"Every artist is a star. Even great artists are stars from the cosmic point of view. We called our group "The Stars" in order to emphasize our individuality. This was directed at the drab uniformity of the Cultural Revolution."
In 1979 a momentous event took place in the art world in China. After being stifled for more than 30 years, a group of experimental artists called the Xingxing or Stars, who saw themselves as pinpoints of light in an otherwise endless night, organized two exhibitions that at last broke the stranglehold of Communist Party orthodoxy and set the stage for the future freedom of artistic expression in China.
On 27 September 1979, after being denied official exhibition space in the China Art Gallery, the bastion of official socialist art in Beijing, the Stars hung their paintings and sculptures on the park railings outside. On 28 September, the police arrived on the scene and announced the closing of the exhibition. On 29 September, an official announcement declared the exhibition illegal. On 1 October, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, the Stars responded by organizing a protest march in the name of individual human rights. Starting out from the Xidan Democracy Wall, the demonstrators made their way to the headquarters of the Peking Municipal Party Committee under the banner "We Demand Democracy and Artistic Freedom". Finally, from 23 November to 2 December 1979, the First Stars Exhibition was held in the Huafang Studio in Beihei Park, Beijing.
At the beginning of 1980, the Stars artists were still not recognized by the Ministry of Culture or the Beijing Artists Association. That summer, however, the Stars organized themselves into the "Stars Painters Society" and registered with the Beijing Artists Association. The twelve principle members of the society were Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, Yan Li, Wang Keping, Yang Yiping, Qu Leilei, Mao Lizi, Bo Yun, Zhong Ahcheng, Shao Fei, Li Shuang and Ai Weiwei. From 24 August to 7 September, Jiang Feng, Chairman of the Artists' Association, allowed the Stars to exhibit for a second time within the China Art Gallery itself, believing that the exhibition would be self-defeating: "When [the Stars] realize that the mass of the people don't understand their work," he said, "they will learn and change their ways." But he was proved wrong: the people may not have understood the art, but they understood very well what the exhibition represented. In two weeks, the exhibition attracted nearly 200,000 visitors.
To fully appreciate the significance of the Stars exhibitions, one must understand the great difficulties that Chinese artists had previously endured – their isolation, censorship and constant repression under the Communist regime. Thirty years before, from the Communist base at Yanan, Mao Zedong had announced the official canon of Chinese Socialist Realism. Artistic works were no longer meant for intellectuals and the refined literati, but for "the masses". The new rules required artists to give up any form of individual self-expression. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) many artists suffered criticism as "intellectual partisans" and were sentenced to periods of hard labour in the countryside; painting was prohibited. Not until the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution was there any cultural thaw. The Stars Group seized on this and made a brave attempt to re-establish the idea of ziwo – "I myself". "The darkness of the past and the brightness of the future," wrote the sculptor Wang Keping. "This should be our lesson and our responsibility."
Most of the Stars had received no formal art training and were not affiliated with any official art institution. Their exhibitions defined their unofficial position in the Chinese art world. One of the chief organisers, Ma Desheng (b. 1952), who walked with crutches, had been refused admission to art school on account of his disability and had worked as an industrial draughtsman and woodblock print artist before beginning to paint with traditional Chinese ink. Another prominent member, Huang Rui (b.1952) worked as a farmer in Inner Mongolia from 1968 to 1975 and then in a leather factory in Beijing until 1979. In 1978 he published the most important post-Cultural Revolution magazine, Jian Tian (Today). The group's early activities included informal art shows and private discussion sessions where they criticized society and emphasised concepts of freedom and individualism. Such ideas were highly dangerous and could result in arrest, but the Stars' goal was not only artistic but also political. They held a utopian belief in the liberation of the Chinese people and were determined to make way for freedom of spirit and expression in a society that did not allow original thought or creativity.
One Stars member, Zhong Ahcheng, recalled a typical meeting: "The western wall of the room in which the meeting was held was peeling and cracked and stained. The room itself was lit by a single bare bulb, which made people's faces look like woodblock prints… Ma Desheng was sitting to the left of the lamp, Huang Rui to the right. These guys were the two organizers of the exhibition. They were both simpatico types and full of enthusiasm, and when they spoke you could sense the vitality in their voices. The room was crowded with people sitting everywhere and almost everyone was smoking cigarettes." Such gatherings of intellectuals with a desire for reform were not new in China: in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the literati had formed societies with similar aims.
Some of the Stars' works of art were explicitly political. One of Wang Keping's sculptures satirized Mao Zedong as an unfeeling religious idol; another sculpture, of a man gagged and with one eye blinded, symbolized the condition of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. However, most of the works in the Stars exhibitions were non-political and distinguished themselves from official art rather by their choice of style and subject matter. The Stars artists rejected the socialist realist style and instead developed styles deriving from Western modernism, from post-Impressionism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. Their principal aim was to express their own personal feelings in their art.
The Stars continued to face harsh official criticism and in 1983, due to political pressure, the group disbanded voluntarily and the majority of members left China. Huang Rui moved to Japan in 1984, where he broadened his scope from painting to photography, installation and performance art. In 1984, Wang Keping moved to France where his sculpture became less political and more elemental. In 1985, Ma Desheng moved to Switzerland and in 1986 to Paris. Li Shuang also settled in France in 1983. Four Stars artists emigrated to the USA: Ai Weiwei, the first to leave, in 1981; Yan Li in 1985; Zhong Ahcheng in 1987; and Shao Fei in 1988. Qu Leilei moved to England in 1986. Bo Yun remained in Beijing, where he is now a Professor at Tsinghua University and a professional painter. Mao Lizi and Yang Yiping also stayed in China. In the last 25 years, several of the Stars have progressed from being marginal artistic dissidents to internationally recognized artists.
In the 1980s, artists in different cities and provinces throughout China formed "avant-garde" art groups and experimented with art forms and concepts they had learned from the West. However, the triumph of the Stars was followed by a ten-year absence of experimental art in the official exhibition space of the China Art Gallery, ending with another ground-breaking event, the "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition in 1989. Since then, the work of avant-garde Chinese artists such as Gu Wenda, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Xu Bing has been increasingly shown not only in China, but in museums, galleries and biennials all over the world. It is conceivable that such radical developments in Chinese contemporary art and the international recognition it has won, would not have been possible without the courageous stand made by the Stars group of artists back in 1979.