Part III

Red Detachment

This chapter is the first of three to focus on the lives and works of individual artists, interpreted as feminist because of a critical historiographical consciousness cultivated by being on the periphery. Li Tianpian, a young academy-trained oil painter in the tradition of socialist realism, found herself wedged between female representational modes of different eras and struggled to find a way forward. Her story reveals tensions that many Chinese artists negotiated as the organization of the arts and social life underwent millennial transitions. Within reform-era China’s promise of burgeoning individuality, Li remained unwilling to dismiss Cultural Revolution propaganda as national kitsch from a period when time stood still. Her layered reworking of imagery from the revolutionary opera Red Detachment of Women provides a lesson in how not to typify or commodify the past, but to reopen its potential and revolutionary promise to extend the range of what it is possible for a woman to do.