Born in Shanghai in 1948, Qiu developed his artistic language alongside the tumultuous politics of China’s Cultural Revolution. He avidly supported the Red Guard while in high school in the 1960s, and devoted himself to making portraits of Chairman Mao and propagandistic cartoons. In 1968 he was assigned a job shoveling coal into a furnace at a factory, and began documenting the reality of daily life in China, creating countless pencil sketches of himself and his fellow workers. His artistic skills did not go unnoticed, and he was eventually transferred to work as a staff artist at the Luwan District Cultural Center in the late ’70s.
During this time he was increasingly exposed to life outside of China, and he began to feel the need for artistic independence. Qiu was particularly moved by a Jackson Pollock painting he saw exhibited in Shanghai, and soon went on to create an independent association of painters known as the Caocao group, or the Grass Painting Society, which drew negative attention from the Communist Party. The Caocao group was quickly banned and Qiu entered a dark period of sustained political pressure and persecution, which led him to suffer a small stroke.