Update you browser

For the best experience, we recommend you update your browser. Visit our accessibility page for a list of supported browsers. Alternatively, you can continue using your current browser by closing this message.

As Another Voice: Hidden Political Expression in Chinese Contemporary Allegorical Painting

This practice-led research explores embedded political expressions in Chinese contemporary allegorical paintings under the cultural censorship of Chinese government. It does not study allegory within paintings purely from an aesthetic perspective, but views allegorical paintings as one critical part of political practice in contemporary China.

Throughout history, self-censorship along with cultural censorship has been the mains to restrain artists’ criticism of government’s political systems, policies and leaders in contemporary China. In this vein, Chinese artists are obliged to address political ideas implicitly in their artworks.

Since the government has tightened social and political controls in China from 2017, more recent allegorical paintings compose political allegory in an even more implicit manner, which has resulted in confusion for audiences. The barrier between the allegory and the audience has one obvious consequence that the political expression might end up being recognised only among Chinese artists and political intellectuals, or even become a self-entertainment for themselves.

Political expressions in contemporary Chinese art have been widely discussed by scholars Paul Gladston, Marie Leduc and John Clark. While their work has been devoted mostly to performance, video and installation, and very little critical attention has been paid to painting, especially allegorical painting after 2012. My research argues against Walter Benjamin’s idea that allegory might only redeem the past into the present through melancholy. I posit that within Chinese political painting, allegory can be repositioned to offer new forms of knowledge to audiences. Therefore, the understandings of political allegory by audiences unfamiliar with China become an intriguing question.

The research echoes ideas of national allegory and postcolonial discussions developed by Fredric Jameson, Aijaz Ahmad and Gayatri Spivak by answering whether the expression made by Chinese painters is genuinely individual, or a colonised reflection of the first world. Within this context, I identify and examine literature that puts forward theoretical generalisations about Chinese allegorical paintings in the contemporary era, in order to reformulate a more comprehensive account of political expression in Chinese paintings under censorship.

There are four main questions in this research:

1) To what extent could allegorical painting become political practice under the increasingly severe cultural censorship in China?

2) What may be a standard to define the function of allegory in Chinese allegorical painting?

3) What strategies might artists take up in order to render their political expressions through allegory at once more legible to viewers while still not putting themselves or their painting at risk from the authorities?

4) How could Chinese artists avoid ideologically repeating the first-world countries’ discourses and produce a Chinese subjectivity in their works?

In order to answer these questions, this research will work on both the practice and writing. In practice, I will explore allegory through narrative, colour and composition in paintings. On a concrete theoretical level, I will examine the political expressions in Chinese ancient literati painting, Chinese contemporary allegorical painting and German Neo-expressionist painting, together with postcolonial theory and subjectivity in Chinese political practice to provide a unique insight to interpret allegory from a Chinese perspective.

Key details

School, Centre or Area

Personal links


More about Hengzhi

I am a reticent Chinese who seldom speaks much. My personality conveys itself implicitly, which does not so much exist in my daily behaviour but surfaces in paintings where my thoughts and emotions reside. Beneath the whimsical story floating on the surface, my painting always has a deeper expression and explanation folded in. The figures in my paintings come from my personal experience and dreams. These add an absurd and humorous narrative that connect one figure to another. The narrative, always stemming from contemporary social and political issues, might lend these figures allegorical meaning and content. In this way, these quotidian images do not just speak for themselves, but also represent something else–a surplus. This process is a critical element that helps me conduct political allegory in my work. Besides their absurd and humorous qualities, my paintings also reflect an element of self-mockery aimed at my powerlessness towards self-censorship as a Chinese artist. This, I find, brings an immense sadness that is hidden in their happiness to my paintings. Overall, I do not merely want to document my experiences, dreams and imagination through my paintings, but also utilise forces as another voice to express my identity, political opinions and others thoughts which I could hardly speak out loud in my real life.

2021- Royal College of Art, Arts and Humanities Research

2018-2020 Royal College of Art, Painting

2015-2018 Beijing Institute of Technology, Industrial Design, B.Eng

2012-2015 Beijing Institute of Technology, Information Engineering, B.Eng

2011 The Second Prize of National Physics Contest

2010 The Third Prize of National Computer Contest

2009 The First Prize of Happy Sunshine Cup Violin Competition

2008 Gold Medal of Alderman Cup Violin Competition

2008 Gold Medal of Alderman Cup Violin Competition

2005 Certificate of Violin National Tenth Grade

2021 ASYAAF, Gallery LVS & CRAFT, Seoul, Korea

2020 Future Lab, West Bund Museum, Shanghai, China

2020 Wintergreen Boxwood, No. 20 Arts, London, UK

2020 50/50, Fold Gallery, London, UK

2020 Final, Not Over, Unit 1 Gallery, London, UK

2020 Beacon, Josh Lilley Gallery, London, UK

2020 Snapshot, Hockney Gallery, London, UK

2020 IMARA Art Auction, Nottingham High School, Nottingham, UK

2019 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK

2019 Get It For Cheap, Soil Gallery, Seattle, US

2019 Get It For Cheap, Western Exhibitions, Chicago, US

2019 RCA WIP Show, Sackler Building, London, UK

2018 Graduation Show, Gallery of Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing, China

2018 纪念联合国教科文组织民间运动70周年展, Beijing, China

2016 What a Joke, Fruit Space, Chongqing, China