Innovations in Chinese Painting (1850 - 1950)




 [Painting I]  [Painting II]  [Painting III]  [Calligraphy]

The Shanghai School, 1850-1900

The port of Shanghai was named one of five treaty ports in 1843, as a result of China's defeat by Britain in the Opium War. Ideally situated as a node for domestic shipping on the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal and for international martime trade across the Pacific Ocean, by 1850 Shanghai had seen the establishment by British, American, and French merchants of settlements in foreign concessions. The population swelled with Chinese residents after the outbreak of the bloody Taiping rebellion in 1853, which swept through the lower Yangzi River during the following decade. Many of the refugees were wealthy officials or merchants, and over the course of the subsequent half century, many others prospered in commerce. The newly created wealth in Shanghai provided fertile ground for the patronage of art. Artists from throughout the region flocked to Asia's largest and richest city, gathered themselves into groups and art associations, and collectively created a new Shanghai style.

The formation of the Shanghai school style owes a great debt to the remarkably talented Ren Xiong, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 34 in 1857. Painters of the Ren family and their students produced a dazzling array of innovations in painting between the 1860s and the 1890s, particularly in the traditional genres of figure painting and bird-and-flower painting. Artists were stimulated by their new environment, in which the tastes of a broadened class of newly wealthy collectors, each of whom brought a particular local culture to Shanghai, offered new opportunities for artists. The concentration of talent in the city was remarkable, but almost as stimulating was the modernizing environment of the city, in which streets were lit with gas or electricity, and artists were exposed to a remarkable range of domestic and foreign material objects.

The Lingnan School, 1900-1950

The Qing dynasty closed China to maritime trade in 1757, just at the moment when European nations were expanding their international commerce. Guangzhou (Canton) was the only legal port for trade between China and the outside world until 1843. This southeastern region, which includes modern Guangdong province, was commonly referred to as Lingnan, and produced some of the most important political thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, who advocated replacing the imperial system with a constitutional monarchy, and Sun Yat-sen, who established China's first republic in 1911.

The development of a Cantonese manner of painting began in the nineteenth century, but did not attain national visibility and a distinctive style until the first part of the twentieth century. The leader of the Lingnan School of painting was Gao Jianfu (1879-1950?), who joined the Alliance Society (Tongmeng hui), founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1905 to overthrow the emperor. After 1911 he devoted himself instead to a revolution in art. In his painting, publications, and teaching, he promoted the development of a New National Painting (xin guohua). He and his followers, most notably his younger brother Gao Qifeng, combined the local style with elements of Western and Japanese realist painting to create an art that they hoped would be more accessible to the citizenry of China's new republic than the literati painting of the past.

in the Republican Period, 1911-1950

As part of a powerful twentieth century trend toward the Westernization of China's economy, society, and culture, the art education in China's modern schools was dominated by European artistic techniques, which educators considered necessary for engineering and science. Painting in the traditional medium of ink and color on paper was now referred to as guohua (national painting), to distinguish it from Western-style oil painting, watercolor painting, or drawing, and became only one of several options for a Chinese artist.

Faced with this institutionalized assault on traditional ink painting, idealistic artists organized themselves to defend and reform China's heritage. They agreed that innovation was necessary, but believed progress could be, and should be, achieved within the confines of China's own cultural tradition. Some of them recognized conceptual similarities between Western modernism and the self-expressive and formalistic qualities of guohua, and so allied themselves with modernist oil painters in a battle against academicism in art. Others held a profound belief that the best qualities of Chinese civilization should never be abandoned.

We might label this diverse group of painters traditionalists, but they differed on what part of China's long and varied art history should be their "tradition.". A prominent group of guohua painters, including Wu Changshi, Wang Zhen, Feng Zikai, Chen Hengke, and Fu Baoshi, had strong ties to Japan, where similar nationalistic cultural trends were on the rise, and tended to seek imagery that was simple but bold. Others, such as Wu Hufan, He Tianjian, Chang Dai-chien and Zheng Yong, based their work upon a return to the highly refined classical techniques of the Song and Yuan periods. A third group, dominated by Xu Beihong, followed the footsteps of Gao Jianfu in trying to reform Chinese ink painting by adding elements of Western realism.

Modern Chinese Calligraphy

The art of calligraphy in China has historically served several roles, with a balance required between the practical transmission of textual information and the creation of aesthetic impact with brush and ink. A great interest in archaeology among late Qing dynasty intellectuals, based in part on critical reevaluations of China's history, fed directly into the efforts of twentieth century calligraphers to create new styles of writing. A particularly notable trend in the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries was the invention of new calligraphic styles based on studies of newly excavated or rediscovered stone steles. The script styles of the ancient carvings possessed a primitive aesthetic power that was admired by many innovative calligraphers. The study of such steles, a practice referred to as beixue, is evident in the work of Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1927), Wu Changshi (1844-1927), and Kang Youwei (1858-1927).

At the same time, innovations were made within the tradition of tiexue, or the study of classical calligraphy models. The idealistic artistYu Youren (1878-1964), who was an active supporter of Sun Yat-sen's revolution, attempted to develop a national standard for the practice of cursive script, or caoshu, which he believed could be made "easy to read, easy to write, precise, and beautiful," and thus might promote national efficiency. Tiexue styles underwent a revival between the 1950s and 1970s, with the work of such calligraphers as Shen Yinmo (1883-1971) and Lin Sanzhi (1898-1989), who transformed the classical semi-cursive and cursive manners associated with Wang Xizhi (act. 320-360) into their own individual styles. A major change in the social role and function of calligraphy has occurred in recent years, however, with the widespread adoption of pens, making calligraphy today a more purely aesthetic practice.

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Text information prepared by Dr. Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen
Last updated 27 February, 1998 by Janice M. Glowski.

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