Craig Clunas Seminar Series 2: Transcending Dualism in Modern Chinese Art History

Time: 10:00–17:30, July 10th, 2019 

Venue: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing, 20th Floor, Culture Plaza, No. 59A Zhongguancun Street, Haidian District, Beijing

Organizer: OCAT Institute

Questions around West and East, tradition and modernity, have long dominated the field of Chinese art—particularly narratives of modern Chinese art—since the beginning of 20th century. This binaried discourse was prototyped in the early development of art history as a modern discipline, evident in its assorted forms in various art historical writings. In the Craig Clunas Seminar Series hosted by OCAT Institute, a crucial point of discussion will focus on the historical context in which this binaried narrative of Chinese art emerged in the early 20th century. Based on this historical context, this seminar will reflect on the structure of the discourse around modernity, attempt to critique and transcend dualism both within and beyond the field of modern Chinese art, and work towards a more egalitarian historiography and methodology.

With that said, the antagonism between Chinese art tradition and modernity is closely related to the disciplinary development of art history in the early 20th century, as well as the construct of modernity that China faces in a global context. Based on formal analysis, developed and spearheaded by Heinrich Wolfflin and Alois Riegl in the German-speaking world at the turn of the century, the binary schema was absorbed into the self-narrative of Chinese art through Chinese intellectuals’ conscious and unconscious mobilizations of these very paradigms. Art was regarded as the hallmark of civilization, and became the central point of contention concerning the rejuvenation of China. As the awareness of China’s position in an integrated world triggered the sense of historical crisis, “tradition” was reduced to a synonym of the unenlightened and was increasingly separated from and held against the progressive and modern.

It is undeniable that as a teaching tactic, binary perspective still serves its purpose in popularizing art history as a discipline. As a dominating paradigm, however, its notorious pre-war history is well acknowledged—art history was absorbed into a close-loop methodology epitomized by its obsession of differences, reduced to binary narratives controlled by ideologies, and even mobilized by the extremists as a legitimizing discourse. To go beyond the dichotomic paradigm in modern Chinese art history, one needs to situate it in the context of global modernity in the early 20th century, recognize its cause as a historical symptom, and dive into its underlying structure as a historical narrative. On the one hand, we need to recognize the dichotomic paradigm in modern Chinese art history and the historical context of its emergence, while on the other hand, acknowledge how Euro-centric discourse permeates into modern Chinese art historiography under globalization and modernization.

Under the framework of this discourse, historical particularity of modernity is increasingly translated into geographic particularity. With ambiguous geographic dichotomy, and reiterations of the “East meets West” rhetoric, modernity in China is seen as a Western import. Moreover, contradicting tradition with modernity is to relegate the traditional to the non-modern, thus implicitly denying the possibility of self-conscious and self-induced modernity in China. Thus, the most mentioned pair of dualisms in Chinese art—that of the West and East, tradition and modernity—is a byproduct of the singularity of modernity which upholds the trajectory of Western historical development as its only archetype. Focusing on the early modernity in China in Ming and Qing Dynasty, art historians like Craig Clunas articulate self-induced modernity in China with a diachronic approach.

Amongst the presentations in this seminar, the analysis on Zong Baihua’s theory of art emphasizes disciplinary history; India’s import of “Six Cannons of Chinese Painting” and Japan’s import of Chinese literature underline Chinese art and art theory’s contributions to contemporary transnational reflection and debate; modernist poetry in Malaysia and Singapore connects China and the colonized regions in their shared global awareness; while the case study of Guang Liang roots itself in nationalism and individual agency. The presentations are united in situating China in the narrative of global modernity and their attempts of establishing a more critical and comprehensive relationship between modern Chinese art and the world.




Speaker: Zheng Gong (PhD Supervisor, Graduate School of Chinese National Academy of Arts)

Presentation: Formal Analysis based on the Concept of the “Spiritual Territory”—Zong Baihua’s Three Concepts on the Presentation of Chinese Calligraphy and Paintings

Speaker: Huang Hong (Lecturer, School of Fine Arts and Design, Guangzhou University)

Presentation: Into the “Ideal of the East”: On the Articulation of “Six Limbs of Painting



Speaker: Dai Yan (Professor, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Fudan University)

Presentation: How Chinese Literature “Leads

Speaker: Zhang Jing (Associate Professor, College of Chinese Language and Literature, Wuhan University

Presentation: Looking Back and Moving Forward During the Cold War: Another Possibility of Chinese Modernist Poetry in the Singaporean and Malayan Culture Field   

Speaker: Hang Chunxiao (Director, Department of Ancient Studies, Chinese National Academy of Arts)

Presentation: Guan Liang’s Identity “Trap” and Formal Language – Interpretative Mechanism of “Tradition” and “Modernity” in the Twentieth Century

16:30–17:30  Roundtable

Moderator: Guo Weiqi, Shen Cheng

Panelists: Zheng Gong, Huang Hong, Dai Yan, Zhang Jing, Hang Chunxiao

Brief Introduction of Presentation

Zheng Gong: Formal Analysis based on the Concept of the “Spiritual Territory” – Zong Baihua’s Three Concepts on the Presentation of Chinese Calligraphy and Paintings

In the 1940s, Zong Baihua came up with three concepts concerning Chinese calligraphy and paintings—“spatial perception,” “flow of lines,” and “formal construction”—to articulate the cultural relationship between Chinese calligraphy and paintings, and to reveal the origin of Chinese aesthetics and the characteristics of its formal language. Its perspective and references are unique, for example, in using brushstrokes as the point of departure in the integration of formal structures and human life sentiment. Discussing a series of related narratives, like Chinese spatial perspective, the structures of lines, and the “bone and vitality” of objects and the “bone and flows” of lines, Zong’s narrative on abstract ink art’s “surreal structure” and the possibility of mutual communication implied in the mainstream dualism of comparing Chinese and western art reveals Zong’s non-linear, “harmonious perspective” in a dialectical way.

Huang Hong: Into the “Ideal of the East”: On the Articulation of “Six Limbs of Painting

The 19th century Western world shared the opinion that the Indian subcontinent had no fine/higher arts, and that Indian art was only ornamental art. This insinuated westerners were civilized, whose fine arts adhered to the highest principle of science and rationality, while Indians were savage, equipped with the innate tendency for ornamental art but not the ability to produce fine arts. Influenced by the maturing of oriental studies and the emergence of Indian nationalism, Indian intellectuals were devoted to rebuilding the “grand past.” Using “scientific” methods, they tried to prove that ancient Indian architecture, sculpture, and painting were actually “fine arts” rather than “ornamental art,” and gradually explored and developed an aesthetic ideal of “Indianness.” Accordingly, “rasa,” “bhāva,” and “saundarya” became core vocabularies in Indian art criticism, around which critics developed a set of aesthetic standards integrating those of the West with those of the local.

Standards of Western art criticism were undergoing changes at the same time. Clive Bell and Roger Fry highly esteemed the “significant form,” and established a set of aesthetic standards characterized by pure forms and aesthetic emotions. Indian art was championed by Orientalists as embodying an unmaterialized spirituality and vitality. They believed the holisticness and conceptuality in Indian art could be a way out of the crisis of materiality in Western art. In the broader field of international art criticism, India was regarded as the origin of Eastern art and culture. Sister Nivedita, the Tagores, and other Indian intellectuals referenced Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzo’s theories of “Asia is one” and “The Ideals of the East” to solidify the belief that India was the matrix of a unified Asia.

In the context of “The Ideals of the East,” Indian intellectuals took Xie He’s Six Principles of Chinese Painting as a frame of reference in their reconstruction of aesthetic standards. A prime example is Abanindranath Tagore’s (leader of the Bengal School of Art as the first modern art movement in India) articulation of “Sadanga” (Six Limbs of Painting). In his sentence-by-sentence explanation of Sadanga and its juxtaposition with Xie’s Six Principles of Chinese Painting, Tagore recoded Xie’s Six Cannons of Chinese Painting—originally a description of painting techniques—as an evaluation criteria of Indian paintings, in an attempt to bridge Chinese and Indian art. In the historical development of modern Indian art, Tagore’s reinscription of Xie’s Six Principles released “Indianness” from its narrow perspective and pushed for the establishment of “tone/rhythm” as a criterion in Indian art criticism, thus integrating Indian art into “Ideals of the East” and ultimately transcending it, entering the mainstream of global modernism.

Dai Yan: How Chinese Literature “Leads”

I have spent years conducting research on “the history of Chinese literature” since the late Qing Dynasty. Originating in Europe, the history of literature is a discipline dedicated to traditional literature. Hence, the dualisms tradition and modernity, the East and the West, have always been present when we talk about the history of Chinese literature within this framework. As I study classical Chinese literature, I happen to know a bit about the acceptance of the Tang Poetry and fictions of Ming and Qing dynasties in Japan. At that time in Japan, Chinese culture was widely appreciated, and the educated Japanese would learn Chinese literature and write in Chinese. Yet the Chinese poetry and fictions they produced were ultimately different from the Tang Poetry and fictions of Ming and Qing dynasties. Through surveying the history of Chinese literature and citing real-life examples, I view that Chinese literature has never been bounded by geographical borders. Chinese literature owes its vitality to both the export and import of literature. In the future, it should remain open to the world, as being open is the way to lead.

Zhang Jing: Looking Back and Moving Forward During the Cold War: Another Possibility of Chinese Modernist Poetry in the Singaporean and Malayan Culture Field

Originating at the end of the 19th century in Euro-America, modernist literature swept the world and left its mark on the different literatures of different nations, including China. The subject of this paper—Chinese modernist poetry in Singapore and Malaysia during the Cold War, emerged under the influence of Western modernist thinking, and stemmed from the cross-fertilization that travelled from west to east, and then south since the 1920s among English, German, and French Modernist poetries. In the long and complex transnational flow of literature, Singaporean and Malayan Chinese underwent the identity shift from commoners of British colonies to citizens of multi-ethnic states. To Singaporean and Malayan Chinese who wrote and published modernist poems in Chinese and formed self-generated societies out of their passion about the artistic form and around the poetry’s particular language, genre and style, their self-aware choice of art was a significant attempt to integrate the East and the West, transcend the Cold War mentality, and construct their own identity. Taking Chen Ruixian and Wen Renping who spearheaded the trend of modernist poetry in Singapore and Malaysia as case studies, this paper focuses on their poetry, literature proposition, and institutional activities. These institutional activities include editing and forming societies, analyzing the dialectical, interactive power relationship between Chinese resources, Western references, and local demands. This paper discusses Singaporean and Malayan Chinese’s exploration of another possibility of Chinese modernist poetry as they went back to their Chinese roots, integrated Chinese and Western poetry, and sought to innovate with bold experiments.


Hang Chunxiao: Guan Liang’s Identity “Trap” and Formal Language—Interpretative Mechanism of “Tradition” and “Modernity” in the Twentieth Century

Having studied abroad in Japan, Guan Liang came to be a crucial painter in the advancement of modern art in China after his return, yet he was known for his ink figure paintings in his late years. Guan was labeled with cultural identity tags that seemed contradictory: a modernist pioneer and an advocate for the return to the traditional. Due to the political reality, this turn was seen as a “change of course.” Using this “double identity” narrative as a point of departure, this paper reveals that the acknowledgement of this “change of course” is based on the implicit premise that “traditions and modernity are irreconcilable.” Analyzing compound sentences with transitional words in both the early and late years of Guan’s life, the paper maintains that tradition and modernity are not irreconcilable in Guan’s cognitive structure. On the contrary, cognitive schema based on formal language, together with logical judgment grounded in the relationship between simplicity and complexity, reconstructs the knowledge of traditions and modernity. The very experience reveals that the collision of cultures is not a simplistic, confrontational “zero-sum game.” Their supposedly distinct sources actually coexist in a integrative relationship. Emerging historical subjects can belong in a tactical balance, transforming a tense confrontational relationship to one of mutual growth.