Chinese artist’s painting of nationalistic scholars causes upset online

Jun Mai
·4-min read

To anyone familiar with the celebrity portraits by Andy Warhol, Shanghai-based artist Zhang Chenchu’s current works are hardly experimental.

Much like the late father of pop art, Zhang has an addiction to painting celebrities – from Chinese billionaires and politicians to writers, movie stars and intellectuals. His works also include a series of appropriated portraits of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

But one of Zhang’s latest paintings sparked a storm in China and put him at the centre of a debate about national pride.

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The work, which was released on Monday, features the faces of four Chinese scholars on a red background. A yellow five-pointed star is projected on each of the four faces in a clear reference to the Chinese flag.

An article circulated on social media accused the artists of “stabbing these heroes in the back”.

“The scholars are fighting with Western anti-China politicians and China-hating rhetoric … and have made great contributions to the image of China,” it said.

Zhang is known for painting Chinese celebrities. Photo: Handout
Zhang is known for painting Chinese celebrities. Photo: Handout

The quartet are high profile figures in China and often appear on the television news and reality shows as experts on international affairs. They comment on thorny issues like US-China tensions, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, often going further than official statements from Beijing.

On the internet in China, they are famous for their nationalistic views and hawkish stance against the United States.

Even though Zhang took down his social media post showing the painting, the debate raged on. While some people defended his work as art, others called for him to be fired from his job as a professor at an art school for his “anti-China” stance.

When reached by the South China Morning Post, Zhang declined to comment on the issue.

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The controversy around the painting underlines the divide in China’s intellectual community amid strictly controlled debate especially about the United States, experts say.

“People are not able to know the whole story of what’s happening in the US. They can only read from state media and Chinese social media where there is disinformation,” said a Beijing-based foreign affairs commentator, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

It was difficult to assess their popularity solely based on social media traffic, which could be falsified or manipulated, he said.

“The four ‘patriotic scholars’ are actually a constituent of China’s propaganda system, taking advantage of misunderstanding or prejudice and helping maintain the Communist Party’s governance on the mainland,” he said. “As online celebrities, they’ve also become rich.”

Among those featured by Zhang are Jin Canrong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who in 2019 publicly called for cutting off China’s rare earth exports to the US after Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies.

When Donald Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill, Jin joked that the American elites should learn from Beijing on how to reform themselves.

“Maybe take points from recent plenums [of the Communist Party]”, he wrote in an online column.

On Thursday, Jin condemned the painting as “right-wing propaganda” that was obviously critical of him.

“I have the same stance with China and with the people,” he told the Post. “The five pointed star suits China’s stance, maybe he doesn’t like China’s stance … I think he is trying to please the international capital market.”

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Also in the painting is Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and long-time advocate of China’s political system and loud critic of Washington.

“The pandemic has revealed the true shape of the imagined Western world and imagined United States by some Chinese intellectuals,” he said in July. “Isn’t the US a so-called democracy? Doesn’t it care most about human rights?”

In one of his earlier artworks, Zhang featured Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese tabloid Global Times. Hu once called for China to increase its stocks of nuclear warheads and referred to the raid on Capitol Hill as “the Washington Spring”.

Zhan Jiang, a former professor of journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the apparent popularity of the nationalistic scholars owed much to official endorsement by the state, which found their comments useful.

“They are all directly or indirectly affiliated with the state,” he said. “They might gain some support among the Chinese public but they know very well about how critical people are towards them in the intellectual world.”

Additional reporting by Jane Cai and Guo Rui

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