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Children of the Corn: How Pan Dehai’s “Fatties” Distort the Past and Present

Painter Pan Dehai talks with TWOC about the ’85 New Wave movement and the reception of his cute but satiric political works

From his unbearably cute “Fatties” to his somber and malnourished portrayal of street life in his series “The Past,” the works of Pan Dehai (潘德海) arouses a mixed bag of emotions—fuzzy euphoria, but also intense unease, not least due to his juxtaposition of plump and lean, dark and garishly bright.

In the 1980s, Pan co-founded the Southwest Art Research Group, an avant-garde movement summarized by influential contemporary art critic Gao Minglu as looking “backward and inward, through images of distorted bodies or of people living a simple life.” Having fallen in love with the rustic towns and landscapes of southwest China’s Yunnan province, Pan focused on creating contemporary art that spoke to the country’s inner psyche, and stumbled across his now-signature “corn motif”—giving the texture of corn grains to the people, plants, and landscapes he drew.

By the end of the 1990s, the “Corn People” had swollen into the “Fatties.” In Pan’s brush scenes from daily life, as well as images from both real and legendary historical events, emerged tubby characters with stumpy arms resting on well-rounded paunches. On several occasions, Pan has given the chubby treatment to Dong Xiwen’s “Founding Ceremony of the Nation” painting, as well as scenes from the Cultural Revolution, the Long March, and military parades on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue.

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Children of the Corn: How Pan Dehai’s “Fatties” Distort the Past and Present is a story from our issue, “Upstaged.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Alex Colville

Alex Colville is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. Blown to China by the tides of curiosity, then marooned here by the squalls of Covid, Alex used to write for 1843, The Economist, and the Spectator from the confines of a cold London flat. When he’s not writing for TWOC, he can be found researching his bi-weekly column for SupChina from the confines of his freezing Beijing hutong.

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