While American futurologist Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave fueled the craze for manufacturing automation in post-Mao China, Zhao Ziyang's 1983 talk on "New Technology Revolution" endorsed the country's transition into a knowledge-intensive society. In response to the imaginary of a coming information society where humans and machines become increasingly interconnected, the reconfiguration of socialist bodies became a popular subject matter in Chinese experimental art.
In this lecture, Linda Huang draws attention to the new mode of body aesthetics in Zhang Peili's early paintings. By critically examining his peculiar rendering of machine-like young professionals, bodybuilders, and medical devices, Huang analyzes how his elimination of heroic proletarian bodies signals China's transition from class-based politics to a depoliticized technocratic society. Bringing together contemporary Chinese art history and the intellectual discourses of the 1980s, Huang illuminates the social and political connotation of Zhang's paintings and rethinks the politics of "human" in the 1980s.
She argues that Zhang's remodeling of socialist bodies not only collided with the proliferation of humanity studies (renxue) in the New Enlightenment Movement, but also reveals the changing labor structure in post-1980s China. By unsettling the boundaries between human and non-human, Zhang calls attention to the alienating effect of machinery modernization and complicates the state- dictated notion of a "new socialist man." Bringing to the fore the historical specificity of the body in post-Mao visual production, Huang re-evaluates Chinese artists' changing perception of technology, humanity, and modernization and its entwined relationship with the country's drastic social and technological reform.