Smarty Pants Podcast

Seeing Red

How the artistic avant-garde made a modern China

By Stephanie Bastek | January 12, 2018
Untitled, oil on canvas, 2001 (Reproduced by permission of the artist)

So much of the story we hear about China today is an economic one—how over the past few decades, it has risen from poverty and ruin to become a global economic 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’s new book, The Phoenix Years, 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 two weeks 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.

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