Ruins in China’s Intellectual and Artistic Modernity

[This post is based in my presentation at Spain’s Forum for Asia-Pacific Studies (FEIAP), which took place in Granada last February, intitled “Ruin and Demolition in the Intellectual and Artistic Fields of China’s Modernity”]


After the long history of ruin painting in Europe, ruins adopted new connotations in the wake of technological modernity. The greater destructive potential of modern warfare (shells of wider caliber and, as twentieth-century advanced, aerial bombardment), accelerated and enlarged the process and scope of destruction. Next to this, new media of image reproduction (photography and film) accelerated ruin representation and expanded the scope of their diffusion.

At the end of the imperial era, reformist thinkers in China perceived their nation as a vast and static ruin, sick of being parched up after the violent encounter with the West and different internal strives. “What we need are destroyers who would bring reforms”, would diagnose Lu Xun, the great physician of the country; characters like Nietzsche, Tolstoy or Ibsen, would demand Liang Shuming, who would destroy all things ancient that block the road to progress. It is not a chance that the context for Lu Xun’s demand for these ‘destroyers of old ways’ was an essay on the occasion of the collapse of the Leifeng Pagoda. What a newspaper criticized as a “mentality of tearing walls down”  (chaicheng de sixiang) (cf. Visser 2004), favored an imaginary of collapsing, destruction and ruins.


Burned in the 16th century, Leifeng Pagoda, in Hangzhou’s West Lake, offered a ruined sight untill its total collapse in 1924.

This movement for the regeneration of the nation coincided with more real ruins caused by Japanese bombs. Woodcuts, film and photography, especially those used for patriotic mobilization, would display these fresh ruins.


Still from Three Modern Woman (dir. Bu Wancang, 1932) shot in Shanghai shortly after a Japanese attack. The main characters wakes up to patriotism and war-time solidarity after contemplating the devastation of the bombardment.

This combination of political progressiveness and destructive mentality would reached its climax in Mao Zedong’s thought, who in his 1939 essay “On New Democracy”, written in Yanan, sets the principle ‘Destroy the old and establish the new” (pojiu lixin). Imperial, feudal and bourgeois heritage was targeted to open space for a new social reality. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards would accordingly target both the physical as well as the spiritual remains of the old order.

Reactionary culture serves the imperialists and the feudal class and must be swept away. Unless it is swept away, no new culture of any kind can be built up. There is no construction without destruction, no flowing without damming, and no motion without rest; the two are locked in a life-and-death struggle.


Beijing’s Tsinghua University Old Gate (erjiao men), being torn down by students in August 1966

At the end of the Cultural Revolution, ruins appeared again in the cultural scenario to serve the collective reflection on the extreme events that took place in the previous decade and, in a more general vein, the fate of the country. The social body felt, almost literally, ruined and shattered. Ruins—the few existing ruins in Beijing, such as the remaining marbles of the Western section of the Yuanming Yuan or certain sections of the Great Wall—were treated as symbols of a wounded nation that nonetheless strived for recovery and renewal.

concept21 圆明园-2

Performance by Concept 21 (Guannian 21) at the Yuanming Yuan, 1988

With the post-1989 crisis of the modernist project characterized by intellectual idealism and political liberalization, the 1990s were a period of intensification of market-oriented policies and a new social contract based in opportunities for rapid wealth. Those critical with the direction of the country would recur to ruins and rubble: “In the wake of declining New Enlightenment thought”, writes New Left scholar Wang Hui, “what we see are its remnants; on these ruins sits the capitalist market that crosses all national boundaries” (cf. Wang, 2001:187). As Jason McGrath has underscored (2010), the intellectual jargon of the period abounds in ‘ruinous’ language: a risk of collapse, fracturing values and the sense of social totality, shaking of spiritual convictions, etc.

A relevant example is the debate untitled “Ruins in the Wilderness: The Crisis of Literature and the Spirit of Humanism”, in which a group of wrtiers and intellectuals discussed current direction in the artistic and literary fields. For Xu Lin, fo example, the most sensationalist writers (he was thinking of  people like Wang Shuo, who had a great success in the early 1990s) are the direct result of the collapse of the value system (正统价值观念崩溃后的产物) and the ridiculization over the ruins of culture (文化废墟的嘲) (Shanghai Wenxue, 1993). The great novel of the period is Jia Pingwa’s Ruined Capital (Feidu, 1993), the protagonist of which, Zhuang Zhidie, is a polygamous and fetishistic novelist that typifies the spiritual decadence of the times, also reflected in the title’s old walled city, figuratively in ruins.

These discursive ruins found their visual reflection in the rubble that emerged as a result of the massive plans of urban renewal. Motivated by the ambition to universalize a ‘modest welfare’ (xiaokang), as well as by the escalating interests of the real estate sector in connivance with local officials, these projects populated Chinese cities of permanent and ubiquitous traces. The omnipresent chai character meaning ‘to demolish’, which anticipates the demolition of a house thus ‘tatooed’, infiltrated the urban jargon creating a perceptive rendering of the an/globalized reality of China.

chai na-sanlian-huangse

Huang Rui, CHINA-拆那. Three Yellows, 三联 黄色 2010

As we have repeatedly seen in this blog, different artists recovered, as if they were archaeologist of the recent past, material remains including dust, bricks, tiles, rebar; other artists would work around the removed and waste land; others, on the dramatic conditions of those coexisting with the apocalyptic landscapes created by on-going demolition.

Perhaps the tension at work in the photographs of Yang Yongliang, featured in other posts, between past and present, between traditional painting and digital photography, between China and the globalized contemporary world, and two aesthetic experiences (the serene beauty of ancient landscapes versus the shock of post-apocalyptic landscapes), implicitly point to the paradoxes of China’s contemporary progress: at the same time enriching and pauperizing millions of people, at the same time developing xiaokang and fearing the daluan (‘great turmoil’); simultaneously building the ‘China Dream’ and her nightmare.

Sin título

Yang Yongliang, The Moonlight, Waning crescent moon, 2012

Some references

Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1982

Jason McGrath, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford University Press, 2010

Robin Visser, “Spaces of Disappearance: Aesthetic Responses to Contemporary Beijing City Planning”, Journal of Contemporary China, 13:39, 2004

Mao Zedong, “On New Democracy”, via Marxist Internet Archive

Wang Hui, “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity”, in Zhang, Xudong (ed.), Wither China? Intellectual Politics in Contemporary China, Duke University Press, 2001

“Ruins in the Wilderness: The Crisis of Literature and the Spirit of Humanism” (旷野上的废墟, 文学和人文精神的危机), Shanghai Wenxue, 189, no.6, 1993, 63-70).


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