One big family

Musings on the art of Zhang Huan and Zhang Xiaogang

Reza Mazumder

Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

18 October 2016

Reza Mazumder outlines how changing dynamics and ideas about individualism, collectivism and family in Chinese society are depicted in two sets of artwork on exhibit at the National Gallery of Australia.

Family is complicated. You sometimes feel like you belong together, and at other times you can’t fathom how you’re related.

Perhaps it is easier then to conceive of your individual identity when an only child.

Not quite, or at least not for two artists.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is holding exhibitions for Zhang Huan’s ‘Family Tree’, and Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodline: The Big Family – Two Comrades with Red Baby.’

Both are examples of how China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and more recently the One-Child Policy, is attempting to make sense of its rapidly changing attitudes towards being part of a ‘big family.’

Zhang Huan’s ‘Family Tree’ (2000, Photographs)


(Image Source)

Scan your eyes across the nine huge photos spanning across two walls of an exhibition hall, and you will notice a difference in the last two. Zhang Huan’s ink covered face shifts to the side, unlike the previous seven photos.

It’s almost like his entirely black covered self is about to blur into a background of muddled black, yellow and green.

There is a reason. The artists writes that in the last photo he cannot tell who he is, nor find his identity. He links his work to a ‘family spirit.’ This spirit is represented by the words on his forehand – “Move the Mountain by Fool” – a traditional Chinese folktale by Yu Kong Yi Shan. The tale teaches that should a human undeniably wish to succeed, then sheer will shall guarantee success.

This sense of human determination echoes the Maoist idea in people power accomplishing more great feats than any industrial machine, and was in part, the founding principle behind the grand strategy of China’s Great Leap Forward economic policy from 1958 to 1961.

Zhang Huan was born four years after in 1965, just one year before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which destroyed most of China’s art in the name of establishing a personality cult wholesomely devoted to Mao Zedong and his continuous revolution. Art served as bourgeoisie distraction that was not tolerated.

Losing a sense of identity in the midst of this collective is something Huan is familiar with. Mao’s personality cult discouraged people from being significantly distinguishable from another, lest they be accused of bourgeoisie behaviour in a Communist society. China was in essence, the adoring extended family of ruler Mao Zedong.

Huan’s ‘Family Tree’ conveys this sense of losing one’s self to a bigger force that demands serving as one part of this giant family to a benevolent father, a relationship still common among most families in China. 

Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Two Comrades with Red Baby’ (2000, Oil on Canvas)


(Image Source)

Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodline: The Big Family’ series is a commentary on how an individual fits within ‘modern’ Chinese society. For example, ‘Two Comrades with Red Baby’ depicts two almost identical adult figures as the parents of a red child.

The two adults are grey and wear attire typical during the Cultural Revolution. Their faces are indistinguishable. Their child shares the same face but she is red, a colour China imbues with meanings of luck, happiness, strength and love. A faint red thread connects the three together in a jagged pattern.

Their blank faces suggest a detachment from each other despite being connected by a bloodline. This may have been a consequence of  the One-Child Policy, ending in 2015 after 40 years. A ‘big family’ is no longer popular in China but today’s nuclear families have difficultly connecting under the strain of increased materialism paired with their bigger incomes.

Young Chinese people, like their global counterparts, can foster their own identities through social markers. These include education, income, property, vehicle ownerships, an online presence and physical attractiveness.

Xiaogang’s red baby is the colour of passion and zeal. She is the China of today and the future.  Her bloodline connects her to her family but she is able to stand out, something that was not granted to her parents in the ‘big family’ that served for Mao and the Chinese Communist Party’s revolutionary legacy. Huan reminds us that she cannot simply forget her blood and culture however, for she is immersed in values and traditions her family and country demand she follows.

It is this hybrid of identity in today’s Chinese, akin to the country’s Socialist Market Economy that these two artworks show to the world.

The artworks are part of the NGA’s ‘Asian Collection.’ Entry is free and the Gallery is open weeklong 10am to 5pm.

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