No Name Group: Contemporary Recluse Bo Yi and Shu Qi in the Cultural Revolution 

By Gao Minglu


       In Chinese contemporary art history, the No Name group, as the first underground art group during the Cultural Revolution was earlier even than the more widely known Stars group, which emerged in 1979. It also had one of the longest lifespans of any collective, persisting for nearly half a century. [1]

     The history of the No Name group can be traced back to 1959 when Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu met each other at the Xihua Fine Arts Institute. Xihua was the few private educational institutes in Mao’s era. [2] In the nearly 50 years since their initial encounter, they have not only formed a remarkable bond that goes well beyond mere friendship, but also become the spiritual fathers of the No Name group. Along with Zhang Da’an and Shi Zhenyu, whom they met around 1962, they formed the nucleus of the No Name group. Their activities established the core philosophy of the No Name group and laid the groundwork for its future direction. During the Cultural Revolution they rejected the politics of the day and instead advocating “art for art’s sake.” For instance, on August 18, 1966, when Chairman Mao addressed the Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, Zhao Wenliang, Yang Yushan, and Shi Zhenyu did not exactly throw themselves into the revolutionary frenzy. Rather, they decamped the city center for the suburbs where they painted all day long. It was just as Zhao Wenliang inscribed on the back of his painting “8-18”: “After this painting was completed, the bloody terror of 8-18 occurred. I stopped painting for 15 days. On October 21 again took up the brush. This painting has lain dormant in my carrying case for nearly ten years now.”[3] (Fig. 1- 2)

      After 1973, some talented young students returned from countryside where they were sent to by the government for “reeducation” and soon joined the Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu’s art circle. Zhang Wei, Li Shan, Ma Kelu, Shi Xixi, Wang Aihe, Wei Hai, Zheng Ziyan, Liu Shi and Tian Shuying were among others. They formed a larger group that people would later call the Yuyuantan Lake School of painting. Under the instruction of Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu, these young painters would often make time on weekends and holidays to go outside and paint from life. Many times the artists numbered some twenty or more. And in 1976, when the April 5th event occurred, the No Name group was there in Tiananmen Square. The event initiated by the masses’ commemorative activity for the death of Premier Zhou Enlai in April 5th, traditionally called Qingming Festival, a period when people commemorate  their ancestors. The event turned a political demonstration against the Cultural Revolution and its leadership, the Gang of Four as well as Mao himself. Some artists of the No Mame group participated directly in the demonstrations, some fought with the police, and some busied themselves recording this historic political event, painting scenes of the demonstrations at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Interestingly, they did not use standard methods to narrate the scene, but rather expressed these events in the form of landscape. (Fig. 3)  The same kind or representation of the Democratic Wall Movement which took place in Beijing in 1978 can also been seen in Ma Kelu’s painting. (Fig. 4)

       No matter how to make a judgment on the impressionist – traditional literati landscape painting of the No Name, the phenomenon of the No Name group is one of the indispensable part of the art from the Cultural Revolution and after. Without the presence of the underground art from this period, the narrative of the art history of the Cultural Revolution would be incomplete. On the other hand, the No Name is also an important phenomena along the historical line of Chinese modernity and avant – garde in the 20th century.  

      Through the innocent landscape they expressed their sincere feelings about truth, beauty, and harmony under the circumstance in the dirty politicized Cultural Revolution period. Furthermore, the choice of landscape life drawing had everything to do with opposing the political trends of China in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This kind of art was considered “anti-realism.” It was banned and criticized as a manifestation of bourgeois Modernism. The choice to go to suburb to paint was made not because the artists found it to be the most delightful subject matter, but because it brought the least amount of trouble. Moreover, it was some small comfort and support to individual artists to be able to go out as a group and paint. Together they could experience a sense of freedom.

      In 1975, during the Cultural Revolution, the artists of the No Name organized an underground exhibition in Zhang Wei’s home in the apartment building called 203 Big Yard. [4] It is important to keep in mind that this kind of “themeless” (or apolitical subject matter) painting – still life and portraiture and landscape – only appeared in 1979, two years after the Cultural Revolution, at the Twelve Person Exhibition in Shanghai and the New Spring Exhibition in Beijing.

      After the Cultural Revolution, in 1979, under the support from Liu Xun, an official leader from Beijing Artists Association, No Name held its first official art exhibition in Beihai Part in Beijing, and the name “No Name” first came into formal usage. Two month later, another avant – garde event --- the Star Group’s first self organized exhibition took place, and caused a public sensation and was shutdown by the police.    

      Seen from perspective of the Chinese indigenous scene, the No Name group’s pursuit of “art for art’s sake” is almost unique in China’s modern and contemporary art history, unable to be understood as Western ivory-tower art. The No Name group’s refusal of both political and commercial kitsch was an expression of reaction and resistance to the past thirty years of Chinese political, social, and artistic change. Therefore, the group forms an integral part of Chinese indigenous modernity and logic. Their artistic practice fundamentally carried very strong social and political overtones. The subjective value of the No Name group was individual and elite, and art was for them a quasi-religious way of eliminating emotion and exiling the self from an idealess society.


      For nearly fifty years now, through every sort of political and economic vicissitude, the No Name group has been consistently overlooked. Never have they received official plaudits, nor have they achieved commercial success. Naturally they look upon this with undisguised diffidence, continuing to uphold their original beliefs and idealism. No wonder people have taken to calling them the contemporary version of Bo Yi and Shu Qi. Boi and Shu Qi were the brothers as well as the princes of Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BCE). Historical documents recorded that after the Zhou Dynasty (1121-221 BCE) took over the empire from Shang, the princes refused to eat Zhou’s rice and were died in Shouyang Mountain. It is a metaphor to use the phrase not only to expresses Zhao and Yang’s refusal to supplicate the political powers-that-be, but also their refusal to grovel at the hand of current materialism. A half-century of recluse life has indeed enlightened Zhao Wenliang and Yang Yushu and they seem become the modern self-cultivated literati in traditional moral sense. But as an important phenomenon of Chinese contemporary art, the tragic fate of the No Name group is an oversight of Chinese art-historical research. The continued anonymity of the No Name group cannot be considered an isolated incident; rather, it implicates the incomplete view in which we narrate the history of Chinese modern art. 


[1] For the history and historical documents of the No Name Group, see Gao Minglu, The No Name: A History of a Self – Exiled Avant – Garde, Guangxi Normal University Press, 2006.

[2] The Xihua School was founded in 1926 as the Beijing Women’s School for Western Painting, an institution which played an important role in the early era of art education in China. It was founded by Ms. Tang Shouyi. Tang Shouyi is also known as Xiong-Tang Shouyi, her husband was Xiong Shaokun, who had participated in the Xinhai Revolution and the Northern Expedition before going to study in Japan in 1914. He returned to China in 1918, teaching in the literary institute at Peking University, an early Chinese educator and expert on the I Ching. In 1926, Tang Shouyi (the daughter of Madame Li Zongren and the wife of Xiong Shaokun) founded the Beijing Women’s School for Western Painting hiring Xiong Shaokun as director. The school was located in Dongcheng District at 4 Wuliang Daren Hutong. In 1946, Xiong Shaokun assumed twin positions as administrator of the school and a member of the national education committee. In April of 1953, the Bureau of Education changed the school’s name to Xihua Fine Arts Extracurricular School. In May of 1954, the school’s founder and headmistress Tang Shouyi fell ill and died, with her husband taking over as replacement headmaster. In the late 1950’s, when Zhao Wenliang and others studied at the school, it was located in the Nan Luogu Xiang area of Dongcheng District on Shajing Hutong. On October 15, 1960, management of the school was taken over by the education bureau of Dongcheng District, Beijing Municipality and administered by the Beijing City Fine Arts Company. See Xiong Shaokun, “Self-Criticism from the Cultural Revolution,” June 25, 1969, unpublished, original manuscript collected by Jia Junxue.


[3] Gao Minglu, The No Name: A History of a Self – Exiled Avant – Garde, p. 17.

[4] Gao Minglu, The No Name: A History of a Self – Exiled Avant – Garde, p. 75.

shengtian zheng © 2014