Core socialist values

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"Chinese slogans on London wall hold mirror to society: artist"

Zhejiang-born Yique tries to find his place in UK after Brick Lane work

TAY HAN NEE, Nikkei Asia

Here are the 24 Chinese characters that constitute the twelve disyllabic words that make up the official "Core Socialist Values" of the PRC government:

National values
Social values
Individual values


These are slogans that the Chinese Communist Party strongly endorses.  Why, then, are the leaders of communist China not supporting the artist [Yique] who painted them on a graffiti wall in London's East End?

Slogans promoting socialist values are plastered everywhere in China, but when East London woke up on Aug. 5 to Yique's 24 Chinese characters spray-painted onto a whitewashed graffiti wall overnight, the backlash at Brick Lane and online was swift and thunderous. The news traveled far and wide of the work that by Yique's own admission pleased no one….

Within hours, some of the work was covered over by references to China's violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and criticisms of President Xi Jinping's government.

"People have judged this work from their own perspectives, different values, knowledge systems and biases, so the piece is like a mirror, reflecting society's issues," he said, describing his critics as anti-China groups.

Brick Lane is in a culturally rich part of London, home to a large Bangladeshi community and the backdrop to and title of a critically acclaimed novel by Monica Ali. If it was once run-down, it is now trendy.

Yique said he chose the "free but chaotic" Brick Lane with its markets and myriad curry houses to provide a stark contrast to the neat, orderly Chinese characters. "Those characters look like they don't belong there; that's their beauty." Renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei wrote on X, formerly Twitter, a few days later that the Brick Lane piece was the "most noteworthy work" in London.

Chinese authorities are less enamored. In a sign that he may have also annoyed them, discussion of his work has been censored in China, Yique claimed. The issue is so sensitive that his parents — his father works for a state enterprise — are staying away from his graduation from a Royal College of Art (RCA) masters program next month.

Yique was initially reluctant to answer when asked if he was afraid of the Chinese government's reaction. Pressed, he finally said, "Of course I'm scared." Two schoolmates, a Singaporean and a Malaysian, were also heavily involved in the creation of the work but have gone to ground since the media furor. He said that more than 20 classmates helped to paint the piece.

Asked if he felt that he could replicate some of his pieces in China without getting into trouble with the authorities, he said: "It is hard to compare openness without taking into account countries' differences. I don't think you can compare China with other countries that simplistically."

There are many other things that Yique has done and that he says in the remainder of the article that corroborate his own assessment of being a "troublemaker".  He seems to be a confused and ambivalent young man (28-years-old) who doesn't know what he is trying to prove.  Moreover, he wants a job (e.g., assistant curator at a London gallery) for which he is not qualified because he lacks the English skills they require.  On the other hand, perhaps the notoriety he has gained through this escapade of the "core socialist values" that he apparently believes in will prove sufficient for him to land some sort of counter-culture position that doesn't require more than mediocre language skills.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Nat said,

    August 27, 2023 @ 7:41 pm

    Ambivalence, or at least ambiguity, is vital aspect of most artwork. The very fact that this painting has produced diametrically opposed reactions gives it value, it seems to me, and makes it worth pursuing. To be sure, he may not have had anything like that in mind when he was making the painting. But I would guess most artists begin their projects with only inchoate motivations, learning the point of their work via exploration, via creating it.
    The question “Why, then, are the leaders of communist China not supporting the artist.…” is certainly intriguing. I guess all I can do is speculate. I’d tentatively hazard that they’re concerned about the predictable backlash? Or perhaps they are interpreting the slogans as ironic? Or perhaps they’ simply want control over the way the official rhetoric is employed?

  2. AntC said,

    August 27, 2023 @ 8:25 pm

    describing his [Yique's] critics as anti-China groups.

    Brits have a very strong sense of the ironical — I would say that's one of the marked cultural contrasts between U.K. vs U.S. linguistic usage. Hence the popularity of Banksy's graffiti; but it goes waaay back in British Art History — Hogarth, 'Gulliver's Travels', 'Tristram Shandy', Evelyn's diaries, ….

    And yet … there has to be some clue in an artistic work "that, when taken in context, may actually mean something different from, or the opposite of, what is written literally" [wikt]. So if you're going to mimic an authoritarian regime's propaganda in an artistic work, the artist has to show they're 'in on' the irony.

    So far from that, I see no clue in the news report or his words that Yique intends any irony/is aware these claimed 'values' from CCP being (to U.K. citizens/any believer in democracy) 'doublethink' or even a more extreme version of the caricature slogans in Orwell's 'Animal Farm' or '1984'.

    I think a Brit wouldn't have to be strongly "anti-China" (meaning anti-CCP, _not_ anti-Chinese people)/or particularly aware of what the CCP's doing in Tibet or Xinjiang to see claims of "Equality, Justice, Freedom, Integrity, Friendship" as total bollix; and absolutely needing satirising. Most Brits have a soft spot for Hong Kong: they're appalled at what's going on there.

    I'm not surprised Brits' reactions were immediate and hostile — indeed that's almost enough to make me feel proud again to be a (ex-)Brit. (I am of course not supporting overstepping the mark of legitimate comment by making threats.)

    I suggest Yique is disqualifying himself from the U.K. art world because of his lack of cultural/artistic understanding, never mind his English skills. (I don't think this is a failing in Chinese culture generally: Taiwan artists are absolutely up with the potential for satire of CCP — from Xi Jinping as Winnie-the-Pooh onwards.)

  3. AntC said,

    August 27, 2023 @ 8:37 pm

    Oh, and

    Renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei wrote on X, formerly Twitter, a few days later that the Brick Lane piece was the "most noteworthy work" in London.

    I suggest Ai Weiwei is also lacking in cultural understanding; the best he can do is remain silent. "most noteworthy work"? Has he been to London? (Unless he was trying to curry favour with CCP — which seems to have backfired, rather predictably.)

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 27, 2023 @ 9:46 pm

    Such presentations give plenty of cause for contemplation in their original contexts, what with the jarring juxtaposition of semantic content with the prison-camp medium/mode. So, whatever the artist(s) themselfs may or may not think they think, it's fer sure art worthy of the name transplanted to say London… even if the execution must be said to lack the authoritarian austerity of the originals (their heart wasn't in it I guess :P) Getting your panties in a knot and painting over it ASAP is one of the lamer responses I can think of…

    On a related note, the conventional translation of these 12 words as nouns ("Prosperity", etc.) misses something of the original force, as they often feel more like verbish injunctions/directives (= more irony… "Be free/patriotic/harmonious, it is hereby commanded, ya shits.")

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 7:37 am

    I'm confident that Yique absolutely intended the irony of displaying these official slogans in Brick Lane, and I interpret the responses citing the Chinese governments's various unhumanitarian actions and policies a (probably predictable) continuation of, if you like, an artistic 'happening'. These responses are not, I think, what Yique meant when he referred to "his critics".

    And yes, Ai Weiwei has been to and exhibited works in London and has, I am sure, a good understanding of our cultural milieu. Art which is not mere 'decoration' but has pointed political impact can indeed be considered particularly noteworthy. The semantic dance going on here, where literally repeating official propaganda without embellishment can be both difficult to condemn and simultaneously understood by the intended viewers as criticism of it, is familiar to English sensibilities, even if Nikkei Asia's correspondent doesn't 'get it'.

    As Louis Armstrong once said in a slightly different artistic context: "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 8:25 am

    Irony is indeed the key to what's going on here, and this paper may be helpful in understanding how it's playing out in this situation:

    Xiang Li, "Irony Illustrated: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Situational Irony in China and the United States", Sino-Platonic Papers, 184 (October, 2008), 59 pages.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 8:45 am

    I am old enough to find it passing strange that you can have a full dozen "core socialist values" without anything adverting to the desirability of social ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. Perhaps via a revolutionary vanguard party acting on behalf of the peasantry and proletariat? This is really a remarkably banal list. Would Chiang Kai-Shek have disagreed with any of the entries?

  8. AntC said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 4:50 am

    The London art student whose Chinese political slogan mural caused a storm [Guardian, 2023-Aug-30]

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