China, in Fragments


The only way I can imagine discussing my time in China is from a few small side glances. The incomprehensible immensity of the country, the complexity of its 6,000 year history, the speed with which everything that cannot adapt to China’s streamlined, extraordinary collective vision of the future is being torn down, discarded and abandoned—I am not equipped to put all those vectors into a narrative that could make sense in a few paragraphs. For those who want something more substantial, a slew of well informed books are out there about the emergence of the new China. In many ways it is one of the most significant story lines unfolding on the planet right now. I think I kind of knew that before I went. But I now have a much better understanding of just how immense it actually is. I am still a bit speechless about what I saw and learned during those two and a half weeks.

Meanwhile China does not allow access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email if you are a gmail user. “We have our own version of those platforms,” was the cheerful response we heard when we asked people about being shut out. “For us, things are so much better than they used to be!” Normal is a temperature setting, not an absolute.

In writing about Dante, Robert Pogue Harrison captured some of the conflicting complexity I experienced while in China:

For those of us who belong to a modern age where all is relative, where one hand always comes with the other, and where uncertainty is our only certainty, there is something captivating and liberating about the unconditional moral clarity of Dante’s vision.

So no, I cannot offer an unconditional moral clarity about anything I experienced. What I can share is my personal journey into particular aspects of the visual culture of China.

I was keenly aware of how my eye was shifting with repeated exposure to a new set of cultural idioms. After years of looking at Chinese painting with the uninformed curiosity of someone who never having studied Asian art with the same intensity with which Western art was plumbed, I began falling under the spell of Ming and Qing Dynasty ink landscapes on paper and silk. The aura of solitude, the monochromaticism, the quality of the mark making and brushstrokes, the way scale is achieved in these panoramic landscapes—it became increasingly familiar and exquisite. Much of the contemporary art in Shanghai and Beijing has its roots in that Chinese heritage, wonderfully so. It was those works that embodied aspects of that Asian tradition that spoke most forcefully to me rather than that ubiquitous, Western-influenced, International popular culture iconography that shows up everywhere these days.

Below are a few images that stood out for me. The first set is of contemporary art. Very few of these are identifiable since I don’t know Chinese. If there is something that catches your interest, please feel free to contact me. I can at least tell you where I saw it.

The images after those are more generic views. A new landscape feeds the artist’s eye in its own particular way, and sharing these feels imporant too.

Contemporary art in China:
























The Commune at the Great Wall, a collection of structures designed by contemporary Asian architects:





The Commune has its own private segment of the Great Wall:



From the Museums:






Favorite signs:




Street and monument views:













Last but not least, the beloved pandas in Chengdu:






36 Replies to “China, in Fragments”

  1. Sally Reed says:

    Marvelous. Thank you.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Sal!

  2. Really exquisite photos, views, art. Thanks!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated.

  3. I love every one of these!! Thank you!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Claudia. I love when our eyes coalesce…

  4. Thanks Deborah for sharing your images. It sounds like this visit shifted your views… much like my time there last fall did for me. It feels like being in such a strange land, with all it’s history combined with change, made me able to see myself. Navigating where everything is different gives you an acute awareness and attention to details around relationships, systems and cultural mannerisms. I can’t stop thinking about it and I’ve been home 6 months. I would love to get together and share our experiences one of these days!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Jodi, yes, yes yes. I can tell you had a very similar sense of things. I would love to discuss our mutual experiences.

  5. Brianne Corbett says:

    Spectacular PIX. Incredible art.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Brianne. I was very inspired by what I saw.

  6. Thank you Deborah. Now I’m slowing musing the images and thoughts you shared. As always you take me to another depth.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Maria.

  7. These are absolutely gorgeous photos. As always, you capture the essence of a place and the beauty it contains. I’m glad you’re safely back and can’t wait to hear about the trip.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Diane. It was an amazing trip.

  8. Nancy Lyn Cotter says:

    Thanks do much for sharing your experience in China dear Deborah. Your artistic eye and creative insight provide a succinct perspective that allows us a unique view of China’s blend of past and present. I see much that speaks to an artist’s heart. 🙂

  9. Nice observations. Great cultural and political power is such a Faustian bargain, not matter what nation.

  10. What a wonderful tour of Chinese art and aesthetics. The b+w (ink?) paintings are so rich. Thanks.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I was so intrigued by what happens in that reduced color form of expression. And such a history of that form.

  11. Many of the new paintings hurl back to the abstraction seen in those ancient oblong landscape paintings and how the abstract expressionist so found influence in these brush works and now they again are being seen in the new painting in China….bravo

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thom, I had a very similar response. Thank you for sharing that insight.

  12. Deb a rich article promising more insights to come. (A commune on the Great Wall?) Love your lead picture, meshes with your title. You show an intriguing contemporary piece — white plaster(?) figures in three rows. Seems to be Athena in front, then a bunch of beautiful men. More words on this one? Also I didn’t mean to laugh when I saw the pandas but couldn’t keep it back. Gleesome!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Sloan, this was an installation at the Long Museum, by a Chinese artist. I took a number of other images which I can share with you. This array–three identical rows of classical figures that speak to the 1000 armed Asian images–was my favorite.

  13. This leaves me giddy with delight dear D – the perspective offered by your thoughts and images is such a gift, thank you. [I am so happy to know you are home safely; I missed your presence online, and am sure I wasn’t alone in that…]

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      When I came down with pneumonia I thought of you dear Louisa! But like you, you plow through regardless. xoxo

  14. Good photos! Enjoyable. Thanks.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks James!

  15. Thanks Deborah, you’ve captured a unique aesthetic view beautifully. I’ve long wanted to see the stone gardens of Suzhou.

  16. deborahbarlow says:

    Andrew, perfect description–“Faustian bargain.” Thanks for that.

  17. A great piece! Thanks. Joan

  18. Love your blog, and your sensibilities. Thank you so much!

  19. Carl Belz says:

    Fabulous post, breathtaking, superlatives-worthy on all fronts!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Carl. I so appreciate your words.

  20. It amazes me how tonal changes can be every bit as engaging as color and somehow suggest or induce a meditative state.

  21. dipittsburgh says:

    Deb, when you go off line you always return BAM! POW! Im drawn to the tranlucentity of the paintings, the riotous bowls of deliciousness, the millions arm sculpture and the lushness of the garden with pond. Thank you for your vision!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      My fellow traveler Di…Thank you!

  22. WOW! GREAT photos. So amazing.

    The Metropolitan’s exhibit “Ink Art” ( was enlightening as to current Chinese art…the pieces you have posted here are fabulous! I love how washy/watery but textured some of the paintings are, dawn from that lengthy history of paint/ink/rice paper. And then the architecture, and the food, and the gardens, and the pandas.

    Just wow. Thanks for these.

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