Essay: Red Flag, Blue Pencil

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler .

'We hide the body in our culture. In China, people will tell the government to shut down art and photography shows if there’s nudity. If you put nudes online, they don’t care about the composition, beauty, lighting, or artistic tradition — all they care about is that it’s a nude body and should not be seen.'

'The Great Firewall of China' was a term coined by Wired magazine in its 1997 June issue. It refers to the block on major websites in Mainland China, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vimeo and Tumblr.[1] Internet users in China often use a VPN (virtual private network) to access the blocked websites, although it has recently become apparent that the government is aiming to tighten the use of these types of software.  While Chinese site Sina Weibo was created as an alternative to censored Western sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, even this site is monitored and restricted. How do these blocks on art and freedom of speech in China - both virtually and practically - manipulate the space to create for not only established artists but emerging talent as well?

Western society has come to see the ability to 'share' or to create online content as a right, rather than a privilege. Our sense of entitlement to freedom of speech is such that we see our faculty for posting or reposting content as inherent to our fundamental human rights. Arguably, it is. One only has to spend fifteen minutes scrolling through Instagram to see how crucial the online form of self-expression has become to our sense of self and identity. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei has spoken widely about the distinction saying, 'Chinese citizens have never had the right to really express their opinions; in the constitution it says you can, but in the real world it is more dangerous. In the west people think it's a right they're born with. Here it's a right given by the government, and one that's not really practised.'[2]

Traditionally, art is seen as the ultimate tool to transcend boundaries and creatively express oneself.  However, under a regime as rigid as contemporary China’s, it appears that its artists are unable to utilise their work in this manner. Weiwei’s art often depicts his inability to create work in the country and, ultimately, the effect this has had on him. His substantial retrospective at the Royal Academy, London in 2015 featured a massive block of rubble - the remnants of Weiwei’s Shanghai studio which was demolished by the authorities in 2011 for supposed contravention of planning regulations - as well as six large boxes, each with a peephole, recreating scenes from his illegal detention in the same year.  Exploring an alternative avenue, Chinese photographer Ren Hang focused on representations of nudity and natural elements in his work, despite conventional and traditional attitudes. 'We hide the body in our culture. In China, people will tell the government to shut down art and photography shows if there’s nudity. If you put nudes online, they don’t care about the composition, beauty, lighting, or artistic tradition — all they care about is that it’s a nude body and should not be seen.'[3]

He composed the bodies of his subjects into sculptural and often abstract images, singularly shooting lithe, youthful Chinese models. The colours of the flora or fauna featured allow Hang to highlight the very humanness his models radiate; red-painted nails reach upwards and outwards between a pair of bent legs whilst erect penises loll or urinate on cactuses. 'I like to portray every organ in a fresh, vivid and emotional way,' said Hang in an interview with Vice in 2013. Indeed, open orifices underscore the exposed nature of his imagery. Hang persistently argued that his work was apolitical, despite the common opinion of both critics and fans. Simply representing the nude in an outdoor environment, when such an activity is explicitly forbidden by law, cannot help but hint at political sentiment. Hang’s photos are forbidden in Chinese galleries, his shows cancelled by the Chinese government on the grounds of 'suspicion of sex' and he was arrested multiple times for shooting his imagery in the streets of China. Despite these restrictive measures, Hang maintained his connection to the country and its people saying, 'I love China, and I like shooting Chinese people. I was born here, and I feel a big connection with my hometown. True, I'm restricted here, but the more I'm limited by my country, the more I want my country to take me in and accept me for who I am and what I do.'[4]

In February 2017, the news of Ren Hang’s death came through social media channels in dribs and drabs, leaking from a country cut off from the major news-sharing platforms we rely upon in the West. His death came as a shock - even more shocking was the fact that he had jumped to his death from the 28th floor of a Beijing building. Hang was 29 years old. Like 200 million others[5], Hang used Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo to express himself. One might argue that Weibo gave Hang a platform to express himself to a Chinese audience with a reach his work was unable to achieve. On September 17 2016, Hang wrote, 'I am also afraid of going out to hear those words of concern. "You look so happy, how can you be depressed? What can you be depressed about?"' In a state where Internet browsing is filtered and mainstream social media such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked, Weibo has been cited as a key player in navigating China’s censorship regulations.  The platform has more than 500 million users - over a third of the population of China. Around 198 million of these accounts are active, but these users are impeded by many common censorship practices. As well as keyword blacklists, individual users are monitored. Even though Weibo clocks around 100 million posts a day, offending posts are taken down incredibly rapidly, with 30% of posts disappearing in under half an hour and 90% being deleted within 24 hours.[6]

A number of students of fashion film at the Zhejiang Fashion Institute in Ningbo, China - an institution SHOWstudio are collaborating with - cited Ren Hang’s work as a great influence to them and to the work that they produce. Many of them were left disappointed and drained by the news of his death - in perhaps an homage to the poetry Hang was known secondarily for writing, one student wrote a poem in response to his suicide. Even at this institution - one currently pioneering creativity - The Communist Party imposes limitations on its students; classes are filmed, content is monitored. Despite this, the subsequent fashion films that have been generated would indicate that their sense of self has not been stifled but engorged.

Ren Hang himself spoke candidly about the perceptions he believed are damaging to his country: 'Chinese people put forth the positive things about China, but foreigners are aggressive in showing the negative side,' said Hang in 2013[7]. While Hang’s work puts forward the positive side of China, his abbreviated life and suicide present the country with a much darker filter that threatens to mask his intent. Similarly, the fashion films created by the students at Zhejiang Fashion Institute may be seen as a celebration of the creativity that is spouting from the country despite the best efforts of Communist censorship. Ai Weiwei wrote, 'Art is a social practice that helps people to locate their truth. The truth itself, or the so-called truth presented by the media, has limitations. Manipulation of the truth does not lead to a lack of truth - it’s worse than no truth. Manipulated truths help the powerful, or advance the positions of the people who publicize them.'[8] The continued creation of art, photography and fashion film in China indicates just this; people practicing, in order to locate a truth.


 [1] [accessed 16 March 2017]

[2] 'Comment is Free', Ai Weiwei, The Guardian Online (2012) [accessed 27 March 2017]

[3] 'Introducing the world of Ren Hang', Yanyan Huang, purple Magazine (2013) [accessed 27 March]

[4] 'The Art of Taboo - Ren Hang', Vice Japan, (2013) 

[5] 'How users of 'Chinese Twitter' Sina Weibo are beating state censorship', Jess Staufenburg, The Independent Online, (2015) [accessed 14 March 2017] 

[6]  'How users of 'Chinese Twitter' Sina Weibo are beating state censorship', Jess Staufenburg, The Independent Online, (20150 [accessed 14 March 2017] 

[7]  The Art of Taboo - Ren Hang’ Vice Japan, (2013) 

[8] ‘Ai Weiwei: Every Day We Put the State on Trial’, Ai Weiwei, Creative Time Reports (2013) [accessed 27 March 2017]