THE HUNTINGTON ARCHIVE of Buddhist and Asian Art
China: 5,000 Years

March 15 - November 15, 1998 | The Columbus Museum of Art |
480 E. Broad St. | Columbus, OH 43215 | USA

Image selection for the exhibition by Carolyn W. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Innovations in Chinese Painting
(1850 - 1950)

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.

Guohua 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 images/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.

The Modernist Generations
(1920 - 1950)

Modern Oil Painting Before the Pacific War

Western-style painting became a required part of China's national education curriculum in 1902, initially taught by foreign instructors and later by their students. Over the next half century many students studied art overseas, principally in Japan and Europe. They brought back to China the full range of modernist trends in which they participated abroad, and as attempts were made to spread their knowledge, a lively debate erupted over the roles different styles of oil painting might play in a modernizing China.

The French-trained Lin Fengmian, appointed director of the Hangzhou National Art Academy in 1928, trained several generations of influential modernists. His circles dominated the First National Art Exhibition of 1929, but, unfortunately, the paintings produced in the academy's heyday were destroyed following the Japanese invasion of 1937. Xu Beihong, who also studied in Europe in the 1920s, was appointed to head the art department of National Central University in the capital, where he promoted an opposing practice, that of academic realism.

In addition to these two dominant institutional trends, other influential artists who studied in Japan or Europe came back to China committed to styles ranging from post-impressionism to fauvism and finally, in the 1930s, to surrealism. Idealists such as the Paris-trained Pang Xunqin, for example, fervently hoped in the 1930s that a great international artist would emerge from within his modernist circles in Shanghai.

Oil Painting in the War Years, 1937-1945

The extraordinary pluralism of the Chinese art world in the 1930s, and the cosmopolitan dreams that accompanied it, were shattered by the outbreak of the Pacific war, which forced many artists into an eight-year exile in China's impoverished interior, and threatened the very existence of their nation. China's public institutions relocated far inland, to Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan after the Japanese occupation of the coastal cities in 1937. The truly desperate situation of China itself and of its refugee artists left little energy for the luxury of pure self-expression. For those who continued to paint, a new, self-reflective tone replaced the joy to be seen earlier in the decade, and social commentary became a more common theme in painting.

Graphic Design and China's Modernization

The impulse toward modernity in Chinese art was as multi-faceted as the society from which it sprang. Commercial artists of the Republican period (1911-1949), with one foot in modern industry and technology and the other in literature and art, brought the most compelling aspects of Japanese, European and North American design to China, and particularly to China's publishing center of Shanghai.

The rise of artistically creative cover designs is often attributed to the circle around the May Fourth writer Lu Xun, who designed covers for his own books as early as 1909 and remained closely involved with the designs of the many publications he authored or edited until his death in 1936. All the works in this section of the exhibition were in Lu Xun's personal collection.

Like Lu Xun, many of the designers who worked for the Shanghai publishers had studied in Japan or were enthusiasts of Japanese art and technology, but also informed themselves about modernist trends in Europe. Their covers thus ranged from Japanese-style vegetal compositions to constructivist abstractions. Many artists played with modern lettering and typography, for which the Chinese script offered unique challenges and opportunities. Of particular note in Lu Xun's own designs was his interest in archaeological motifs, which he rearranged in a contemporary manner. Modern Chinese design, publishing, and consuming had unique local characteristics, but Chinese design artists, at their best, presented their urban audiences with fully mature products of an up-to-date international design vocabulary.

The Birth of the Modern Woodcut Movement

The modern Chinese woodcut is a form of art that, from its inception, fully synthesized the cosmopolitan aspirations of its practitioners with the particularities of their Chinese situation. The birth of the new Chinese woodcut movement is usually dated to August, 1931, when Lu Xun invited thirteen Shanghai art students to study print-making techniques with the Japanese print-maker Uchiyama Kayoshi. Lu Xun further made his growing collection of European, Soviet, and Japanese woodcuts available to young artists for study in exhibitions and in reproduction albums.

An important thrust of the new woodcut movement was self-expression in a modernist mode, but many of the young artists, like their mentor, were leftists, and communicating social concerns to a broad audience was part of their mission. The early prints were usually not numbered and were often given away rather than sold. Those exhibited here belonged to Lu Xun and are thus firmly dateable to the period between 1932 and 1936.

With Lu Xun's encouragement, the art of woodblock printing spread quickly among China's young artists, and many abandoned their studies of oil painting in order to devote themselves to its development by making prints, editing journals, and organizing exhibitions. After the Japanese invasion, the young printmakers scattered, some joining the Communist community based in Yanan and others working for the war effort in various parts of the Nationalist- controlled territory. Woodcuts, seen in the previous era as instruments of social change, now became weapons of national salvation.

The Politicization of the Print

The communist army made its headquarters in remote Yan'an, in Shaanxi province, for more than a decade during the 1930s and 1940s, and Yan'an became the place where ideals of a Chinese communist society were first put into practice. In 1942 Mao Zedong delivered a series of speeches in Yan'an that came to be known as his "Talks on Literature and Art." In response to his directives, communist artists made folk elements a distinctive aspect of their prints. In order to better communicate with north Chinese peasants, most of whom were illiterate, they developed clearly readable outline styles that were familiar to their audiences, emulating in their simplicity the woodcut posters made for holidays by peasant artists. Prints from the Communist- controlled areas tended to be optimistic in tone and naive in style.

Many woodcut artists who returned to China's cities, particularly Shanghai, following the Japanese surrender in 1945 devoted themselves to social criticism, and often to criticism of the government. At the same time, artists such as Li Hua sought to perfect his technique, creating work that was at once sophisticated and visually compelling. Protest gave this art its power, and the Communist victory in 1949, which was supported by many woodcut artists, concluded its mission.

Art for New China
(1950 - 1980)

The People's Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949. Following the principles established in Mao's Yanan Talks on Art and Literature of 1942, the new government set about creating a new art for the new nation. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to transplant the Yanan folk styles to China's cities, it was decided that oil painting would be a primary focus, and that Soviet socialist realism was the most appropriate model. Young artists were sent to Leningrad to study and a Soviet artist, Konstantin Maksimov, was invited to Beijing to instruct an elite class of young painters. In two major campaigns in 1959 and 1961, these artists produced major history paintings in the new manner for the state buildings erected around Tiananmen Square. Establishing both a Chinese socialist realist style and a revolutionary iconography, this group of paintings determined the course of China's artistic development. Its artists were dispersed to different parts of the nation, where they continued to paint and served as mentors to China's next generation of painters.

Socialist Realist Guohua

The early 1950s saw a systematic program to replace classical Chinese ink painting with an art that was socially useful and not tied to modes of brushwork considered backward. The primary means by which this was accomplished was through training a younger generation of painters in principles of Western academic drawing, which they then applied to guohua figure painting. The idealistic young artists created an unprecedented mode of Chinese painting, in which new techniques were used to paint themes that had never before been seen in traditional Chinese art. Early in their project they began modifying the socialist realist idiom, realizing the expressive potential of the blank backgrounds and rich ink tones typical of traditional Chinese painting.

Traditionalist Guohua in Socialist China

While younger artists pursued the creation of a new figure painting, traditionally trained older artists remained marginalized during the first years of new China. They reemerged, with Zhou Enlai's assistance, in the late 1950s, when institutes devoted to the preservation of Chinese painting were established in a few major cities. Although there was still little place in the new society for the private scale of small scroll paintings, guohua painters who had been most influential in the 1930s and 1940s returned to their life's work.

Worried by the damage to national morale of the psychologically devastating 1957 Anti-rightist Campaign and the exhausting 1958 Great Leap Forward, Zhou Enlai took the role of spokesman for a 1959 policy which urged that "one hundred flowers bloom and one hundred schools of thought contend." In the art world, aspirations pent up for a decade seemed to burst forth in a variety of traditionalist and quasi-traditionalist paintings. Pan Tianshou successfully transformed his paintings into the monumental size needed for public display. He Tianjian filled his classical landscapes with contemporary iconography. The Nanjing and Shaanxi painters made innovations in socialist landscape painting, while other artists, like Wu Hufan and Lin Fengmian, remained committed to an apolitical realm of pure art.

The Iconography of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976

One of the great man-made calamities of the twentieth century was launched in the spring of 1966, when Mao Zedong and his close advisors mobilized the youth of China in his name to protest administrators in every sector of Chinese society. In the course of answering his mandate to root out bad elements, they completely destroyed China's governmental and institutional structure, caused untold suffering to their elders and each other, and left the military as the only source of social order.

The great irony of this period is that many of the young people who answered Mao's call were idealists, convinced by the political rhetoric of the time that the generational warfare Mao had unleashed would save their nation from its enemies. They threw themselves into the movement, contributing their talents selflessly. Young writers edited propaganda journals, actors performed in the model operas, and artists developed a new iconography for the cult of the heroic Chairman Mao.

Oil Painting in the Late Cultural Revolution

Order was restored to the nation's cities in the late 1960s by sending virtually all of China's teenagers to the most remote areas to become farmers or manual laborers. Once again, most initially considered exile in Heilongjiang, the Chinese equivalent of Siberia, or similar desolate spots, a great patriotic adventure, and only after the disillusioning death of the Cultural Revolution's chief architect, General Lin Biao, in 1971, did they begin to try to find their way home.

As China's institutional structure was slowly reconstituted in the period between 1971 and 1976, a series of national art exhibitions were organized under the supervision of Mao's wife Jiang Qing. The new work was intensely propagandistic in tone, and was required to adhere rigidly to the theatrical and sometimes bombastic style that had been developed at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. However, these exhibitions brought into the limelight a new generation of artists, those who had learned to paint while working on farms, in military camps, and in factories, and who painted subjects from their own unique experiences. One thus finds unprecedented sites and professions represented in monumental oil paintings by these young artists. The most common theme is a glorification of the contribution of working citizens, be they male or female, rural or urban, civilian or military.

The End of the Cultural Revolution

Soon after Mao Zedong died in 1976, the administrators who supervised the Cultural Revolution, including his widow, were arrested. The abrupt removal of their dictatorial control of the arts plunged the art world into a newly experimental mode, where artistic goals and their means of expression were suddenly undetermined. Most work produced between 1976 and 1980 built upon the strong realist foundation of the preceding era, but the themes were unlike those seen in recent decades. Unresolved reflections upon recent history and society and impassioned complaints about the Cultural Revolution were among the more interesting products of this period. Foretelling the art of the 1980s and 1990s was a turn outward to the international community, and especially to the Chinese diaspora for an examination of alternatives to the extremes of the preceding decade.

Transformations of Tradition
(1980 - the present)

As China reopened to the global community in the 1980s, Chinese art entered a renewed period of pluralistic development. A significant body of work in contemporary Western formats and styles, including oil painting, installations, and video art, has been shown in Europe and the United States in recent years. One might expect a shrinking globe to yield cultural homogeneity, but, on the contrary, two decades of steady contact with the outside world have yielded an intense reconsideration of China's native artistic traditions. Painters of the last fifteen or twenty years have created remarkably varied work in guohua, China's traditional images/medium of ink on paper.

In the 1850s, as we have seen, ink painting was China's only serious painting. The twentieth century saw art in Western formats, media, and styles assume a dominant position in the Chinese art world. Painting of the period between 1950 and 1980 was created largely within the goals and constraints of socialist realism. Artists who work in ink today are thus fully aware of alternatives to traditional painting. Three major trends within guohua: literati-expressionism, neo-traditionalism, and post-traditionalism, exemplify issues that remain crucial to the Chinese art world as a whole. Of particular importance to Chinese artists at this moment in history is the manner in which they negotiate the increasingly complex relationships between cultural or national identity and the global art world.

Artists today may use traditional painting tools and formats for purposes unimaginable a century ago, and it is notable that many artists have abandoned the traditional scroll or album format for Western frames. Modernist ink painters may be inspired by the drama of abstract oil painting, work such as that of Zao Wouki. Others rethink the unfulfilled possibilities of various modern and post-modern schools of Western art. Their innovations move Chinese painting in new directions, and are clearly part of the hybridization of contemporary global art.

A small but significant group of painters oppose the mainstream with a singular purity, seeking to realize the highest aspirations of China's traditional painting in the contemporary world. Important to all these artists, and to their audiences, is the belief that an art based on China's native traditions is vital today, and will remain so in the twenty-first century.


A recent current of superbly painted work, Literati-Expressionism, was created primarily by older traditionalists, artists born shortly after the turn of the century who remained active in the 1980s. They received solid classical educations and were instructed in traditional use of the Chinese brush, but from an early age were exposed at school and in urban society to both Chinese and Western art. The natural evolution over the course of their long artistic careers from the classical tradition of literati brushwork to unique personal imagery has produced subtle landscapes with a strongly modern flavor.

Mostly trained in the Shanghai-Suzhou area, these artists share a remarkable technical facility that has led some scholars to consider them the last practitioners of literati painting. The quality called loftiness in literati painting theory refers to a perfectly balanced emotional distance, an art achieved through suggestion and not domination; implication and not explication. The artist reveals himself intuitively , but this self, however eccentric or individualistic, is rarely primal, raw, or messy, but instead is the result of conscious cultivation of character and knowledge. The ability to sail effortlessly through the administration of mundane, if important, affairs, showing the world only the cool essence of one's personality, is a fundamental part of the scholar-official's cultivation that survives in the literati aesthetic. The viewer is left, then, with a responsibility to bring to the work a similar self-awareness, and to attempt an engagement with the intellect and personality behind the painting, as well as with its image.

Careful examination of each landscape in the first group will make clear the originality of the artist. Their quite varied styles, ranging from the substantiality of Li Keran, to the orderliness of C.C. Wang, and finally to the flamboyance of Chang Dai-chien, create very different openings for conversations between viewer and artist.


The work of a younger generation of painters, now mainly in their 40s and 50s, share similar qualities of refinement with literati-expressionism, but its artists are perhaps more remarkable for having grown up in a later time, when the literati culture and aesthetic was no longer to be found in the society in which they live. The best of their work, which is even more varied than that of the older generation, similarly lifts the viewer outside his or her normal psychological state for a journey into the artist's imaginary landscape. Beyond their powerful landscape visions, all artists of this group share a mastery of traditional techniques that nearly disappeared during the preceding three decades, and are thus doubly exceptional in their generation.

With the benefits of modern publishing, museum displays, and academic instruction, these artists have familiarized themselves with the styles and techniques of Chinese painting of all periods. The strength of their personal manner is based on reconsideration of the best to be found in the history of China's art. The rational quality in their revivalism is founded on knowledge, but this knowledge is constantly renewed by a passion to rediscover, comprehend, renew, and then make visible the essence of China's cultural tradition. The selection and transformation each artist ultimately makes of history is thus a completely unique act of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic creation.


The Post-Traditionalist trend, by artists from two broadly distinct backgrounds who paint in ink, is characterized by its detachment from classical Chinese painting. One group of artists was trained as oil painters, and only came to guohua painting later in life. Their guohua preserves, often intentionally, traces of a fully developed aesthetic quite different from that of literati painting and often employs quite non-traditional techniques.

Another group of artists was trained as socialist realist figure painters. They were educated during a period when traditional painting techniques and principles were largely prohibited in the schools, but they have now rejected both the subject matter and styles of that era. Many of them today refer to themselves as "The New Literati Painters," in opposition to socialist realism, but their painting, even at its most traditional, betrays a sense of ironic pathos or even cynicism in the face of the past. Their work thus represents not continuity but a disjunction or break with the tradition of classical Chinese painting. Employing unprecedented techniques to create novel images, these artists have contributed to a pluralism that may be different in nature from that of the 1930s, but is no less lively in its diversity and ambition.

A trait shared by socialist realist painting and by a great deal of contemporary Western art is its public nature. The small scrolls and albums produced throughout much of China's history, even the most famous masterpieces, were normally appreciated and discussed in a private setting. Art that is too large to be viewed in a domestic context has a very different function.

Guohua painters of various artistic inclinations have accepted the twentieth century egalitarian idea of making art to be seen primarily by the museum-going public, rather than by elite circles of private collectors. In this process, they have internalized many aspects of international art. Their choice of brushwork, use of ink and color, compositions, formats, media, and physical structures enrich traditional techniques or imbue the tradition with new implications.

In a twentieth century often dominated by official art, oil painting rather than guohua has been China's institutional mainstream. With the gradual withdrawal of official patronage in the past two decades, however, Chinese artists of all genres have been left equal before the world. It is significant that so many have chosen to work in the traditional ink media, and to address primarily, although not exclusively, China's own 1.3 billion citizens. Their feat, which may be of greater significance in the coming century, has been to reestablish guohua painting as a major current in China's artistic development.