Self-claimed Avant-garde: Loitering between family and society
Source:Artintern Author:Zhang Runjuan Date: 2008-10-22 Size:
In 1973, the Cultural Revolution was still going on, and an atmosphere of repression, intense and indifference reigned over the City of Beijing. However, to the non-mainstream artistic circle in the city, it was a time of excitement and passion.

In 1973, the Cultural Revolution was still going on, and an atmosphere of repression, intense and indifference reigned over the City of Beijing. However, to the non-mainstream artistic circle in the city, it was a time of excitement and passion. One day early this year, Peng Gang, the so called “freak artist” and a poet, Mangke were standing on the city street, elatedly announcing the birth of the avant-garde of Chinese arts. There was no support or echoing, not even audience or applause. They bought two ice frozen persimmons with five cents, the only money they had, to congratulate on each other ceremonially[①].

In order to spread the avant-garde concept to the whole country, Peng Gang and Mangke jumped through the wall to Beijing Railway Station, sneaked into a train to the south and dropped in Wuhan. Not having a coin, the two “avant-garde artists” had to beg for food on street. When it seemed to be hopeless, Peng Gang suggested they go to a detention house, where they were rejected by a genitor saying “get away!”. Then they had to jump onto the train back to the north, only to find themselves driven off without moving more than one stop. They even sold their jackets by two yuan, with which they bought some food and two platform tickets. They were driven off the train again, in Xinyang, and even sent to police near the station. The police drove them to a place gathered by beggars. Fortunately, a kind hearted middle aged lady from the Civil Affairs Bureau gave the two cold and hungry men two yuan to get some food, and sent them back to Beijing.[②]

Peng Gang and Mangke’s avant-garde behavior, then deemed to be extremely heretical, ended up with the two being sent back to Beijing. However, the precarious elements in their personalities did not terminate with the failure of their behaviors.

Born in Beijing in 1952, Peng Gang was an activist in the city’s artistic circle. His father’s death in the Cultural Revolution made him extremely crazy, stubborn and intractable: he used to wear only a single garment, shuttling on the city streets in winter, and he committed suicide when he was 16 but failed. Early in 1970s, Peng picked up drawing and poem writing. Since then arts have become his spiritual way-out and the container where he put his madness. His madness and unsettlement, youth and deliriousness integrated in his weird works, which shocked deeply Beidao, who met him in the fall of 1973. Beidao quietly hid under his bed several works given by Peng. In the winter of the same year, Beidao, who was searching the feeling of “madness like a strong alcohol”, became Peng’s friend. The two met each other every the other few days and they even went out to travel in small towns in Baiyangdian, Baoding of Hebei Province, and surrounding counties near Beijing. Beidao was deeply impressed by Peng Gang’s pranks and snake-style dance, and he even burst into tears when Peng spent one hour and half telling the story of the American movie-- the 6th Poplar in his own words and gestures.[③]

Peng, the hopeless avant-garde artist and Zhou Maiyou, another “Freak Artist” felt each other like long lost friends at their first meeting in Yuyuantan Park where they were painting from nature. They both appreciated Pablo Picasso and were addicted to modern arts. Shared interests drew them close to each other. At that moment, Peng Gang, who was working in a street factory dropped in Zhou’s almost every day, where they copied lots of Picasso’s works. In mid and late period of 1970s, Zhu Jinshi and many young people saw these unconventional copies and were shocked[④]. Peng put many of his works in Zhou’s house. Most of them were about nudes such as a naked kid. There were even red-colored works of bloody reproductive organs. The works were so sharp, bold and devastating that they were confiscated the same year. Soon Peng was dispatched to Cultural Museum of Dongcheng District as a painter, where he painted a scene of a model worker killing chickens in Dongdan Market. The chicken blood was startling to eyes. The angry head of the museum ordered him to paint another one. Peng’s final paint still failed to satisfy his boss.

As he prepared to jump onto the train to spread his “avant-garde concept”, Peng began with persuading Zhou Maiyou to go to the south with him. Zhu replied, as an old vagabond traveled to everywhere in China but Taiwan Province; China is too big to travel until he’s got some really good arts; they had better wait until they were ready, then they will go together[⑤]. Peng Gang had to go to Mangke, who believed Peng was an excellent artist, dwarfing all others. [⑥]The two appreciated each other’s talent, agreeing to go together immediately. Then the legend of the Chinese Self-claimed Avant-garde began.

Born in 1936, Zhou Maiyou was a nonconventional artist from the underground artistic circle. Being 16 years older than Peng Gang, Zhou Maiyou went through the chaotic 1960s. His experience of traveling in Tibet in 1962 made him a target of “special care” in the Cultural Revolution. Like most artists in those years, Zhou lived in Beijing’s typical yard houses, where people could see through windows inside the houses. A sense of insecurity of being watched any time drove many artists to go out to paint and do more outdoor activities in order to avoid troubles, such as artists of the “No Name Group” going out to draw from nature together. Therefore, “Apartment Arts” in this period of time were seldom born in artists’ own houses, where activities were confined to still-life painting and copying painting albums. Zhou was special not only because he had a special living style, but also because he was bold enough to paint nudes, nudes of children and young people with a style similar to Amedeo Modigliani. Those behaviors were strictly forbidden in the Cultural Revolution, so he was inevitably reported. In 1974, Zhou Maiyou was sent to Chadian, Tianjin where he was forced to do labor jobs for three years.[⑦]

Zhou met early members of some unfamous painting groups, such as Zhao Wenliang, Yang Yushu and Shi Zhenyu. They went out to paint from nature almost every day. Their friendship lasted to 1977 when Zhou Maiyou returned to Beijing from Tianjin. Though they painted from the same scenes of Beijing, Zhou had a very different style from those unfamous painting groups. His works were influenced by Russian painting style and at the same time showed some western painting elements. So his style was a mixture of light and shadow of Russian paintings and Van Gogh’s bold and wild brushwork. Compared with Peng Gang’s stimulating and hilarious style, Zhou had a modest mind, neither radical nor political. The emotion-conveying sceneries and very few people in his works were the reflection of his reclusive and carefree attitude.

Zhou’s contact with Zhao Wenliang and others came to an end in 1977 because of personality and temperament disputes. Shortly after that, he became a good friend of Zhu Jinshi, and later he made acquaintance with Zhu Jinwu— Zhu Jinshi’s elder brother. Meanwhile, Peng Gang was admitted by the Chemistry Department of Peking University. From then on, almost everyday Zhou went to Zhu Jinshi’s house, Number 70 Gulou Street, to paint. Zhu’s Mother, a fine art teacher, was tolerant to their painting style though she did not acknowledge their works. Soon, Ma Kelu, Wang Luyan and other young artists began to go to Zhu’s family frequently. At the time, Zhu Jinshi lived in a single-storey house with two bedrooms with his parents and elder brother and artists often worked on painting together in the twenty-square meter-sitting room. Zhou completed quite a few paintings in Zhu Jinshi’s place. Zhu Jinwu died at his early age, but Zhou’s painting—Persons and Ma Kelu’s The Portrait of a Man, modeled by Zhu Jinwu, fortunately survived as something precious to remember him.

In 1978, the Xidan Democratic Wall came into people’s eyesight. Many editorials and magazines such as Today, the Spring of Beijing and Rich Soil were put on the wall all of a sudden, becoming many Beijingers indispensible readings on their way to work and way back home. In front of wall were always crowds of exited, nervous and emotional people. When the wall gathered the most people, Zhou Maiyou and the other artist displayed their own works spontaneously. They directly put their paintings on the iron fence of Xidan Post Office and the Democracy Wall. These paintings include Witness to the Years as well as Selling Water modeled by Zhao Wenliang, which portrayed an intellectual youth who returned from the countryside to the city, only to find himself have to sell water for a living. Displayed in a time when flocks of intellectuals returned to Beijing, the paintings evoked intensive responses from the audience. Shortly after that, Zhou Maiyou, Ren Zhihou and Liu Bingjie made another exhibition on the wall again, putting more than a hundred works on iron wire between two trees. The exhibition lasted about ten days, evoking an even more striking response. This event was covered by many media from countries such as Japan, France and the USA. Günter Grass, author of The Tin Drum came to talk with them several times and they exchanged some works.

In that period, key members of the Stars Group were intensively preparing for exhibitions in various places and trying to enlist more followers. Zhou Maiyou was soon invited by Ma Desheng to the First Stars Arts Exhibition in 1979.

In the 1980s, as Peng Gang went to study in the USA and Zhou Maiyou quitted the underground artistic circle, the myth of Chinese Avant-garde came to an end quietly. Nowadays we can only hear reminiscent memories of the artists and read from the memoirs of Beidao and Mangke about their recollection and nostalgia to the past.


[①] Mangke, Peng Gang, Look at These People, The Time Literature & Art Press, First Edition 2003.

[②] Mangke, Peng Gang, Look at These People, The Time Literature & Art Press, First Edition 2003.

[③] Beidao, Peng Gang, Book of Failure, The Shantou University Press.

[④] Zhu Jinshi, the Avant-garde Watcher, Paint Album of Historical Context, March, 2008.

[⑤] Zhang Ruijuan’s Interview withZhou Maiyou, July 7, unpublished.

[⑥] Zhu Jinshi, the Avant-garde Watcher, Paint Album of Historical Context, March, 2008.

[⑦] Zhang Ruijuan’s Interview with Zhou Maiyou, July 7, unpublished.

[Editor] Mark Lee