Digital Workshop Series “Digital Dialogues 數字對話” #18: The Minjian Avant-Garde: Book Talk and Discussion with Chang Tan


As part of the Digital Workshop Series “Digital Dialogues”, researchers discuss various aspects and questions of the Joint Center “Worldmaking”. The 17th session of this series hosted by the Joint Center’s project CATS Kolleg Epochal Lifeworlds: Narratives of Crisis and Change.

Time: June 19, 2024, 13:00-14:30 (Central European Summer Time), 19:00-20:30 (China Standard Time)

Access: Zoom. Please contact Chang Liu (chang.liu[at] for the link and reading materials.

In her new book The Minjian Avant-Garde: Art of the Crowd in Contemporary China, Chang Tan departs from the usual emphasis on art institutions, global markets, or artists’ communities. Instead, she presents a new analytical framework within the theories of socially engaged art that stresses the critical agency of participants, the affective functions of objects, and the versatility of artists in diverse sociopolitical spheres. She examines how experimental artists in China mixed with, brought changes to, and let themselves be transformed by minjian, the volatile and diverse public of the post-Mao era.

The minjian avant-garde, Tan’s book shows, was unique in their attempt to simultaneously engage in world-making and world narration, populism and radicalism. Minjian, an indispensable actor of world-making in China, are often more complex, defiant, and savvy than elites would assume, and they could constitute either a democratizing or coercive force. Tan questions the fetishization of marginalized communities among practitioners of progressive art and politics, while showing how the art forms the avant-garde invented mediated between human and non-human actors and negotiated with epochal changes.   

Organized by Chang Liu, research fellow at Heidelberg University, the event is part of the “Open Humanities Lecture Series” and the Digital Dialogues series of the project “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective: A Dialogue with China,” funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research ( Following Chang Tan’s introduction of her book, Yizhou Wang, research assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Emily Williams, associate professor at Xi’an Jiao Tong-Liverpool University, will join as discussants to reflect on some of the issues discussed. The book talk will conclude with an open Q&A session with the audience.

Short Bios:

Chang TAN is the associate professor of Art History and Asian Studies at Penn State University. Her research interests include global avant-gardism, public and socially engaged art, eco art and activism, vernacular art, and the history of collecting and exhibiting Asian art. Her first book The Minjian Avant-Garde: Art of the Crowd in Contemporary China (Cornell 2023) critically assesses the rise of populism in both art and politics. Her current book project, supported by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, studies collaborative artmaking and the emergence of vernacular modernisms in diasporic Chinese communities. She is also working on a co-edited volume that focuses on ecocriticism and art in the Sinophone world.

Yizhou WANG, born in Chongqing, is a research assistant professor in art history and theory at the Academy of Visual Arts of Hong Kong Baptist University. She received her Ph.D. in Chinese art history from Heidelberg University. Before her doctoral studies, she studied Japanese and Korean art history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and received an M.Litt. in Arts of China from the University of Glasgow. Her research interests cover various topics in East Asian art history, ranging from painting to photography and from medieval and early modern periods to modern times. She has published peer-reviewed articles in Ming Qing Studies, Research on Women in Modern Chinese History, Chung Cheng Chinese Studies, and edited volumes. Besides academic research, Wang is also enthusiastic about experimenting with curatorial practice and video arts.

Emily WILLIAMS is a cultural historian of modern China, with a particular interest in Maoist material culture and collections of red relics in contemporary China. She received her Ph.D. from Birkbeck College, University of London in 2016, and has taught at Birkbeck College, Christie’s Education London, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She joined Xi’an Jiao Tong Liverpool University in 2018 and is associate professor and head of the Department of China Studies. She teaches modules in Chinese history, society, and aesthetics. Her first book, Collecting the Revolution: British Engagements with Chinese Cultural Revolution Material Culture (Rowman Littlefield), was published in 2022.

Chang LIU recently defended his PhD thesis, MAOdonna: The Social Life of Madonna in Post-Mao China, in Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University (in cotutela with Ca’ Foscari University of Venice). He is currently a research fellow at the “Worldmaking from a Global Perspective.” He has written on contemporary popular music, including several forthcoming essays such as “Songs of the World: On the Global Dissemination and Geopolitics of Chinese Rock” and “The Environmentalist Guide to China’s Rock ‘n’ Roll: From Slow Violence to Activism.” Before pursuing a research career in academia, he was based in Beijing and served at the French Embassy in China as the musical affairs officer.