top of page

Chinese nude photography: A female takeover in front of and behind the lens


- Ella Eagle Davies


Lang Jingshan, 美人胡为隔秋水 meiren huwei ge qiushui (1932); an example of his "composite photography" (Wikimedia Commons)


The iconology of women in Chinese art is a topic that has garnered much attention both inside and outside the country. Certain depictions have dominated academic discussion: from those of the upper-class female in 仕女图 (shinv tu, or paintings of court ladies dating back to the Tang dynasty), to the depictions of women on the cover of 妇女杂志 (Funü zazhi, Women’s journal, 1915), to military propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.


One topic remains understudied, however. The potential of the nude female body as an artistic medium, and as a site for ideological contestation and legitimisation, is undeniable and has long been recognised in Chinese artistic circles dating back to the early 20th century. However, this appreciation is often lost on state media and scholars alike. “We were young once, and we understand the idea of wanting to keep a memory of their eternal beauty,” writes He Lina, the Chairwoman of the Shanghai Wedding Trade Association in an article for state-owned newspaper China Daily. “But that doesn’t justify taking nude photos that have nothing to do with art.” (4)


While the line between art and pornography are blurred purposefully in official narratives, in recent years, artistic communities have diversified the portrayal of female subjectivity and the female body through nude photography. This has allowed for artists across the gender spectrum to challenge unrealistic standards regarding women’s bodies and the male gaze that objectifies them.


In fact, examination of these efforts interestingly reveals nude photography as an artistic venture imbued with the power of “transmitting spirit”: that is, a line of continuity linking artistic creation across highly varied situations in the history of Chinese society (1). Thus, by tracing the development of the female nude photograph, one can uncover a wide array of historical and contemporary narratives. These photographs testify to a great depth of discussion of gender and female corporeality in China, captured in a single, un-moving frame.


Lang Jingshan (郎靜山) - Album of Nude Photographs (1930)


By the 1920s, photography in China had arrived at a period of great growth and diversity. With the arrival of the New Culture Movement - with its rejection of traditional Confucian thought - the technology had become embedded within artistic efforts that increasingly oriented themselves towards China’s national mission of modernisation. Similarly, their subjects were often co-opted within the international projection of a modern (albeit constructed) “China.” Artists and muses alike became objects of spectatorship as artistic communities wrestled over the question of the ideal “Chinese” character. Racialised images taken by foreign photographers also contributed to a wider body of colonialist photography that positioned China as both submissive but volatile. As nude art began to gain traction as a signifier of China’s ascension to contemporaneity, the female body itself became a site for the legitimisation and contestation of these narratives.

In his collection of nudes, women’s bodies became the site for this artistic transformation. Their features were styled in line with a fusion of traditional aesthetics and modern techniques, and thus emulated the multiplicity of contemporary theories on the position of women within a modernised China.

Lang Jingshan, Meditation (1928); often referred to as the earliest surviving Chinese artistic nude photograph (Wikimedia Commons)


Against this backdrop, Lang Jingshan (1892-1995) released his Album of Nude Photographs in 1930 to much controversy. It is widely recognised as the first of its kind in China. Lang has long been hailed as the “Father of Asian Photography,” and developed an approach to photography that allowed for images to be captured in a style similar to traditional Chinese painting. Lang’s 1930 album captures perfectly his transition from the modernist style to his “composite photography” (jijin sheying 集锦摄影), which altered the image during the developing procedure to “assemble photographic fragments into seamless landscapes, still lifes, and portraits in the style of traditional painting.” (2) In his collection of nudes, women’s bodies became the site for this artistic transformation. Their features were styled in line with a fusion of traditional aesthetics and modern techniques, and thus emulated the multiplicity of contemporary theories on the position of women within a modernised China.


By the late 1920s, nude photography had become a more acceptable (although controversial) practice and often featured in photography publications at the time. Remarkably varied approaches were taken in the portrayal of the female muse. In Lang’s Meditation (1928), the lines of the model’s body are accentuated vividly, but her gaze remains cast downwards to conceal her identity. In stark contrast, foreign photographers (Such as von Perckhammer’s 1928 Noble Nudity in China) composed often overly sexualised and orientalised shots of Chinese nude models (1). Whilst male practitioners enjoyed the boost in publicity fueled by the controversy of the naked female form, the owners of these bodies were often faced with shame or even violence. The model in Meditation, for example, is said to have been beaten by her own father after sitting for Lang.


He Chengyao (何成瑤) - Opening the Great Wall (2001)


The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) saw nude photography as an artistic medium rejected as bourgeois Western style. The female image underwent a dramatic reimagining along militant, propagandist lines, and the mimetic ability of the photograph to display an ideologically inflected version of reality was utilised fully in the practice of propaganda photography. Calls for women’s liberation along socialist lines constructed a new female identity through images of “iron girls” or “strong women,” with the erasure of feminine subjectivity as the female body was masculinised. The natural lines of the female body were obscured from the male gaze with gender neutral uniforms, but they were nevertheless still the site of ideological revolution.


With the opening of China to the outside world in the 1980s, however, the naked body as artistic medium resurfaced alongside a wave of female artists transforming nude models into multifaceted subject matters. Freed from the confines of military propaganda and inspired by direct communication with artists across the world, female photographers began to negotiate the gendered trauma of the Cultural Revolution from personal perspectives whilst demonstrating an awareness of the confusions and ruptures of a rapidly oncoming future (2).

He Chengyao, Opening the Great Wall (2001)


For He, the unprompted removal of her clothes on a visit to an art installation on the Great Wall allowed her to “squarely face [her] family’s history of insanity that [she] had carefully hidden and avoided.”

From amongst this wave emerged He Chengyao, a mixed-media artist whose works explore themes such as mental illness, memory and the liberation of nudity. Her early contributions in particular gave form to different stages of her personal history, as well as articulated the complex, gendered layers of relations between generations of her family. Her photographs often challenge the line between performance and still-life as the female body is transformed into a dynamic, ever-changing artistic medium.


The spontaneity of her art is captured perfectly in the piece Opening the Great Wall (2001), which incited a controversy in domestic and international art circles at the time. For He, the unprompted removal of her clothes on a visit to an art installation on the Great Wall allowed her to “squarely face [her] family’s history of insanity that [she] had carefully hidden and avoided.” As a child growing up during the Cultural Revolution, her single mother had struggled from mental illness that had caused her to strip in public, promoting harsh social exclusion from her local community. He Chengyao’s works not only contend with this generational trauma, but aim to deconstruct taboos surrounding ‘female hysteria’ and nudity whilst uplifting the disabled community that was often left marginalised and invisible in the Chinese system (3). The imperfect female body is unavoidable and unapologetic, positioned against a historic symbol of Chinese strength.

Li Yushi, The Nightmare (2019)


Li Yushi - The Nightmare (2019); and Xiao Guanmu - Such is Life 来都来了 (2017)


In contemporary China, the power and vibrancy of photography has reached a new pinnacle, an artistic flowering of avant-garde attempts to picture the rapidly changing sense of self and society within the country. Against the backdrop of of Xi’s China, the young photographers behind the camera are “conjuring images from darkness and light in an attempt to make sense of their worlds.” (1)


However, nude photography still remains a risky business, with laws in China pertaining to pornography and creation rights acting as a barrier for many women to model. With the arrival of the digital era, the leaking of nude art online has seen some models fear pornography charges and social humiliation. An article by China Daily elucidates tensions between the commercialisation of artistic creation and attempts to politicise nude art in the fight against what are seen as violations of decency and etiquette (4). Furthermore, commercialisation of the art form has also led to the proliferation of unrealistic standards. Nude photographs must be flawless - any bodily imperfection is often edited out or hidden.

Models are photographed in their own homes and can control the composition. In doing so, Xiao accommodates the model’s personality, self-expression and safety, and thus challenges the dangers of the industry.

Xiao Guanmu, from Such is Life 来都来了 (2017)


In contrast, Xiao Guanmu’s photographs challenge the notion that the nude female body is inherently pornographic. “When I was very young… I’d often go to the supermarket and look at the [naked] bodies on the covers of the top-shelf magazines.” She explains in an interview with Radii. “I was magically drawn to it. I thought women’s bodies were so beautiful.” (5) The most interesting aspect of Xiao’s works is the environment in which they are brought to life. Models are photographed in their own homes and can control the composition. In doing so, Xiao accommodates the model’s personality, self-expression and safety, and thus challenges the dangers of the industry. Through 100 portraits, her first photobook, Lai Dou Lai le (2017) contextualises these individuals within modern-day conversations surrounding traditional notions of beauty and womanhood, thus illustrating how shifting attitudes have a personal impact on every woman. In Xiao’s photographs, every body has a place.


Similarly, London-based, Chinese-born photographer Yushi Li explores multifaceted presentations of Chinese female consciousness, but through the interrogation of the male (foreign) gaze. Humour interlaces with gender politics and themes of sexuality and desire in her works, which feature exclusively Western male subjects. In particular, the female-centric composition of her work The Nightmare (2019) positions the woman as the one desiring, the one in control. Her eye contact with the camera and the visible photo cable complicates her position as both photographer and subject, and shows the male subject complying in totality to her gaze. For Li, the lens thus becomes an intangible space that awards a degree of structural uncertainty. This “disembodied eye,” unattached to a male- or female-coded body, facilitates the subverting of gendered codes (6).


Works Cited:

0 comments

Comments


bottom of page