NüStories MagazineProfilesQ&A

Madeleine O’Dea on her memoir The Phoenix Years, Chinese artists and the nation’s transformation


“The riveting story of China’s rise from economic ruin to global giant in the past four decades is illuminated by another, equally fascinating, narrative beneath its surface – the story of the country’s emerging artistic avant-garde and the Chinese people’s ongoing struggle for freedom of expression. By following the stories of nine contemporary Chinese artists, The Phoenix Years shows how China’s rise unleashed creativity, thwarted hopes, and sparked tensions between the individual and the state that continue to this day. It relates the heady years of hope and creativity in the 1980s, which ended in the disaster of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Following that tragedy comes China’s meteoric economic rise, and the opportunities that emerged alongside the difficult compromises artists and others have to make to be citizens in modern China. Foreign correspondent Madeleine O’Dea has been an eyewitness for over thirty years to the rise of China, the explosion of its contemporary art and cultural scene, and the long, ongoing struggle for free expression. The stories of these artists and their art mirror the history of their country. The Phoenix Years is vital reading for anyone interested in China today.” – Pegasus Books

Who should read this book and why?

The Phoenix Years is a book for people who want to get under the skin of history, and feel what it’s like to live through momentous times. Most of us know something big has happened in China over recent decades, but the very scale of it can make it really hard to grasp. So my book takes the story down to an individual level, and builds the narrative by braiding together different people’s stories. My idea was to take the reader inside history, so they can understand what it was like to be living the events, not looking on or analysing. I think the book shows how much of historical change is powered from below, by individuals’ actions, their energy, creativity, and passion. I think that’s a really important thing to understand especially in relation to a country like China where the people at the top, the Chinese Communist Party, are very keen to take all the credit for the transformation of China for themselves. You will see this in all their talk about “lifting people out of poverty” and creating a “new China,” in short in their attempt to make this story all about them. And you know, it really isn’t!

Zhang Xiaogang in his Beijing studio. Credit: Judy Wenjuan Zhou.

What story does the book try to tell?

The book tells the story of the transformation of China over the last 40 years, taking us from the late 70s to today. It begins with a country still reeling from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution and shows how a great movement for change grew up as a reaction to that. On one hand, there was the opening up of China’s economy both internally and to the outside world. On the other there was a great opening up in people’s hearts and minds, as individuals dreamed of a better, freer future. The book tells how the push for a freer society has ebbed and flowed over the decades since. It places the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989 as a pivotal point. It is also about how Chinese contemporary art has reflected and embodied that history, leading it to become recognised as one of the most exciting movements in the history of art.

The book appeals to a wide range of people, not just China specialists. Why do you think that is so?

I think it’s because the book focuses on individuals, people you get to know really well and follow as they live through key events for themselves and for China. For example, you first meet one of the main “characters” in the book when he’s just a raw army recruit, off to the front in China’s war with Vietnam in 1979. He hails from one of the poorest parts of China and he looks set to be cannon fodder basically. Yet he survives, and you get to follow him as he rides the opportunities of an opening China all the way to university in Beijing, and then on to Tiananmen Square in 1989 where he joins the demonstrations and becomes one of the hunger strikers. You then get to see how he deals with the Tiananmen tragedy and finds a new path for himself, as many people were forced to do after that event.

Aside from these personal stories, I think another reason why people respond so well to the book is that it shows how people can power change in society, and how idealism and creativity can survive even great loss and hardship. It’s inspiring. Basically, the book makes history human.

Why did you choose to focus on artists to tell the story?

Guo Jian in his Songzhuang studio, 2014. Credit: Wei Wanli.

Firstly it’s because there’s such an intimate connection between the history of contemporary art in China and the history of contemporary China itself. In fact both were born at the same time. Today’s China and Chinese contemporary art were both born in the late 1970s, at a time of extraordinary upheaval in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. At that time there was a realisation that China desperately needed to change, that after all that destruction the country had to open up if it was to survive. The young artists who created the first contemporary art works at that time had experienced the Cultural Revolution at first hand, and their work spoke deeply to the moment. Over the years since, Chinese contemporary artists have continued to engage deeply with their country’s history, not just reflecting it but living it and breathing it too. I also chose artists to tell the story because of the vividness of their perceptions. Their lives are devoted to seeing their world clearly and that adds great richness to the book.

You first arrived in China in the middle of the 1980s. In the book you say that the 80s was perhaps the freest decade in China’s contemporary history. Could you talk a bit more about your experiences of that period? How did you get drawn into the artist community?

It really was an amazing period and I feel incredibly lucky to have lived in China during those years. When I first arrived in Beijing in 1986 we were just a few years into the grand experiment of the “reform and opening up” of the country and nobody really knew where the limits would be and where it was all going to lead. This lent an exciting edge to so many of your encounters and so much of what you did. I was really fortunate to live out near Beijing’s university district rather than in the diplomatic compound in the centre of the city where journalists were meant to live. This meant I got ready access to Beijing’s bohemia, which centred in those days on a place called the Friendship Hotel, which was where the foreign teachers and other “experts” lived. It was there that I began my friendships with a number of Chinese artists and poets, and later I started to hang out with them at their homes in town or in the Old Summer Palace ruins which was also a locus of Beijing’s bohemia back then. You’ve got to remember I was only in my mid twenties then and so I was gravitating to people my own age. We were just so curious about each other and stayed up night after night debating and discussing everything from Nietzsche and Sartre to Warhol and Picasso. And communism and democracy too, of course. The young Chinese people I met had an immense thirst to engage and debate. They also felt a great desire to be involved in driving change in their country. This was something that played out so tragically in 1989. I write about all this in my book of course.

Can you give us some updates on the artists you followed in your book? How have they been affected in the increasingly authoritarian environment under President Xi Jinping? Have any relocated overseas?

Huang Rui in the White Cloud House, Beijing. Credit: Judy Wenjuan Zhou.

When I finished writing the book two of the artists were living in a kind of exile in the west and that continues to be their situation. Both artists – Guo Jian and Sheng Qi – continue to be deeply engaged with what’s happening in China and continue to create work that reflects that. The other artists continue to live in China while pursuing increasingly international careers. Contemporary artists in China today are lucky in that they are able to pursue domestic and international careers in parallel. Without specifically referring to any of the artists in my book I think it is notable how many Chinese artists nowadays show a much broader range of work abroad than they do in China. The situation for artists within China is increasingly constrained, with not just censorship pressures but the pressures of development which is making it harder and harder to afford studio space and to produce work. One great thing that has happened since I finished the book is that Huang Rui, who is a founding figure in Chinese contemporary art and a major character in my book, has made huge progress in his dream to preserve his studio as a publicly accessible museum space into the future. Until recently his studio was in immediate danger of being demolished so the land it stood on could be exploited for re-development, but now it looks secure. His studio is now regularly open to the public and people who go there can look at an amazing collection of his work from his very earliest days as a founder of the Stars group (the very first contemporary art group in China) right through to the present day. It’s called the White Cloud House and it’s a major contribution to the cultural fabric of Beijing.

How did you get started as a journalist in China?

I’d always wanted to be a writer but as I finished university my main aim was to get a job so I could earn enough money to travel and have the kinds of experiences I believed writers ought to have! Like all my university cohort that year I applied for a job in the civil service – the Australian government had a big graduate recruitment program and fortunately didn’t turn up their noses at people like me who had studied arts rather than anything more obviously “useful.” As it turned out I got a traineeship in the Prime Minister’s department and so ended up spending a fascinating five years working on the inside of administrative, social and economic policy making, while also getting a chance to learn a lot about the media from observing them up close from the other side of the fence. Anyway after five years I realised I still wanted to be a writer, and specifically a journalist, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make it happen. Luckily my partner at the time conceived a grand plan to set off to work in China and suggested I go too.

Chatting with women from Yili, Xinjiang Province, 2004. Credit: Madeleine O’Dea.

Fortunately for me back in the 80s China was still off the beaten track for the media, and lots of outlets didn’t have their own correspondents there. I was lucky enough to hear that the Australian Financial Review was looking for someone and my background in the PM’s department made me interesting enough for them to consider. They told me they’d take pieces from me on spec and see how it went. Luckily they liked what they got and so within a few weeks I was their accredited correspondent in Beijing. I reported for them for the next couple of years and then later on joined the ABC (Australia’s public broadcaster). I still can’t quite believe that’s how I got my start, but I did. I owe my former partner (and China) a lot. I guess my advice would be that you can come to journalism in all sorts of different ways, and all kinds of work can be a great background to a career in writing. And if you see an opening, jump at it!

When did you decide to embark on this book project? Did you always know you would write a memoir on your years in China? If you didn’t know from the beginning, can you give some tips on how prospective memoir writers can mine their memories to create vivid accounts of events that happened a while ago?

I only started seriously thinking about writing the book in about 2011, a long time after I first went to China, and so I hadn’t been doing the thing that is probably the number one recommendation for any prospective memoir writer – keep a journal! A journal – even if it’s really cursory – can be incredibly evocative. Small details can trigger vivid memories and journal entries can also remind you of what you thought at the time, rather than what you think in retrospect.

A resource I personally found really helpful were my journalist’s notebooks – do not throw these out! These too can take you back in time, and are almost invariably full of great details, transcripts of interviews, random ideas, contacts, and so on. Needless to say keep your clips too. I found these particularly useful for the latter chapters of the book. Photos can be a great resource also. Take lots of them, use them like a diary. Take photos of things that just strike you as interesting, random things. You’ll be surprised at the details you can pick up later from photos. When I wanted to describe the tiny courtyard home of the artist I visit in the very first chapter of my book I was really lucky to have a couple of photos of his place which were a great check for my memory. I also found music really evocative. I recommend you put together a soundtrack of the time you are writing about and listen to that incessantly. You’ll be surprised what comes to the surface via music.When I was mining the memories of the characters in my book I found talking about music was a really great trigger for them too.

One final thing is to revisit places that were important to you. Even if you find them terribly changed the visit itself will trigger memories, and if by some chance you find things are the same, like I did when I revisited my old apartment and found the same guy out front mending shoes who had been there the very first time I went there, it will be gold. A whole day can come back to you bright as brand new.

Portrait of author. Credit: Nick Brightman.

About the author

Madeleine O’Dea is a writer and journalist who has been covering the political, economic and cultural life of China for the past three decades. She first went to Beijing in 1986 as the correspondent for the Australian Financial Review newspaper, and covered China through the 1990s as a producer with ABC Television. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Artinfo China and the Asia Correspondent for Art + Auction and Modern Painters magazines. She has written for a range of other publications including The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, Orientations and Leap magazines, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and The Australian. Visit her website and order her book.
Book Details
The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance, and the Making of Modern China
Allen & Unwin (Sydney, 2016), Pegasus Books (New York, 2017, 2018)