Upon being asked to recommend five or six shows in Beijing for another section of this website, there was one editorial criterion that was all but impossible to fulfill: finding a balance between exhibitions by male and female artists. It reminded me of a common complaint of visiting Western curators to China: that I and other local curators do not introduce them to enough female artists. I share their frustration. (Although they probably suspect us of sexist gatekeeping, given that most curators in China are also male). An examination of the gender breakdown of artists represented by China’s best-known commercial galleries illustrates the current situation: Long March Space (Beijing) represents 14 male artists and three female artists (of which one is a deceased shaman and another is part of a partnership with a male artist); ShanghART (Beijing and Shanghai) works with 46 male artists and two female artists (one of whom is part of an artist-duo, the other half of which is a man); and Vitamin Creative Space (Guangzhou) shows 19 male artists and three female artists. Shanghai’s hippest new galleries don’t fare much better: Aike-Dellarco’s male-female balance is 14–2, Antenna Space 7–2 (plus one genderqueer artist), Leo Gallery 13–3 and Leo Xu Projects 10–2.
However, a number of current group shows suggest that a new narrative is developing. A major international group show of female artists, ‘She’, is on show at Shanghai’s Long Museum until the end of October, while across town, at Leo Gallery, there is a smaller all-women group show titled ‘Instant Image’. Pace Beijing’s summer show, ‘Not Early Not Late’, features video works by nine female artists and the art museum at Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA) has co-organized ‘Fire Within: A New Generation of Chinese Women Artists’, which opened in late August at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum at Michigan State University. Curators seem to be noticing a new phenomenon: more and more women artists are emerging from Chinese art schools and coming back from studying abroad. This spring, when Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery organized ‘Extravagant Imagination, the Wonder of Idleness’ – a show of the youngest generation of artists to emerge from art school – they invited curator Lu Mingjun to organize the exhibition. Six of the seven participating artists were women. The gallery claimed to be exasperated by the lack of male talent. Lu, who teaches at the Sichuan Academy of Art, said that two-thirds of his students are female and that this has been a trend for some years now. We appear to be on the cusp of a major change in the Chinese art world. Why is this?
The most obvious approach is to look at issues relating to sexual equality in China. However, these alone cannot explain the positive gender-shift taking place in the art world. In fact, there are indications that women are becoming worse off as conservative government policies are reviving traditional values in all levels of Chinese society. Mao Zedong had sexual equality written into the constitution and stated that women ‘hold up half the sky’ but, in the mid-2000s, President Hu Jintao’s government borrowed from Confucian political theory to develop its idea of ‘harmonious society’, embracing a patriarchal view of society and politics. Xi Jinping may have a new slogan, but the expansion of Confucian Institutes all over the world demonstrates his commitment to this ideology. The World Economic Forum also reports a drop in women’s equality at the work place, with China dropping from 61st out of 134 countries in 2010 to 91st out of 145 in 2015. China’s arrest, last year, of five women’s rights activists for trying to start a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation also confirms this worrying trend. On the other hand, depending on whose statistics you believe, China has one of the highest ratios of women CEOs in the world, ahead of the US and EU.
How directly these figures relate to the status of women artists is difficult to gauge. Artists in China are often defined by their generation in a way that doesn’t necessarily apply to their Western counterparts. This is because the political movements of recent Chinese history have affected every level of Chinese society. The Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 attempted to eradicate traditional culture; in 1978, Deng Xiaoping’s policies opened the country’s doors to the outside world for the first time since 1949; and further reform during the 1990s launched China’s ‘economic miracle’.
The reason for the current surge in the number of female artists is closely related to government policy decisions made decades ago: specifically the one-child policy introduced between 1978–80 and the economic reforms of the 1990s. While is it arguable whether the one-child policy, which began to be formally phased out last year, did, in fact, limit the rise of China’s massive population, its social consequences have been huge. Millions of people born since the policy came into effect have grown up without siblings, giving them special status in the family and resulting in the much-discussed ‘little emperor syndrome’. While there is a plethora of research and literature criticizing the effects of this phenomenon, there have also been positive reverberations, especially with regard to the status of women. In the past, the traditional multi-child family often allocated a disproportionate amount of family resources to boys over girls; the one-child family, on the other hand, faces no such dilemma. Girls, at last, have been able to have their way – and many of them have decided to study art. That being an artist has become a viable profession for so many is largely down to the economic reforms of the 1990s, which have enabled people to earn far more money than ever before, fuelling the explosion of the Chinese art scene and market in the past decade.
If there is one issue that has typically held back female artists in China, it’s conservative social values, which have meant that many women artists gave up their careers in order to build families. It is too soon to tell whether this still holds true for the more confident new generation, many of who have been educated in the art schools of London and New York and, as a result, have a different outlook to their predecessors. What is certain is that China’s contemporary art landscape is changing and perhaps, in a few years, I’ll still have a problem reporting on Beijing’s exhibition scene: not enough shows by male artists to recommend.
Lead image: Zhu Tian, Cling To A Curator, video still, 2015
Colin Siyuan Chinnery is an artist and curator based in Beijing, China, and a contributing editor of frieze. In November 2018, his work Hawkers Refrain was unveiled as the first permanent public sound installation in China.