Political Pop 政治波谱


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Political Pop (zhengzhi popu) is a contemporary Chinese art movement that derives its content from Western capitalist consumer culture and its style from Western Pop art of the 1960s.  Political Pop simultaneously celebrates and critiques the similarities between the ideological power of advertising and the ideological power of Cultural Revolution propaganda. The artists involved have relied on pastiche, irreverence, irony, cynicism, parody, and playfulness to suggestively communicate the chaotic political and economic state of post-1989 Chinese society. 



Feng Mengbo, Li Shan, Liu Fenghua, Ren Sihong, Sheng Qi, Wang Guangyi, Wang Xingwei, Wang Ziwei, Yu Youhan 
Zhang Hongtu

Yu Youhan, Untitled (Mao/Marilyn) (2005)
Yu Youhan, Untitled (Mao/Marilyn) (2005)


The movement originated in the early 1990s alongside Cynical Realism and is still active. 


Since Political Pop's inception, artists have hailed from cities across China, primarily Shanghai and Beijing.


Pop Art originated in Great Britain during the late 1950s and matured in the United States during the ultra-consumerist 1960s. Pop art, short for popular art, elevates forms and subjects encountered in everyday life as filtered through advertising or media as inspiration for works of art.

For Chinese artists living in the 1990s the forms and subjects of everyday life were first and foremost connected to China's breakneck economic development. Facilitated by a growing media infrastructure, consumer products began to gain iconic status in the minds of many chinese citizens. As a result, artists began to notice the similarity between the ideological and iconic status attributed to former Chairman Mao Zedong and the fetishization of consumer commodities. Some artists also noticed the stylistic connections between the vibrant reds, flat figuration, and exaggerated heroism of Cultural Revolution era works of Social Realism and contemporary advertising imagery.  Wang Guangyi, the artist most often associated with Chinese Political Pop, recalls making this connection while drinking a Coca-Cola and flipping through a book of socialist propaganda: “I put the can down to turn a page and suddenly, I found that the posturing of the soldier-peasant-workers against the Coca-Cola logo made strong visual sense. The more I looked, the more intrigued I became.” The formal and ideological similarities observed by Wang Guangyi would surface in later works such as Coca-Cola (1990-1993) from the Great Criticism Series.

Wang Guangyi, Coca-Cola (1990-1993) The Great Criticism Series
Wang Guangyi, Coca-Cola (1990-1993) The Great Criticism Series

Wang Guangyi, Mao AO, (1988)
Wang Guangyi, Mao AO, (1988)
Critic Li Xianting, in a 1992 article for the Hong Kong journalTwenty-first, originally coined the term Political Pop.  Li asserted that Chinese society's post-1989 mood was best reflected in the art of a group of artists whose often ironic works spanned an emotional spectrum from ennui to roguish humor. In the article Li labeled these individuals as Cynical Realists and proponents of Political Pop without being entirely specific. There has be
Andy Warhol, ca (1982), Art and Culture, C. Makos
Andy Warhol, ca (1982), Art and Culture, C. Makos
en considerable debate as to which artists fall into either category due to the vagueness of this initial definition and the similarities that exist between the two movements.


Common subjects present in works of Political Pop include borrowed images of Western consumer products, caricatured portraits of Mao Zedong, and depictions of international pop icons such as Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Frequently works of Political Pop either directly appropriate imagery from Cultural Revolution era propaganda or reference styles associated with Social Realism.

Although the subject matter found in Political Pop may be relatively similar, the medium and techniques used to render this subject matter differs greatly. Artists currently associated with Political Pop use a variety of materials including oil paints, bronze, stone, film, video and found objects to create in their art. Despite the variety of techniques and materials used, most Political Pop artists are united by a tendancy to favor a vivid color palate similar to the colors used in commercial advertising.

In Yu Youhan’s Untitled (Mao/Marilyn) (2005) the artist merges one of American Pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe silkscreens from the late 1960s with an image of Mao Zedong. The resulting portrait of the former leader is both brightly colored and more-than-slightly androgynous. The manipulation of Mao’s portrait with regard to gender and sexuality is a common practice in works of Political Pop, most notably, by the artist Li Shan as seen in Blue Mao (2005).

Some Political Pop artists such as Feng Mengbo choose to use elements of popular media such as video games as material for their art. In the work Taking Mount Doom by Strategy (1997) Feng uses computer software to create an interactive gaming platform where clips from the idealized Cultural Revolution era opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and the exceptionally violent Western shooting game Doom are combined. This combination of state-sponsored culture and simulated Western violence touches on a number of important issues including the nature of reality, government power, violence, and the role of popular culture in everyday society.

Exhibitions & Reception

Pop Art achieved its first mainstream exposure in China when the work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg and his ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange) was exhibited in 1985
Li Shan, Blue Mao (2005)
Li Shan, Blue Mao (2005)
at the China Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China.) In addition to works of Western origin, a series of prints made from collaged photos taken by the artist during a previous trip made to China in 1982 were also included in the show. Although Chinese New Wave artists were exposed to Pop art by the mid-1980s, works using the themes and forms associated with the movement were not publically shown until the ground-breaking, if short lived, China/Avant-garde exhibition in 1989.  

Following this 1989 exhibition, Political Pop remained an almost underground movement until the breakthrough moment of the China’s New Art, Post-1989 show at the Hong Kong Art Centre in 1993. This show would later travel with a slightly pared down list of works under the name Mao Goes Pop to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Melbourne Arts Festival the same year. Two years later, in 1995, after re-instating its original title, China's New Art, Post 1989, traveled to the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 and to five US venues under the auspices of the American Federation of the Arts. This exhibition thrust both Cynical Realism and Political Pop into the spotlight and revealed the politicized subtexts of a generation of Chinese artists who came of age immediately after the Cultural Revolution.

Commercial Status

Since the Mao Goes Pop exhibition in 1993 works of Political Pop have been in high demand, although prices for first generation Political Pop artists have fallen slightly since 2007. Top sellers include artists Li Shan and Wang Guangyi. Works by Li Shan sell for approximately USD)13,000 to 200,000 with a few pieces going as high as 350,000. Wang Guangyi’s work ranges from USD 120,000 to 700,000  with a few works hammered out around USD 2 million. Wang's biggest seller to date is Mao AO (1988), which sold for an impressive USD 4.1 million.


Holland Cotter: "The Power of Mao, Multiplied"

Karen Smith:Nine Lives:The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China. Beijing: Timezone 8, (2008)

Lihua Zhao: "Pop Art At the Time of China's Cultural Revolution"

Sheldon Lu: China, transnational visuality, global postmodernity. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, (2002)

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