BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Keywords in the Art of 20th Century China

Unit code AHCP33412
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This module examines the critical dimension of ‘keywords’ in Chinese art from the end of the imperial period to the present day. Moving beyond reductive understandings of modern and contemporary Chinese art as merely derivative of the Western canon, it focuses on key historical moments in which both Western as well as traditional Chinese aesthetic models have been adopted and adapted to serve various social, cultural, political and commercial agendas. We will consider how certain keywords have framed the art of this period, and examine their ability to bear interlocking, yet sometimes contradictory and commonly contested meanings. Students will study a range of visual materials, from painting in ‘traditional’ and ‘western’ formats, through graphics and photography to performance and installation art, exploring how the turbulent politics of twentieth century China have been expressed in visual terms, and have in turn inflected the visual images which have been produced.



  • To provide an in-depth understanding of the radical transformations in Chinese art, society and politics from 1911 to the present day.
  • For students to develop a sophisticated knowledge of modern and contemporary Chinese artistic practice and its critical reception in both national and global contexts, particularly in relation to questions of cross-cultural interpretation, identity politics and artistic agency.
  • To develop analytical and critical skills through close readings of both ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ theoretical texts, facilitating a deeper understanding of the methodological and historiographical challenges surrounding the idea of a ‘global’ art history.
  • Interrogates the ways in which theory exercises pressure on the artwork in question and vice versa, thereby exposing to critical scrutiny the changing discourse of art history itself in the global contemporary

Learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will have developed:



Week 1.  Nation ¿ GuoThis introductory session will explore enduring issues around Chinese modernity, focusing on the creation of the modern Chinese state following the fall of the Qing Dynasty. We will examine the idea of an ‘avant-garde’, which appearing for the first time in the 1920s alongside new forms of pictorial practice including Guohua or ‘national-style painting’.  Examining these developments alongside the centuries old practices of brush and ink painting which continued to coexist in 20th century China, we will explore how these practices were sustained in terms of both artists and audiences.


Week 2. The New Woman ¿¿¿ Xin N¿xing – China in the first half of the 20th century saw a massive explosion in new forms of picturing practice, from the cinema to advertising.  This session will look at some of these forms and ask how they related to new audiences for art and visual culture. In particular we will focus on the image of ‘the new woman’ which dominated calendar posters and the contemporary print market and became a key genre of the new media-published between 1911 and 1937. Exploring gendered visual representations of modernity in cosmopolitan Shanghai, particular attention will be paid to the persistence of established cultural forms, and to the myriad ways new concepts and artistic devices merged with and recycled the old.


Week 3. Revolution  ¿¿ Geming–The visual arts were closely involved in Chinese resistance to Japanese invasion, and in the middle decades of the 20th century became intensely politicised. In this session we will focus on the modern woodcut movement that thrived in China during the 1930s and the decades of the civil war. Examining the aesthetic, intellectual, and social appeal of this revolutionary artform, we will also explore how it drew upon international inspiration - from German Expressionism, Soviet wood engravings, and Japanese creative prints.


Teaching and learning methods

Weekly seminars will follow a general format designed to maximise student participation in the analysis of visual and textual material relevant to the developing themes. Required reading and visual research for each week is to be prepared in advance in order to make productive use of pair work and group discussions, and to ensure that students take away a concrete understanding of how to apply critical arguments in their ensuing assignments.

Each class session will begin with student presentations on objects or artworks chosen in relation to the week’s keyword. The remainder of the time will be devoted to discussion of the week’s main readings and to questions arising from these.

The visit to the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) will provide the opportunity to learn from a dedicated curator and for a close engagement with art works directly applicable to the second essay task. 


Knowledge and understanding

  • An in-depth understanding of the social, political, ideological, institutional and commercial forces at play in Chinese art and visual culture throughout the 20th century.
  • Confidence in dealing with a wide range of artistic and theoretical material, and the ability to critically approach art history from a cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary perspective.
  • The ability to challenge and problematise conventional interpretations of non-Western art, and situate the concepts and issues raised by Chinese art in relation to current debates on globalisation and its impact on the evolving discipline of art history.


Intellectual skills

  • To articulate arguments both verbally and in writing.
  • To use and exploit research resources in the field.
  • To show a critical understanding of art historical literature, both past and present.
  • To demonstrate specialised knowledge of modern and contemporary Chinese artistic practice.
  • To demonstrate an understanding of works of art in their historical context.


Practical skills

  • Present informed written arguments on the significance of cultural and artistic production of this period.
  • Use and exploit research resources in the field.
  • Contribute to critical discussions of cultural debates as reflected in the scholarly literature.


Transferable skills and personal qualities


  • The module will prepare students to continue with postgraduate study or equip them with sufficient transferable skills to enter a wide range of professional employment.
  • The module will offer in-depth study in a particular area, and in the research procedures and methodological issues involved in its study.
  • Students will be able to demonstrate that they have developed the ability to work under pressure and are able to articulate their knowledge effectively under time constraints. 
  • The ability to contribute to seminar discussions with informed personal interpretations.
  • Listen and respond in a constructive manner to the opinions and presentations of peers.


Employability skills

In studying and problematising conventional interpretations of `global¿ art history, students will consider the degree to which current art historical debates on participation, collaboration, and artistic activism can be meaningfully brought to bear on different cultural and political contexts.

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Presentation  20 mins, weeks 2-10. Based on one key reading from the week’s list and one artist or collaborative group

  • Tasks to be allotted by week 1 in consultation during class and office hours.



Equivalent 2000 words


Virtual Exhibition: The virtual exhibition complements the other elements of coursework. It is intended to assess students' response to a fuller range of material suggested by the core teaching, and involves the selection and presentation of works of art that students would include in an exhibition addressing a keyword of their choice. A maximum of twenty images or artworks will be allowed, and students will be required to write an introductory panel to the exhibition display and individual panels for each artwork. 



1500 words


Essay –Note you will be able to carry over visual analysis and contextual research from the formative presentation task.




1500 words






2.5 hours




Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback on both essays


Oral feedback on presentation


Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)



Recommended reading

  • Aida Yuan Wong, Parting the Mists: Discovering Japan and the Rise of National-Style Painting in Modern China (Honolulu, 2006)
  • Jason Kuo ed., Visual Culture in Shanghai, 1850s – 1930s (Washington DC, 2007)
  • Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People's Republic of China 1949-1979 (Berkeley, 1994)
  • Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian eds., Art and China’s Revolution (New York, 2008)
  • Richard Kurt Kraus, The Party and the Arty in China: the New Politics of Culture (Lanham, 2004)
  • Wu Hung, Contemporary Chinese Art: A History 1970s – 2000s (London, 2014)
  • Julia Andrews and Shen Kuiyi, The Art of Modern China (Berkeley, 2012)
  • Wu Hung and Peggy Wang eds., Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (New York, 2010)
  • Yu Hua, China in Ten Words (New York, 2011)
  • Tang Xiaobing, Visual Culture in Contemporary China (Cambridge, 2014)
  • Winnie Won Yin Wong, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade (Chicago, 2013)
  • Robin Visser, Cities Surround the Countryside: Urban Aesthetics in Postsocialist China (Durham, 2010)
  • Sasha Su-Ling Welland, Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary art (Durham, 2018).


Online resources:


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

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