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positions: east asia cultures critique 14.2 (2006) 467-494

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Echoes of Roar, China!

On Vision and Voice in Modern Chinese Art

First published in the December 1935 issue of Modern Prints, journal of the Modern Prints Society based in Guangzhou, the black-and-white woodblock print Roar, China! (fig 1. ) by Li Hua (1907–94) was subsequently displayed in the Second National Traveling Woodcut Exhibition that opened at the Sun Yat-sen Municipal Library of Guangzhou on July 5, 1936. From there, the exhibition traveled to several cities in southeastern China and arrived in Shanghai by the beginning of October. After its week-long stop in Shanghai, local organizers took turns arranging for the exhibition to visit more cities and townships in the following months, thereby presenting this print as well as some six hundred other contemporary woodcuts to hundreds of thousands of viewers across the country.

True to the vision and commitment of the woodcut movement that had emerged since the early 1930s, this Second National Exhibition brought to [End Page 467]

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Figure 1
Li Hua, Roar, China!,1935, woodblock print, 20 x 15 cm. Reprinted from Hanning dadi (Frozen Land) (Changsha: Hu'nan Meishu, 2000)

its vast audience stark images of current events, of war, flood, and famine, of the disenfranchised and underrepresented, and of desolate rural and urban lives and landscapes. Participating artists showed little interest either in themes favored in traditional Chinese painting (birds and flowers, winding brooks, distant mountains) or in conventional studio exercises (still lifes and nudes). They also consciously eschewed any abstract or idiosyncratic visual language that would be associated with various modernist schools and that [End Page 468] would undercut a claim to realistic representation. In all these aspects the Second National Exhibition was remarkably consistent with its predecessor, the first National Joint Woodcut Exhibition that took place in Beiping in January 1935. One striking feature of the second exhibition that originated from Guangzhou, compared to the first exhibition, was the fascination with what Li Hua's print Roar, China! explored both thematically and formally. At least ten artists, judging by the exhibition catalog published in the accompanying Field of Woodcuts, contributed about fourteen prints that sought to depict a collective and reverberating voice. This fascination with an aural experience and expression, for instance, is central to Tang Yingwei's Outcry and Women's Voice, Hu Qizao's Angry Roar, Lai Shaoqi's Roaring China (fig 2. ), and many other works.

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Figure 2
Lai Shaoqi, Roaring China, 1936, woodblock print, 12 x 11.5 cm. Reprinted from Banhua jicheng (Landmarks in Prints) (Shanghai and Nanjing: Lu Xun Jinian guan and Jiangsu Guji, 1991)

The reach of Roar, China! went far beyond the exhibition of 1936. The [End Page 469] print has long been regarded as a masterpiece from the first stage of Li Hua's outstanding career as a woodcut artist. It has also been widely anthologized as a representative work from the first phase of the modern Chinese woodcut movement, which would reach a new horizon as the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937. Indeed, as I argue below, Roar, China! articulates the deepest creative aspirations of the Chinese woodcut movement, in particular, and the logic of the political culture in modern China, in general. It also encapsulates a profoundly bestirring modern age, in which national awakening and international solidarity were vital to an emancipatory artistic imagination.

More than all the other contemporary prints preoccupied with a similar theme, Roar, China! adroitly exploits the visual properties of a woodcut. The taut, muscular, and naked male body, bound and blindfolded, is presented for our frontal view. The incisions by the artist are decisive, generating lines in relief that are sharp, angular, and animated. By forgoing tonal transitions to accentuate the jagged black lines, the artist gives the constrained body a translucent quality, suggesting a radiating force that charges and electrifies the physical body. In contrast, the encircling rope, its dark weight underscored by neatly arranged...


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