China, 1900 A.D.–present

  • Vase with Scholar in a Landscape (one of a pair)
  • Spring Offerings
  • Buddhist Sage
  • Grazing Horse
  • Plum, Bamboo, and Rock
  • Goddess of the River Xiang
  • Splashed-color Landscape
  • Stately Pines on Mount Hua
  • Returning to Nature through a Reclusive Life
  • Pair of square seals with cloud and rock pattern


1900 A.D.

1925 A.D.

Qing dynasty, 1644–1911
Republic period, 1912–49

1925 A.D.

1950 A.D.

Republic period, 1912–49
The People's Republic, 1949–present

1950 A.D.

1975 A.D.

The People's Republic, 1949–present

1975 A.D.

2000 A.D.

The People's Republic, 1949–present


The twentieth century witnesses the fall of the Qing dynasty, and with it, the ancient imperial system. A republic evolves amidst warlordism and conflicts between the Nationalist and the Communist parties. After World War II, the Communists prevail and establish the People’s Republic of China.

Artists in the first four decades of the century actively participate in reform movements to promote nationalism and modernism. Many major masters receive training abroad. Traditionalist and imported styles coexist, often taking elements from each other. Private art societies that provide members with exhibition opportunities proliferate. Painting is the dominant practice among the “fine arts,” an imported term that connotes nobility and beauty beyond the functional. Many of the age-old arts, such as textiles, ceramics, and jade carving, continue to survive as “crafts” and are excluded from the professional training at the modern art schools and university art departments around the country.

Starting in the 1940s, the Communist party imposes standards on art production. Departures from Socialist Realism and Communist themes are criticized by Chairman Mao Zedong and his supporters until the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). From the mid-1980s, a new generation of artists emerges to test boundaries, experimenting with formerly taboo subjects and unconventional mediums.

Key Events

  • 1900

    An international force of eight treaty powers–the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Britain, Austria-Hungary—marches into Beijing and ransacks the Forbidden City in reaction to the Chinese violence against foreigners in the Boxer Rebellion.

  • 1911

    Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) leads the Xinhai Revolution that topples the Qing dynasty, ending 5,000 years of imperial rule.

  • 1913

    The Xiling Society of Seal Carving and Calligraphy is founded in Hangzhou, with Wu Changshi (1844–1927) as its first president. Wu follows the example of Zhao Zhiqian (1829–1884) in applying the aesthetic principles of seal carving and calligraphy to painting. In the last decade of his life, Wu works mostly in Shanghai and develops a close friendship with Wang Zhen (1867–1938), a businessman and a painter who favors Buddhist figural subjects.

  • 1915–16

    President of the Republic Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), restores the dynastic system for about eighty-one days and proclaims himself Emperor Hongxi.

  • 1917

    China declares war on Germany and effectively enters World War I.

  • 1919

    Thousands of student-led demonstrators take to the streets of Beijing on May 4 to denounce Japan and foreign imperialism. The protests, triggered by negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference in which Germany’s possessions in Shandong Province are ceded to Japan, escalate into strikes and boycotts across the country and cut across class lines. The Beijing government is forced to withdraw its delegates from the conference and remove the foreign minister. The May Fourth Movement marks the high point of an intellectual revolution in China that demands the overhauling of oppressive domestic policies and the emancipation from cultural conservatism.

  • 1920s

    With the excavation of bronze vessels, carved jade objects, and other artifacts at Anyang (Henan Province), the site of the ancient Shang dynasty capital of Yin, modern archaeology captures widespread attention in China.

  • 1921

    The First Congress of the Communist Party of China is held in Shanghai. The young Mao Zedong (1893–1976) attends and two years later is elected to the Central Committee. Over the next decade, Mao will formulate his ideas on the peasant (as opposed to the urban working class) as the vanguard of revolution.

  • 1925

    In the spirit of the new Republic, the Forbidden City is converted into the Palace Museum. Forty years later, Taiwan opens a National Palace Museum containing many of the best objects of the former imperial collection

  • 1927

    Xu Beihong (1895–1953), arguably the best-known Chinese to study art in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, returns to China. Over the next several decades, he assumes a series of prominent teaching and administrative posts, including the founding principal of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. A master of Western chiaroscuro and three-dimensional modeling, Xu is best known for painting lively human figures and horses.

  • 1929

    The Ministry of Education sponsors the First National Art Exhibition in Shanghai, including traditionalist and Western-style paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other objects.

  • 1937–45

    Japan invades China. Chiang Kai-shek’s (1887–1975) Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists form a united front to combat the invader. Japan’s eventual surrender ends her colonization of Taiwan.

  • 1942

    Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum on the Arts and Literature sets the guidelines for the union of Communist ideology and the arts.

  • 1943–44

    The Nationalists establish the Dunhuang Research Institute to study the ancient Silk Road site of Dunhuang (Gansu Province), which comes to world attention at the beginning of the century when foreign archaeologists first uncover its rich artifacts and murals.

  • 1949

    The Communists gain control of the country and establish the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists establish their own government in Taiwan.

  • 1956–57

    Mainland Chinese voice their opinions and grievances in the Hundred Flowers Movement. Artists find brief freedom in their choice of styles and subjects.

  • 1958–60

    In the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s goal of producing steel with an annual output surpassing Britain in fifteen years far exceeds the realistic capability of the nation. Peasants straining to meet the government’s order using backyard furnaces produce steel that is too poor for industrial usage. Inadequate allocation of resources to farming causes a famine that claims an estimated 10 million lives.

  • 1966–76

    Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (1914–1991) and her associates mobilize the Red Guards to carry out the Cultural Revolution, which seeks to destroy all Chinese traditions that do not conform to Communist visions of society. Countless intellectuals and artists branded as rightist counter-revolutionaries suffer humiliation, torture, and forced labor. Rules about the depiction of human figures are particularly strict. Traditionalist painters such as Shi Lu (1919–1982) prefer landscape scenes, which are less likely to attract official condemnation.

  • 1976–84

    The cultural climate grows more tolerant with the death of Mao and the leadership of Deng Xiaoping (1904—1997). However, unconventional and provocative art remains checked.

  • 1983

    Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), one of the great twentieth-century masters of traditionalist painting, dies in Taiwan, his adopted home since 1978. Prolific and stylistically eclectic, he experiments with a broad array of artistic forms, including a manner of splashed-ink landscape reminiscent of the color-field painting in Abstract Expressionism.

  • 1985–present

    The creation of the Beijing Young Artists Association in 1985 marks the beginning of a “New Wave,” which advocates artistic freedom and independence from official ideology. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, a number of avant-garde artists find success abroad. Their international fame in turn helps them gain official acceptance in China.

  • 1989

    Protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing are joined by hundreds of thousands of workers and students; the ensuing massacre by government troops results in hundreds of casualties.

  • 1992

    The International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranks China’s economy the third largest in the world after the U.S. and Japan.

  • 1993

    Construction begins on the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest hydropower project. By the time it is completed in 2006, it will create a lake almost 375 miles long, submerge dozens of cultural heritage sites, displace some 4 million people, and cause significant ecological and environmental damage.

  • 1997

    Britain retrocedes Hong Kong to mainland China.

  • 2003

    China launches its first manned spacecraft.

  • 2006

    The China-Tibet railway, the world’s highest-altitude train route, begins operation.

  • 2007

    The director of the food and drug agency is executed for accepting bribes, after several international scandals over the safety of Chinese exports in which dozens of people died.

  • 2007

    Beijing’s newly constructed National Center for the Performing Arts opens. The Center, dubbed “The Egg,” is an elipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake.

  • 2008

    Beijing hosts the Summer Olympics. The National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” the world’s largest steel structure, is constructed for the event, along with the National Aquatics Center, nicknamed the “Water Cube,” for the swimming competitions.

  • 2009

    A fire caused by fireworks damages the near-complete Television Cultural Center in Beijing. The building was designed by Rem Koolhaas along with the CCTV Headquarters, which houses a theater, cinemas, recording studios, and exhibition facilities.


“China, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)