Art Essays

Hu Ming

Published July 1, 2007

“In order to build a great socialist society,” wrote Mao, in his little red book, “it is of the utmost importance to arouse the broad masses of women to join in productive activity.”
If we consider the erotic overtones of the English word “arouse”, Chairman Mao’s vision of women’s role sets the scene for Hu Ming’s gallery of strong, sensuous Chinese women. Her sturdy soldiers and peasant girls seem fit for any kind of ‘productive’ activity, whether it be the heroic task of building socialism, or the bearing of children. In fact, they seem almost too well adapted to the needs of production. They have the kind of bodies that would put Olympic athletes to shame. They are amazons, sex goddesses and super models for a new China.
Hu Ming’s women are both aroused, and arousing. Their sexuality is superabundant, overflowing, but also strangely ingenuous. They are the descendants of all the pretty girls in CCP propaganda posters who laboured in the fields and factories, carried weapons and banners, with looks of beatific happiness welded to their faces. Instead of the calloused hands and filthy clothes of hard-working peasants, these girls always looked neat and clean, and seemed to have an ample supply of rouge and lipstick. Their incipient glamour was sustained by their burning faith in a new society. It was sheer fantasy, of course, but the party authorities could hardly expect the masses to be inspired by images of sun-ravaged women, prematurely aged by back-breaking labour.
Chinese art, in both its élite and popular forms, has never been interested in a realistic portrayal of women. It would be flattering to say that Confucianism treated women as second-class citizens – “non-entities” would be a more accurate description. “Give a woman an education and all you get from her is boredom and complaints,” says one Confucian text from the Song dynasty.
Apart from their assigned roles as child-bearers and housekeepers, women attained virtue through chastity, self-sacrifice, blind obedience and frequently, suicide. Chinese literature is filled with stories of Exemplary Women who killed themselves rather than lose their honour, or in order to save their husbands. Yang Guifei, one of the legendary Four Beauties, is representative of the type: she allows herself to be executed by the Emperor’s men so they might continue to obey and protect him. In Confucian terms, this was the happy end to a love story.
Confucianism imposed the famous rule of Threefold Obedience: “Obey your father before marriage, your husband after marriage, and your son after the death of the husband.” Women were depicted as beautiful objects – passive, calm, and accepting of all male decisions and desires.
When Mao began his revolutionary assault on traditional Chinese values, he took the subjugation of women as one of his prime targets. In his writings, he continually calls for women to be respected and treated with equality. Mao liberalized the divorce laws, and ushered in a brief period of sexual liberation, but his agenda seems to have been pragmatic rather than compassionate.
It was another great twentieth century leader, Kemal Atatürk, who in 1923, said: “If a society contents itself with modernising only one half of the sexes, that society will be weakened by more than one half.” Atatürk was addressing an Islamic audience that has undoubtedly suffered in relation to the Christian West, by its failure to recognize women’s capacity to contribute to society. Turkey is more prosperous than its neighbours because it is a largely secular society, but in more fundamentalist regimes women are still treated with extraordinary brutality.
Mao had come to the same conclusions as Atatürk: why exclude women from the normal social processes, when they can make such a significant contribution. If China was going to feed its booming population, then all hands were needed. “Rely overwhelmingly on women to do farm work,” wrote Mao. And again: “Women can do as much physical labour as men. It’s just that they can’t do such work during childbirth.” One almost feels like adding the word, “unfortunately”.
The peasant girls on the early propaganda posters were the beneficiaries of this enlightened attitude. Mao had made it possible for them to play their part in the new society and they couldn’t stop smiling. Under the new dispensation, for instance, they had the privilege of being able to drive tractors – a favourite theme of posters and propaganda photographs. These good communist maidens were, in a perverse way, the younger sisters of the vamps and taxi girls who advertised cigarettes on posters in the sinful, capitalist, multicultural Shanghai of the 1930s. The difference is that the cigarette girls were giving the come-on to each potential customer, while their peasant relations were not selling sex, but the right political attitude. Their potential customers were not individual smokers, but an entire community – perhaps the entire world.
The only problem is that sex is everywhere, no matter how strenuously one tries to ignore it, and every depiction of a young, attractive woman will have its own sexual undertones. This is the abiding insight of Hu Ming’s paintings, whether she is depicting curvaceous peasants or army girls, her subjects are saturated in sexual allure even as they go through the same routines that might be found in CCP propaganda paintings. From a thousand years of Confucian up-tightness, to the extreme puritanism of the Cultural Revolution, China appears as a rumbling volcano of sexual repression, forever on the verge of eruption. If sex seems to be everywhere in contemporary China, it is still not a subject that is widely discussed. Neither do the authorities look indulgently on the idea of sexual revolution, with its suggestions of anarchy, disorder, and personal freedom.
The world of Hu Ming’s paintings is a riotous, Dionysian reflection of the real world, with its rigid conventions as to what is socially respectable or acceptable. Her paintings may be parodies but they demonstrate the greatest affection for the traditions of Chinese art and history. She draws her imagery from the imperial past, from Buddhist and Taoist art, as well as the art of the modern era. Before turning to oil paints when she moved to New Zealand in 1990, Hu Ming worked in the Gong-bi style, with the fine lines and attention to detail that still features prominently in her paintings. She is immensely knowlegeable about Chinese art, and her works are steeped in traditional symbolism.
Yet the ultimate key to Hu Ming’s art must lie in the twenty years she spent in the People’s Liberation Army, where she rose to the rank of major. Those years, from 1970 to 1990, encompass the last six years of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the gradual thaw in East-West relations, and the savage repression of Tiananmen Square, which convinced her to leave the army and emigrate. During her years in the army, Hu Ming became accustomed to all kinds of privations. She worked in operating theatres and morgues, she dealt with the bodies of executed criminals and dead infants. She saw so much of the dark side that her paintings now project a ferocious love of life.
In the army she lived in close proximity to other women, with communal showers, mess halls and sleeping quarters. Women were the objects of her closest study, and have become the predominant subject of her work. Hu Ming says she loves men, but doesn’t understand them. When she looks for beauty, she turns always to the female form. In those sculptured faces, those perfect hips, waists and busts, Hu Ming finds a kind of timeless, classical ideal. She could spend her life painting nudes and courtesans, like so many (male) Chinese academic artists, but her restless imagination could not settle down in this well-paid, soft-porn paradise.
When Hu Ming joined the army it was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, when the only permissible subjects for artists were propaganda images. Works were closely vetted in terms of style and content, so that every nuance of the intended message would be clearly conveyed. Sexuality was a major taboo, as was any vestige of femininity – viewed as a sign of bourgeois decadence. With their drab clothes, functional hair styles and quasi-masculine bodies, the women that appeared in the posters and paintings of the time achieved an ideal equality with their male counterparts. For the first time in Chinese history, women and men found themselves on the same level: as ciphers, robots, heroes of industry, and angry foot-soldiers in Mao’s campaign of full-scale cultural vandalism and thuggery.
Having been forced to look at those images, and even obliged to paint and draw within such uncompromising ideological guidelines, nowadays Hu Ming is getting her revenge. Her army girls wear their khaki uniforms like boutique fashions. They lounge around like cats, all thoughts of military discipline vanished from their minds. In one of her paintings, a group of scantily-clad soldiers are reading Mao’s little red book as if it were a Hollywood gossip magazine. Breasts and buttocks are coyly exposed, as if for one of those men’s magazines that aims to be “adult entertainment” rather than pornography. These girls are not engaged in any form of sexual activity, and even though they seem completely at ease with their bodies, they never expose their most intimate secrets. Fertility goddesses in uniform, they have an air of dignity, even innocence.
This may be Hu Ming’s nostalgic view of those days of her youth, when the Chinese population lived in massive ignorance of the rest of the world, cocooned by a thick blanket of propaganda, being sustained by the wisdom of Chairman Mao. Socialism provided a fair and just society, while capitalists and imperialists imposed their will on the hapless citizens of the west. The vast majority of the Chinese people knew only what they were told about their ideological enemies, and never expected to see the day when neon advertising signs flashed from the walls of Beijing and Shanghai, and clothes bore designer labels.
Hu Ming’s army girls often seem completely unaware that the uniforms they are wearing are made from some diaphanous material that exposes their bodies with perfect clarity. They are like characters from one of Jiang Qing’s Model Revolutionary Operas adapted for a season at the Folies Bergeres.
Hu Ming is saying that the body and its sexuality can be clothed in a uniform, but never fully tamed. But because these translucent uniforms seem to go equally unnoticed by the male soldiers in the same battalion, one thinks also of that common dream whereby we find ourselves sitting at a school-desk, or on the bus, wearing only our pajamas or perhaps nothing at all. These dreams occur in times of stress and anxiety, when we are acutely aware of the possibilities of failure or humiliation.
What could have been more conducive to anxiety than the Cultural Revolution, when the age-old order of things was so violently upset? In those days the young people gave orders to their elders, students bullied their teachers, and the ignorant were judged more valuable than the learned. Everything that had been conventionally seen as good was transmuted into bad, while criminal behaviour received the backing of the law. The times were so unstable and unpredictable that people waited for each new proclamation before undertaking any form of activity.
When China awoke from the delirium of the Cultural Revolution, many people felt ashamed of their behaviour and ashamed for a society that could destroy so much of its own heritage in the course of a decade. Hu Ming’s army girls in their negligée-uniforms, are comic symbols of that shame and anxiety. Their deadpan appearance as they stand to attention on the parade ground, or tag along with a line of soldiers, incites the kind of humorous, sexually-charged surprise that one finds in a Helmut Newton photograph, where casual nudity is offset by opulent furnishings and haute couture. Humour, as Freud tells us, is a release from tension, and Hu Ming’s demure but sexy army girls are intended to make us smile when we look back on the madness of the recent past.
As opposed to an artist such as Qi Zhi Long, who has painted many quietly-ironical pictures of women in PLA uniform, there is something excessive and unsettling in Hu Ming’s work. Her humour is surreal and confronting. She has no constricting ideas about good and bad taste, no fear of kitsch or vulgarity. What Hu Ming does have is a sense of beauty that she pursues fearlessly from one picture to the next. Whether she is painting fish or animals, courtly women in the Gong-bi manner, or her familiar cast of nubile peasant girls and soldiers, Hu Ming is aiming to make beautiful, memorable images. If that quest leads her down strange and comical pathways, we should perhaps be grateful for her originality in a contemporary art world over-populated by copycats and clones.
It is fitting that for her most important exhibition in China, Hu Ming has painted the largest, most ambitious work of her career. At 14 metres in length,  出土文物 新八十七神仙卷(Relic of the New 87 Immortals) takes its inspiration from a scroll painting of the Northern Song dynasty, secured for the nation by the well-known artist Xu Beihong. In place of the 87 Immortals in the original painting, Hu Ming choreographs a procession of Chinese women through the ages, from the empresses and concubines of ancient times to the fashion victims of today. It is a work in which the past and the present intertwine promiscuously, with the modern women being shadowed by the ghostly forms of their ancestors. It is a triumphal march that emphasizes the continuity between generations, no matter how different the garments and the politics. It ends, appropriately enough, with a jump for joy by two girls in bikinis, the smallest garments with which one may still make a fashion statement. The bikini girls act as exclamation marks for the long, complex drama that Hu Ming has unfolded before us. She seems to be saying that is time for Chinese women to take their own great leap forward.
Catalogue Essay, July 2007