Woodcuts in Modern China

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection
  • Woodcut printed with oil-based ink Edition ( Artist: Wang Qi 王琦. Yibin, Sichuan Province, b. 1918 )

Woodcuts have a long history in China dating at least from the Tang Dynasty (See Note1)(618-907 BCE), and for centuries they have contributed greatly to Chinese print and folk cultures. In the 20th century, woodcuts as an artistic medium underwent a dramatic renaissance that introduced expressionistic and realist techniques into traditional Chinese folk traditions in order to communicate stark messages about China’s social and political states of affairs in an attempt to forge a new nationalistic identity throughout China. Modern Chinese woodcuts provide a dramatic record to chart the 20th century revolutionary causes that profoundly changed Chinese society and culture. The modern woodcut movement of the 1930s introduced an avant-garde expressionism of early revolutionary zeal, whereas woodcuts of the mid-20th century would eventually return to more traditional Chinese folk aesthetics in order for the Communist Party to use woodcut prints as an effective propaganda tool to reach masses of illiterate citizens throughout the countryside. The legacy of both the critical realist tradition of the early avant-garde period and the Socialist Realist (See Note2) folk tradition of the mid-20th century continue to inform new and innovative expressions of woodcut art in the late 20th and early 21st century, which have returned to pursuing an avant-garde critical aesthetic that grapples with a very different China – one that has undergone profound reforms rather than revolutions, and a country with a renewed sense of cultural pride.

The fall 2010 China Institute exhibition, Woodcuts in Modern China 1937-2008: Towards a Universal Pictorial Language, represents selected works from the Picker Art Gallery’s Theodore and Evelyn Herman collection of 20th century Chinese woodblock prints and other works on loan. China Institute’s professional development program for K-12 educators, Teach China, has developed resources to give audiences a brief introduction for studying modern woodcuts in order to help answer some essential questions:

  • What is the tradition of woodcut art in China and what other traditions inspired the Modern Chinese Woodcut Movement?
  • What were the social and political contexts that stimulated so many changes in woodcut aesthetics in the 20th century, and why was woodcut art so appealing to the artists as a medium to respond to the social and political issues of this time?
  • How can we read a modern woodcut to learn more about modern Chinese society and about the culture of the woodcut artists and audiences alike?

These resource materials are available on China Institute’s dedicated website for teachers and students, www.China360online.org. We hope these resources serve as a springboard for further study of this fascinating time period and how each woodblock print has the uncanny ability to speak both for its historical moment while also transcending its specific time and place to tap into an enduring aesthetic tradition that continues to evolve and speaks to all of us.

Note 1

Tang Dynasty – (618-906 CE) a dynasty often regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization, marked by a cosmopolitanism that attracted trade with peoples from all over the Asian continent and a high achievement in art and cultural production. The Tang marked the full fruition and the end of China's early imperial age.

Note 2

Socialist Realism – an aesthetic style of art and literature that glorifies the role of peasants, workers, and soldiers in realizing communist and socialist ideas in society.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.