Picture of the Day: Paining "Beijing 2008" - Code of Controversy

9 years, 4 months ago - July 17, 2013
When mention Beijing 2008, most of us will think of the 2008 Olympic Games. Yet, this work is about another China-related game - mahjong. The interest in this particular piece of work is due to the fact that it and its creator, Lui Liu, have caused controversy for years.

Decoding the painting

The major part of the painting is about four naked or half naked women playing mahjong, in an unusual attitude. Beside them, on the right side of the painting, is a teenage girl, wearing a red embroidered halter-top and carrying a bowl of fruit in her right hand and a fruit knife in her left hand. On the wall, on the left side, hangs a portrait of a man: He is bald, sports a mustache and has an obvious mole on his chin. In the background, the sky is dark with black clouds.

Completed in 2005 and exhibited at a New York art fair the next year, this painting was soon posted on the Internet and raising heated discussions around China. Many netizens thought there were political messages in the painting. One interpretation that got a lot of support was that the painting refers to the Taiwan question - a tense topic at that time just like the dark sky.

According to analysis found on the Chinese online forum xici.net, the four mahjong-playing women represent the four powers influencing the Taiwan question - the US, Japan, Chinese mainland and Russia. More clothing means that the player has more strength, and the teenage girl is interpreted to be Taiwan. 

The man in the portrait is thought to be a combination of three former influential leaders of China - Sun Yat-sun, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong - as the man carries each of the three leaders' symbolic facial features. This portrait is thought to mean the Taiwan question is an unsolved one within differing ideologies.

Other decoding

The middle one with a naked back is representing China. Even we can’t tell whether she’s winning or not, she has:

  1. a three-piece (pong) of East Wind – meaning she has the control of most of the east part of the world.
  2. lost her top, but still wearing a skirt – meaning that she has plenty of resources to keep playing a key role in the world economy. In contrary, the US (the one with her top at the back of the table) seems to be in control, but actually she had lost her underwear (reserve) already.
  3. she’s even keeping a piece of mahjong underneath – it can be served as bargaining power with the Russian (the foreign girl on the right is “communicating” with China and the US one), or play it if needed.
  4. with her tatoo of Chinese art on her back, she wears a western skirt – showing that China has a solid foundation of culture, knowledge, and tradition, but learning quickly to adapt to the west.

A good story teller

When asked whether he consciously puts political messages in his paintings, Liu said, he mostly does not do that with intention, but sometimes, his ideas may be influenced by some political issues. 

"Also, when viewers interpret more political meanings [from my paintings], it means at that moment, they care a lot about the political issues," Liu said.


Text by The Global Times

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