Red Star Avant Garde

How contemporary artists made China modern

<em>Bloodline—Big Family No.3,</em> Zhang Xiaogang, oil on canvas, 1995 (reproduced by permission of the artist)
Bloodline—Big Family No.3, Zhang Xiaogang, oil on canvas, 1995 (reproduced by permission of the artist)

So much of the story we hear about China today concerns Covid-19, or the economy—how over the past few decades, it has risen from poverty and ruin to become a global powerhouse. But there’s a story beneath the surface, of the artistic avant-garde that resisted rule from above and inspired generations of ordinary Chinese citizens to seek freedom of expression. From their countryside re-education posts to the abandoned warehouses of Beijing and the short-lived Democracy Wall, Chinese artists flourished at the edge of acceptability—until the entire edifice came crashing down with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Madeleine O’Dea joins us to talk about her book, The Phoenix Years, which follows the lives of nine contemporary Chinese artists to tell the story of how art shaped a nation.

Go beyond the episode:

  • Bloodline—Big Family No.3, oil on canvas, 1995. A work from the famous “Bloodline” series that made Zhang Xiaogang’s name. This painting sold for $12.1 million at auction in 2014. (Reproduced by permission of the artist)

  • Guo Jian in his Songzhuang studio, China, 2014. In the background is a version of his Tiananmen Square diorama, not yet covered in meat. (Reproduced by permission of Wei Wanli)

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.

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Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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