a new discourse, a new vocabulary, a new rationale, and, ultimately, new sources of political legitimation.” 20 Part of this legitimation offensive is represented in the activities of the Confucius Institute and the various programs promoting “guoxue” (Sinology or Chinese studies) to a domestic audience. This guoxue campaign led to the commissioning in 2003 of a new history of the Qing Dynasty, which came with a budget that was described as “stratospheric.” 21,22

These two narratives—the “Socialist/Marxist” narrative (whereby everything before 1949 is a feudalistic morass to be followed by a Socialist paradise) and the “Cultural Nationalist” narrative (China is a country of rich culture and a glorious history of which you are a part!)—share an uneasy existence, according to Varutti. 23

This vision of Chinese history as “continuous, glorious, and worthy of pride,” a “timeless cultural entity,” 24 is achieved through an interpretative approach, which veers away from a historical specificity presenting us with sacred objects illuminated by a sober shaft of light. Many of us have had the experience of visiting one of these bowuguan, searching desperately for some context, only to find antiquities of different periods presented in display cases without chronological or thematic groupings; sometimes all that is offered is a simple tombstone label “Tang Dynasty Vase.” Barmé writes that the Government Museum was criticized by Lu Xun for the same reason. Lu Xun, China’s father of modern literature, described the Government Museum, when he viewed it during the first months of its opening, as a jumbled “antique shop” with no labels.

A Problematic Patriotism

These institutions are still often described by scholars, the party, and the museums themselves as bases for “patriotic education” 25 —but “the content of the ‘patriotism’ that they are meant to promote remains in many respects vague or problematic,” explains Varutti. 26 Besides the inherent problematics of patriotism itself, there is an assertion that “Han-ness” is equivalent to “Chineseness.” To add insult to injury, the idea of a “Han ethnicity” is thought by many Western scholars to be a construct. Historian Frank Dikötter dates the rise of a distinct “Han” identity to 1911 when the idea of a unified Han race became a convenient device to repel foreign colonial forces and rally support against the Qing who were ethnically Manchu. 27 This was also, conveniently, the same time when the Yellow Emperor was declared the progenitor of the Chinese people. This Han-centric “cultural nationalism” writes art historian Edward Vickers, completely ignores the country’s rich multicultural fabric, which includes cultures as diverse as the Huis, Miaos, Mongols, Tibetans, and Uighurs,” 28 and, likely for good reason, as it is more simple to maintain control over a population that perceives itself as homogeneous.

Minorities, when they appear within the bowuguan system, are often presented in an archaeological framework, almost as artefacts. We see them posed in museum dioramas, playing the role of the picturesque or primitive, doing stereotypical activities, such as riding horses or playing traditional instruments: “Museums play an active role . . . in the processes of memory and identity engineering,” writes Varutti, “ . . . to support collective imagination about ethnic minorities’ identities . . . and manipulate ethnic minorities’ identities.” 29 Through museological narratives, minorities are brought into the paternal embrace of the Chinese nation, but make no mistake, the Han are the main actors, the movers and shakers of history.

This patriotic, essentialist Han-centric nationalism actually received support from the art community as early as the 1910s when artists such as Di Baoxian, Deng Shi, and, especially, Xu Beihong embraced the idea. 30 “Xu Beihong was certainly not the first intellectual in early twentieth-century China to examine art within the framework of nationalism or to treat art as the foundation of China as a modern nation,” explains scholar Wang Cheng-Hua, and he won’t be the last. Wang Cheng-Hua remarks that Xu Beihong made a speech in 1914 on a visit to the Government Museum where he trumpeted the same kind of essentialist, self-romanticizing notions that still plague cultural discourse today:

It is especially valuable to have national treasures on display to arouse feelings of admiration in later generations and to investigate the traces of evolution. It is only we the Chinese who do not have [museums]. What a pity! For our nation, the representative of Oriental art, [this demonstrates] our decline. Also, the cultural relics and ritual vessels left by our forebears are treasured objects that bear witness to our history and embody our national spirit.  . . . We are distinctive as an ancient country with an ancient civilization, and before the fifteenth century, our painting was the best in the world. 31

Wang Cheng-Hua goes further to explain that, “The supreme status assigned to art rendered it an indispensable component of China as a political and cultural entity.” 32 Art was thus saddled with this burden, as it is with many nationalistic, autocratic regimes where art is pressed into the service of state ideology.

Such was the perceived power of art and culture that Mao actually referred to it as a “weapon” in his Yan’an Talks:

The purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind. 33

A Closed Loop of State-Sponsored Art

The rank and file of this “army” are the artists of the academic art system, with the museum directors and art historians acting as the generals. Their training bases are the art academies, the China National Art Fund, and other provincial artist associations and state-run art museums that form a completely different system of art with different goals, needs, and a completely different system of patronage. These artists are from the post-70s generation and they are part of what’s often referred to as “the system” (“tizhinei”), the official art circle, or academic school (“xueyuan pai”). These governmental funding agencies purport to support artists, but in reality, have created a time warp of living artists, maintaining unsaid but nonetheless rigid guidelines on appropriate subject matter and formal approaches. Within the system, innovation is reduced to small stylistic variations or unique combinations of style and subject matter. “What is unique about these artists,” writes scholar Shuhan Liang, “is that they endeavor to carry on the canonized paradigms found within the academic style of painting xueyuan pai since the Reform and Opening-Up. 34 ” The art academies act as incubators for the artists, and as Shuhan Liang further writes, “Their entire artistic development is encapsulated and contained within the walls of the college. Given this state of containment, the inheritance and refinement of artistic techniques was the ‘main melody’ of artistic life,” (main melody being a term used to describe films which espouse government-approved narratives, usually propagandistic in nature). 35

“The Academy,” writes Shuhan Liang, becomes a kind of “shrine—a sacred antechamber which holds the key to their sense of belonging.” 36 It is central to their identity and they tend to remain within its warm embrace, building strong relationships with their teachers, taking on teaching positions, or becoming involved the various artist associations; finally their work is shown within the “official” museum network at—the Ningbo Art Museum, Tianjin Art Museum, National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), Xi’an Art Museum, the Liu Haisu Museum, or the China Art Museum. 37 Though they are certainly aware of contemporary art, the members of this circle operate in a kind of closed-loop. The stars of this system are more likely to have strong political connections than to be known for their creativity—the artist Xu Jiang, who is the nephew of Jiang Zemin (president of China from 1993–2003)—made a career out of paintings of sunflowers which were highly derivative of those of Anselm Kieffer, and landed himself a plush job as the head of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

These state-owned art museums will on occasion show something vaguely contemporary but tend to prefer ink works and modern and early-modern painting. Their clients are not so much the public but members of the closed official circle. Those in the contemporary art world, view them as skilled, but somewhat old-fashioned and out of touch. But, in fact, they actually represent the mainstream discourse of contemporary art (contemporary art in this case meaning “art made today”), according to Shuhan Liang. Certainly, in terms of numbers and funding, these official artists must outnumber their contemporary counterparts. Some do eventually cross over. Shuhan Liang writes that artists of a certain vintage, who received recognition abroad, names such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, are from the same lineage, but escaped into contemporary art, becoming the “black sheep,” choosing to embrace and appeal to contemporary Western tastes and artistic ideologies.17 This is not to say that the official artists lack talent, it’s just that their focus is entirely formal explains Shuhan Liang, “The major feature of the artistic production of the majority is that, on the surface, they lack originality. But this is something of a simplification; rather the case is that they have no motivation to pursue originality.” 38 Their art is anodyne and safe evoking a quiet “cultural nationalism,” vague concepts of the spiritual superiority of the “East” and its philosophical traditions—Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist philosophies. Elsewhere we see a recycling of historically important styles, paintings of appealing women or picturesque minority scenes or abstract paintings buttressed with references to China’s treasured classical texts. Terms such as institutional critique, post-internet art, post-humanism, relational aesthetics, and object-oriented ontology are not dropped into an interview or discussed at the opening dinner.

Bifurcation of Two Systems, Co-optation of Successful Contemporary Artists

To some extent, when convenient, the Chinese government has co-opted members of the contemporary art world, plucking a few jewels to add to the crown. For instance, artists such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun were considered outcasts when working in the Yuanmingyuan artist village in the 1980s, but once they became international art darlings, official museums were thrilled to show their work. 39 Similar co-optations have occurred with Cai Guo-qiang, who was commissioned to choreograph the fireworks display for the Beijing Olympics, and later, another major exhibition and fireworks performance at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai. Even the much-demonized Ai Weiwei enjoyed a brief moment in the warm red glow of the government when he was commissioned to co-design the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. He later regretted the decision because he felt, quite rightly, that the building and the Olympics were “used by the government to spread their patriotic education.” 40

Contemporary artists and contemporary art museums exist outside the power and coercion of the official art world, and in many ways, the emergence of the separate contemporary art system is due precisely to the limitations posed by the official art circle. Contemporary art with its focus on criticality has little time for nationalism or socialist ideology unless it serves as the target of some form of critique or an avenue of deeper inquiry. Thus, it was necessary for the development of two independent systems—the private and the governmental. Though there are certain power structures inherent within contemporary art—capital and the art market for instance, they tend to be more flexible, and less all-encompassing, or perhaps it is just that we are merely more comfortable with a recognizable evil.

This is not to suggest that the official artists and bowuguan are of no value whatsoever. Many people legitimately enjoy the work of the academic circle because they find it familiar and comfortable (just as styles such as Impressionism are popular with Western viewers).

China’s bowuguan today, the famous ones at least, are often mobbed with people, just as the Forbidden City was mobbed with people when the government museum lowered its ticket price. Some museums, such as the Shanghai Natural History Museum, in their exhibition design at least, seem to be trying to provide a more enjoyable and interactive experience and as the crowds will attest, this bowuguan system works well as an internal soft power initiative, even if it fails to win hearts and minds abroad. Just as the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is managed by government players, often fails to make its mark, these bowuguan and official art exhibitions largely are aimed at a completely different audience.

Two Worlds Collide

In general, we can say that there aren’t any bowuguan which fit Bishop’s definition of “being on the right side of history,” but there is one bowuguan which is trying, and in most cases succeeding, to embrace the principles of new museology. The Shanghai Power Station of Art (PSA) represents this crossover. Like a special economic zone, some kind of state-tolerated experiment, the museum is like an island of true contemporaneity within a cluster of state-sponsored modernist time capsules. It is, to my knowledge, the only state-run museum that consistently behaves in a contemporary manner, not just through the selection of artists and exhibitions, but through its engagement in international contemporary art discourse. The Shanghai Biennale, held at the PSA since 2012, 41 regularly engages cutting-edge international curators (for example, Kuiyi Shen, Anselm Franke, Raqs Media Collective, Boris Groys, and Jens Hoffman) to explore a wide range of challenging themes. The 2014 Biennale was entitled Social Factory and proposed some truly critical ideas, making some deft jabs at the CCP and the emerging surveillance state in its press release:

Has the production of the social entered a new phase with the massive influx of “sociometric” technologies, the extraction of data and digital profiling, and the increasing automatization of social processes in algorithms? And does China’s pre-modern history of social systematization through unparalleled bureaucratic machinery and archiving capabilities echo in the country’s current processes of social fabrication?

Perhaps the academic language was like Morse code to the censors, but, in any case, the exhibition presented many challenging and critical works. The 2018 Biennale, “Proregress,” headed by Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, examined the linear and totalizing nature of progress—a concept that runs counter to the grandiose steam-roller-powered utopias put forward by the CCP. Perhaps one of the reasons that the PSA is able to take on such a challenging program is that it is headed up by Gong Yan, the very capable daughter of a prominent government official in Shanghai. The institution seems to walk on both sides of the line, balancing between the official bowuguan status and the contemporary. Looking at it on the surface, the high production values of its exhibitions and visual identity; and the relatively sophisticated concepts behind its exhibitions and public programming put it in a similar league with many other global museums and it has chosen to brand itself as the Power Station of Art, consciously placing it in a long line of international institutions housed inside former power generators (Tate Modern, Battersea Power Station, and the Power Plant in Toronto), but its Chinese name has a more “official” ring, the somewhat stuffy “dangdai yishu bowuguan“—a strange amalgam of “dangdai yishu” (contemporary art) and bowuguan (state-run institutions). 42 Perhaps we can say it’s a bowuguan dressed in stylish contemporary clothing or a contemporary dressed in dowdy bowuguan clothing, or perhaps it is a carefully calculated experiment to see if it’s possible for a state museum to adopt a more open inclusive approach, a new “softer” form of soft power which speaks in cheerful tones instead of the autocratic lecturing that characterized the museological old guard. In any case, there is certainly much to be learned from its evolution and development, from both sides of the Chinese museum divide.


1.From a conversation with scholar Liang Shuhan on April 1, 2019, via Wechat.

2. Yang Zhigang, “Shanghai Museum: ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’—Growing a Capacity for Institutional Change,” in eds., Gail Dexter Lord, Guan Qiang, An Laishun, and Javier Jimenez, Museum Development in China (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 94. “Our staff put in many unpaid overtime hours in order to allow the museum to remain open at night, not to mention the overtime put in before the opening of the exhibition. However, public museums do not have the culture of remunerating staff for overtime work; this needs to change in order to further the development of the museum sector.”

3. Shen Chen, “Navigating Cross-Cultural Collaborations—A Curatorial Perspective,” in Museum Development in China (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 69.

4. Yang Zhigang, “SHANGHAI MUSEUM: ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’—Growing a Capacity for Institutional Change,” 94. “But rather than focusing on the systematic problems of the museum sector, we sought to throw our weight behind the effort to build a ‘super connection’ with our visitors, to create fulfilling experiences with the aim of rebranding our image.”

5. Rebecca Catching, “Mute Museums: Why Chinese Museums Fail to Connect with Visitors,” Sixthtone, May, 25, 2017, It is also telling that the most successful exhibition to date at the Shanghai Museum was a touring exhibition by the British Museum, A History of the World in 100 Objects. Shanghai Museum curator Gong Xin uses it as the basis for a severe critique in her article “Why Chinese Museums Struggle to Export their Exhibitions,” Sixth Tone, September 4, 2017,, where she writes, “100 Objects is hands-down the best-curated touring exhibition I have seen in my seven years at the Shanghai Museum. The exhibition materials consist of full interpretations of each artefact, optional extra labels, a list of supplementary images, ready-made text for guided tours, and supplementary video content. As a curator myself, I wonder: Can Chinese museums ever emulate their British counterparts?”

6.Frankle, Elissa Olinsky, “Frankle’s Hierarchy of Museum Visitor Needs,”, 2017,

7. Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (London: Konig Books, 2014), Contemporary_in_Museums_of_Contemporary_Art?auto=download/.

8. Geremie R. Barmé, “The Transition from Palace to Museum: The Palace Museum’s Prehistory and Republican Years,” China Heritage Quarterly, no. 4 (December 2005), http:// inc&issue=004 /.

9. Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Chang Tai-Hung, “The Red Line: Creating a Museum of the Chinese Revolution,” China Quarterly, no.

184 (2005), 914.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 914–15.

18 Ibid., 915.

19 Edward Vickers, “Museums and Nationalism in Contemporary China,” Compare 37, no. 3 (June 2007), 386.

20 He Qiliang, review of Marzia Varutti, “Museums in China: The Politics of Representation after Mao,” Journal of World History 26, no. 2 (June 2015), 385.

21 Pamela Kyle Crossley, “Xi’s China Is Steamrolling Its Own History: The Chinese Communist Party sees the past as a resource to be plundered by the present,” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2019,

22 Falk Hartlig writes, “[Confucius Institutes are] an important tool in China’s public diplomacy, which the Chinese government uses to communicate specific strategic narratives about China and its place in the world to foreign publics.” Hartlig, Falk,, “Communicating China to the World: Confucius Institutes and China’s Strategic Narratives,” April 28, 2018, https://journals.

23 He Qiliang, review of Marzia Varutti, “Museums in China: The Politics of Representation after Mao,” 385.

24 Marzia Varutti, Museums in China: The Politics of Representation, After Mao (Suffolk, UK: Boydell and Brewer Press, 2014), 26.

25 For a list of the “bases of patriotic education,” see “Aiguozhuyi Jiaoyu Jidi,”

(Chinese government official website), November 25, 2008, content_1158628.htm/.

26 Varutti, Museums in China: The Politics of Representation, 26.

27 Frank Dikötter, “Nationalist Mythmaking: The Construction of the Chinese Race,” Human Rights in China, April 27, 2001,

28 Edward Vickers, “Museums and Nationalism in Contemporary China,” 385.

21 29 Marzia Varutti, “Politics of Imagining and Forgetting in Chinese Ethnic Minority Museums,” Outlines—Critical Practice Studies, no. 2 (2010), 69, 70.

30 Di Baoxian, Pingdengge shihua (Shanghai: Youzheng shuju, 1910), juan 1, ib-2b; Deng Shi, “Xu,” Shenzhouguoguangji 1 (1908), 1–3, quoted in Wang Cheng-Hua, “Rediscovering Song Painting For The Nation: Artistic Discursive Practices In Early Twentieth-Century China,” Artibus Asiae 71, no. 2 (2011), 221–46.

31 Beihong Xu, “Ping Wenhuadian suocang shuhua,” in Xu Beihong yishu wenji, ed. Xu Boyang and Jin Shan (Taipei : Yishujia chubanshe, 1987), 31–38, quoted in Wang Cheng-Hua, “Rediscovering Song Painting For The Nation: Artistic Discursive Practices In Early Twentieth-Century China,” 222.

32 Beihong Xu, “Ping Wenhuadian suocang shuhua,” 222.

33 Mao Zedong “Talks At The Yenan Forum On Literature And Art,” in Selected

Works of Mao Tse-tong,, archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm/.

34 Shuhan Liang, “‘Preserving the Old’ or ‘Defending the New’—An Unconscious Continuation of Tradition,” Ran Dian, RD8 Spring, 2019.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.”

37 The Chinese title of the China Art Museum would be translated literally as China Art Palace “Zhonghua Yishu Gong,” which harkens back to a more socialist era where workers’ palaces and children’s palaces formed the backbone of cultural life. It also brings to mind the democratization of another gong, the gugong, or Forbidden City,

38 Shuhan Liang, “‘Preserving the Old’ or ‘Defending the New’—An Unconscious Continuation of Tradition,” selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm/.

39 Fang Lijun had an exhibition at the Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace as early as 1998.

40 AFP, “China Artist Says He Regrets Designing the Beijing Olympic Bird’s

Nest,” The Telegraph, March 5, 2012, art-news/9123705/China-artist-Ai-Weiwei-says-he-regrets-designing-BeijingOlympics-Birds-Nest.html/.

41 Before this the Shanghai Biennale was held at the Shanghai Art Museum in

People’s Square, which was in some ways the precursor to the PSA, but much more conservative and thus deeper into the bowuguan spectrum than current iterations of PSA.

42 China’s first museum established by a Chinese citizen, the Nantong Museum, was called a bolanyuan, which derives from the Japanese term used for the Osaka International Exhibition. But most traditional museums fall under the category of bowuguan, kejiguan, Science Museum, or zhanlanguan, exhibition hall. Contemporary art museums are referred to as dangdai yishu guan, yishuguan, or meishuguan. Meishuguan indicates a Fine Arts Museum, but still many very contemporary institutions go under the label of meishuguan—for instance, Long Museum, Yuz Museum, Rockbund Art Museum, Today Art Museum, and Guangdong Times Museum. The most contemporary of these institutional titles is an Art Center, yishu zhongxin, which includes the ranks of UCCA, OCAT, Guardian Art Center, Fosun Foundation, Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Chronus Art Center, and the more adventurous and independent, non-profit or commercial galleries that opt for the more open and stylish “space” or kongjian.