Capital Complex: Photography and Art in Beijing during the 1970s and 80s

Claire Roberts

University of Melbourne

The death of Premier Zhou Enlai on 8 January 1976 marks the beginning of a momentous year in the history of the People’s Republic of China. By year’s end the country’s citizens were also coping with the deadly aftermath of an earthquake that devastated Tangshan, and the death of President Mao Zedong which precipitated the fall of the Gang of Four and the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Springtime in Beijing could not come soon enough. Amateur photographers were among the thousands of people who gathered in Tian’anmen Square on April 4 1976 to mourn the passing of Zhou Enlai. This paper will begin with an examination of photographs taken at that time and consider the fitful rise of ‘people’s photography’, art photography and avant-garde art in wake of cultural and political thaw.


Claire Roberts is Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her ARC Future Fellowship (2015-2019) is titled ‘Reconfiguring the World. China. Art. Agency 1900s to Now’. Claire studied in Beijing 1978-81 including two years in the brush and ink painting department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.



The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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