Netizens are accusing renowned Chinese artist Yue Minjun of insulting the country and the army with his iconic Laughing Man paintings


The artist’s long-running series has attracted the attention of nationalists on the Internet.

Chinese artist Yue Minjun poses in front of one of his paintings on display at the exhibition ‘L’ombre d’un fou rire’ (The Shadow of a Laughter) at the Fondation Cartier building November 13, 2012 in Paris. The event, which features nearly 40 paintings from collections around the world, will take place from November 14th to March 17th, 2013. (LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

Renowned Chinese artist Yue Minjun has become the latest target of nationalist internet influencers and netizens in China, some of whom have accused him of insulting the country and damaging the army’s image with his iconic “Laughing Man” paintings.

Tweets and comments condemning the 61-year-old Beijing-based artist, one of China’s best-known contemporary painters, surfaced this week on social media platforms Weibo, WeChat and Douyin (TikTok in China), according to a local think tank called Kun Lun Ce Institute republished an essay on its official WeChat account in 2021, criticizing the artist’s works as insulting the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military power. As of Friday, May 26, images of allegedly Yue’s PLA-related work appear to have been censored on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

The recent attacks on Yue appear in line with a spate of crackdowns and censorship of satire and comedy taking place across China this month, including in Hong Kong, against voices deemed disrespectful of authorities, particularly the PLA .

On May 17, comedy company Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media Co was fined 13.35 million yuan (US$1.9 million) and confiscated 1.35 million yuan (US$191,270) in “illegal profits”. -Dollar) after one of his performances was accused of “damaging society”. a joke about the military. Malaysian-born comedian Nigel Ng, who plays the role of Uncle Roger, was silenced on China’s social media this week after he made jokes about the country in one of his recent appearances. Also last week, Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao shut down a comic column by leading political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, who goes by his stage name Zunzi, after 40 years of publication.

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A woman takes a picture of artworks displayed in front of an oil-on-canvas painting titled “Hats” by artist Yue Minjun in 2006 at the Art Beijing 2006 exhibition at the National Agricultural Exhibition Hall in Beijing. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

A key figure in the Cynical Realism movement, led by artists who witnessed the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) that unfolded in the 1990s following the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen, Yue’s portrayal is said to be more sinister , exaggerated laughing faces are self-portraits or his alter ego. The works are widely considered to be iconic artistic expressions and a reflection of the country’s transformative era and its rise to become a global economic powerhouse.

Yue’s work has been widely exhibited throughout China and abroad over the past few decades. His recent solo exhibition, Eudaimonia, at Tang Contemporary in Beijing, which ended February 15, featured new works from this Flower series, as well as works depicting the recurring motif of the laughing man. A review published on Chinese website Artron recognized the artist’s breakthrough in recent years with the creation of a new body of work while continuing to reflect the human psyche amid shifting, unpredictable reality.

However, the resurfaced essay is aimed at Yue’s painting Armed Forces – Planche No. 17 from 2007 onwards. The work depicts three laughing men, each wearing a hat, representing the PLA Army, Navy and Air Force. The figures also appear to have devil horns on their heads protruding through the hats. (Both hats and devil horns are ongoing motifs in the artist’s work.)

Armed Forces – Planche No. 17 was only pictured hanging in 2021 at the He Art Museum (HEM), a fledgling private museum in southern China’s Shunde, Guangdong. Artnet News contacted the museum and asked if the work is still on the wall, but received no response at the time of publication. The republished essay called the exhibition of this work an “incident of organized insult to the army and the anti-Chinese Communist Party.” The text lists other Yue paintings deemed offensive to the army, as well as former Chinese leaders.

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The essay, which was re-uploaded on May 18, a day after the Shanghai comedy company was fined, spread like wildfire on the Chinese internet. A tweet on Weibo said the depiction of soldiers in the paintings was exaggerated. “They give people the impression that they were made on purpose,” the user wrote in a post that has nearly 80,000 likes. Another tweet said that paintings like Yue’s, which aim at the country’s dignity, appeal to the West and are therefore sold at high prices.

A security guard walks past a work by Yue Minjun entitled ‘Contemporary Terracotta Warriors No 9’, estimated at US$1.8-2.3 million, at an auction preview at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong March 31, 2011. Sotheby’s Hong Kong will hold its spring 2011 sales this year in April. Mike Clarke/AFP via Getty Images

The controversy escalated yesterday when a user called for a blanket ban on the artist. One commented on Weibo, saying that Yue should be banned from attending the Wuzhen Theater Festival in October, where he was made a member of the artistic committee.

Tang Contemporary, the gallery representing Yue, declined to comment. Yue could not be reached for comment. Yesterday the artist uploaded to his Instagram an image of a painting of a fragmented smiling face embodied in a Buddhist sculpture.

Speaking about his art in an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Yue said that his paintings aren’t about laughing at anyone because they’re mostly self-portraits. But he admitted at the time that his work was a matter of reality and that “a smile doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. “And that laugh — anyone who’s had a recent Chinese experience would understand.”

Yue achieved international fame with the sale of his signature painting Execution (1995), which sold for a record £2.9 million (US$5.97 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in London in October 2007, as a Chinese artist contemporary art has become one of the most sought-after works of art. In 2007, he was named one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year.

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That record was broken the following year with the sale of his 1993 canvas painting Gweong-gweong at a Christie’s Hong Kong auction in May 2008, when the work sold for HK$54 million (US$6.9 million) and thus setting Yue’s auction record. Although the prices of Yue’s works at auction have fallen in recent years as the market fever for Chinese contemporary art has abated, his works are still actively traded in the secondary market and exhibited widely.

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