top of page
  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

By Jeff Kelley, Emily Sano, and William L. Fox

Figure 1: Section of Three Gorges Dam: Displaced Population, 2003, Liu Xiaodong


From 2003 to 2005, Liu Xiaodong traveled to the Three Gorges, located in the Hubei Province of China, to paint surrounding the massive dam that was scheduled to complete there. Liu Xiaodong (1963 -) is a contemporary Chinese artist who paints in a realistic style. Born in a small town called Jincheng in the Liaoning province in 1963, he attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts (the most prestigious art school in China) at the age of seventeen and received a Bachelors's and Masters's degree. Along with his professional art career, he is also a teacher there in the painting department. The Three Gorges Project is considered as one of his most prominent series of works.

The Three Gorges Dam (figure 3) is a hydroelectric dam that stretches 2.3 kilometers (approximately 1.4 miles) across the Yangzi River in the town Sandouping. From the time of its completion in 2003, it remains the largest dam in the world and generates around 90 terawatt-hours annually. To gain perspective, this is 20 times of Hoover's Dam's energy generation that powers 1.3 million homes. This massive structure, envisioned by Mao Zedong in a poem (figure 9) and by other leaders before him, aimed to generate hydropower and control floods. As the dam collects water from the Yangzi River into a massive reservoir, the water level gradually reached a height of 175 meters (approximately 574 feet) and flooded thousands of villages, towns, and cities. This displaced 1.3 million people, who are the main subject of Liu's canvases (one of which in figure 2).

Figure 2: Three Gorges Dam: Displaced Population, 2003, Liu Xiaodong

*Pardon the slightly inaccurate coloration of this image, for this was the only picture that I could find.

In the background, one can see houses and buildings reduced to a wasteland by the hands of its previous inhabitants. In the foreground, six figures stand in a line carrying what seems like a metal rod. The incremental rise between each panel of this rod symbolizes the rising water level that submerges people's homes and livelihoods.

Figure 3: The Three Gorges Dam in the Hubei Province of China

Further Exploration

Socialist Realism:

Socialist Realism (example figure 4) is a style of art first adopted by the Soviets to promote communist ideas. After founding the People's Republic of China in 1949, all Chinese artists were mandated to paint in this politically correct style. It was used to educate the working class of the communist utopia and the inevitability of the revolution. Some of the distinctive features of these paintings include:

  • Figures looking in unison towards one direction to represent working for a common goal

  • Leaders hailed as gods and saviors standing above the people

  • Rosy-faced peasants dressed in plain but purposeful clothing and equipped with industrial or agricultural tools

In the article "From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism," the authors accurately summarized that "Socialist Realism is socialist first, not realist"(Ding and Lu). Thus the name Revolutionary Romanticism is better suited because the style renders reality with exaggeration and idealization. Liu often likes to paint based on sociopolitical conditions, especially of the working class. His works classify into social realism, not to be confused with socialist realism. 

Figure 4: A propaganda poster for the People's Liberation Army (during the Cultural Revolution) painted in the Socialist Realism Style


Liu's paintings are fascinating and thoughtful because they are filled with symbolism and give his audience room to interpret. For example, in the painting Three Gorges Dam: Newly Displaced Population (figure 5), three ducks are depicted: one to the leftmost edge of the canvas, and two towards the right (at first glance it may seem like one duck). The leftmost flies in a very rigid position, and its resolution represent the "engineering triumph"(Kelly, 40) of the dam. On the right, the duck closer to the viewer is shot and falling, representing the dismantled and desolate cities and towns; the other duck flies into the distance, representing the relocated people.

Figure 5: Three Gorges Dam: Newly Displaced Population, 2005, Liu Xiaodong

Liu's works are often compared to that of Lucian Freud, who is a British figurative artist known for his bold and highly recognizable style of portraiture. There are two explanations for this similarity: first, Liu studied Freud's techniques, and second, a mere coincidence. I believe that Liu had seen Freud's works before, given the latter's renown, and perhaps imitated his style. However, that does not make Liu's works inferior. Liu's close friend, Cheng Danqing (another contemporary Chinese artist), reflected that Liu's works differ in his figures' softness and familiarity. As someone with living experiences in China, these figures resemble the working class beyond their individuality.

There are several things I like about the format of this book. First, I like the magnified details of Liu's paintings, which allow me to see the textures and colors clearly. Referencing the documentary (mentioned later), I can observe that Liu's brushstrokes are very confident and accurate. He does not entirely mix his colors before applying them onto the canvas and creates a slight gradient with every stroke. Second, I like the comparisons made to Western paintings. Although I doubt Liu referenced them during his process, it is helpful to see reoccurring imageries and concepts among different artists. 

Supporting Resources

After reading this book, I became very interested in Liu's character beyond his artist identity and his thoughts behind the paintings. The author mentioned a film crew recording Liu's progress, and the name of this documentary is "Dong," which in Chinese is the character for the east and also a part of Liu's name. It records Liu's journey in the Three Gauges and Thailand to paint the two pieces of his Hotbed series, the first depicting construction workers (figures 6 and 7) and the second depicting prostitutes. I noticed that where ever he goes, Liu always seeks to gain a local perspective. He tries to learn the culture and language of the natives and is not aloof at all. When one of the workers who posed for Liu died (construction accidents were common in rural areas), Liu went to the village to give his condolences. He bought toys and clothing for the worker's children and sincerely talked with the villagers. In the great consideration Liu has for the working class, he also realizes his incapabilities as a commoner to improve their situation.

Figure 6: Hotbed, 2005, Liu Xiaodong

Figure 7: Section of Hotbed, 2005, Liu Xiaodong

Awed by the works shown in this book, I decided to paint a study of one of Liu's paintings titled Winter is Gone (comparison photo figure 8). From this experience, I found that Liu applies his paint very quickly and uses a harmonious range of colors. I admire his works and will paint more studies in the future.

Figure 8: Winter is Gone, 2017, Liu Xiaodong (left), My study of Winter is Gone, 2020 (right)

*One major defect in my study is that I made the time of day look like morning while the original piece looked like dawn. 

Although I have not seen Liu's works in person, I can imagine how enthralling the experience must be. His realistic scenery and embedded symbols prompt the audience to think deeply. In addition, the sheer size of his paintings with its larger-than-life figures makes a significant impact in my mind. Reading this book made me profoundly regret not visiting Liu's exhibitions in the Central Academy of Fine Arts during the eight years I lived in Beijing, China. I would recommend this short but compact book to anyone and especially those with some understanding of China's social background. 

Memorable Quotes and Excerpts

"Embodying a social critique of upper-class status and refinement, realist painting sought an unembellished depiction of the observable world, including its common, sometimes ugly, features"(Kelly, 10).


In conclusion, Liu Xiaodong's Three Gorges Project is a set of works that portray the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam on the people. These highly realistic paintings include multiple symbols and reflect social phenomenons in China. Although Liu did not express any political opinion on the Three Gorges Dam, his works evoke the audience to think. Is the sacrifice of 1.3 million people's attachment to their land and environmental changes worth the vast amount of electricity generation which could power more homes? Are controversial decisions like such necessary in the development of a nation? Can the positive effects of this dam be achieved in other ways (building a number of smaller dams, for example), or was this decision influenced by prior leaders and their dreams? These are the several questions I asked myself when I viewed Liu's art.

Figure 9 (right): Mao Zedong's poem "Swimming" engraved on a Flood Memorial in Wuhan, China. He expressed his vision of "walls of stone" erected upstream.

Figure 10 (above): Picture of Liu Xiaodong working on Hotbed

Works Cited

Ding, Liu, and Yinghua Lu. "From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism." Tate, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

Hyer, Eric A. "Art & Politics in Mao’s China." Kennedy Center, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

"Lisson Gallery." Lisson Gallery, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

"Liu Xiaodong." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 1 Dec. 2006, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

Liu, Xiaodong, and Jeff Kelley. The Three Gorges Project: Paintings by Liu Xiaodong. Asian Art Museum of San, 2006. 

Phillips, Tom. "The Cultural Revolution: All You Need to Know About China's Political Convulsion." The Guardian, 28 Nov. 2017, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

"Three Gorges Dam." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 27 July 2002, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

"“Hotbed” by Liu Xiaodong." Aesthetic Experience & Global Competence, 22 Oct. 2014, Accessed 28 July 2020. 

艾不思Si. "东.Dong.2006.贾樟柯导演作品 | 刘小东 | 【搬运】艺术家纪录片系列01_哔哩哔哩 (゜-゜)つロ 干杯~-bilibili." 哔哩哔哩 (゜-゜)つロ 干杯~-bilibili, 3 July 2020,


Recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, Liu Xiaodong has been stuck in New York, unable to return to China and his teaching position. As he always wanted to paint the city, he has made a series of watercolors on his sketchbook of various buildings, people, and such. It is now exhibited online at the Lisson Gallery, and you can access the entire series by clicking here. I also recommend reading his diary entries as they are thought-provoking as well. Note that you may need to enter your email address and your name to see the exhibition. 

632 views1 comment

1 Comment

Mar 17, 2023

Excellent realism

bottom of page