Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Canonization in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Art History

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Canonization in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Art History

Article excerpt

Since the 1980s, the discussion of canons has been a dominant theme in the discipline of Western art history. Various concerns have emerged regarding 'questions of artistic judgment', 'the history genesis of masterpieces', 'variations in taste', 'the social instruments of canonicity', and 'how canons disappear '.1 Western art historians have considered how the canon's appearance in Western visual art embodies aesthetic, ideological, cultural, social, and symbolic values.2 In Chinese art history, the idea of a canon including masterpieces, important artists, and forms of art, dates back to the mid ninth century when Zhang Yanyuan (active 9th century) wrote his painting history Lidai minghua ji [Record of Famous Painters of All the Dynasties]. Not only does the title of the book suggest Zhang's canonical attitude towards Chinese painting history, but, as a companion work to Zhang's writing on calligraphy Fashu yaolu [Essential Record of Calligraphy Exemplars], his text on painting history promotes the theory that painting is comparable to the long privileged tradition of calligraphy. Since then, the process of canon construction in Chinese calligraphy and painting through collection, theorization, and publication has continued in China.

Faced with quite different political, economic, and social conditions amid the instability of the early twentieth century, Chinese scholars attempted to discover new canons for cultural orthodoxy and authority. Modern means for canonization, such as museums and exhibition displays, cultural and academic institutions, and massive art publications with image reproduction in good quality, brought the process up to an unprecedented speed. It is true that most of these means have comparable counterparts in pre-modern times. However, their enormous scope and overwhelming influence are far beyond the reach of their imperial counterparts. Through an inter-textual reading of the publications on Chinese art history in early twentieth-century China, this paper explores the transformation of canons in order to shed light on why and how canonical formation happened during the Republican period of China. Despite the diverse styles and strategies which Chinese writers used in their narratives, Chinese art historical writings produced during the Republican period canonized and de-canonized artworks.

Hierarchy of categories in Chinese art

Before the twentieth century, neither discourse on the fine arts, nor theories of the fine arts had featured prevalently in China.3 In classical Chinese no single word conformed to the twentieth-century Western concept of the fine arts. While many biographical and theoretical writings on calligraphy and painting survive from the fourth to nineteenth centuries, relatively few historical monographs exist to say much about other forms of art production. In the pre-modern history of China, bronze, architecture, sculpture, and decorative arts were treated and understood differently from calligraphy and painting. Calligraphy and painting were deemed unique, since their practice by Chinese literati demonstrated these scholars' high social status and personal cultivation. By contrast, pre-modern Chinese scholars seldom chose to practise other forms of the fine arts. They could appreciate and collect the productions of these art forms, like bronze and ceramics, but the actual production and reproduction of such objects were not their concern. From the late nineteenth century, a new notion of Chinese art, embracing different categories of art, emerged in relation to the Western conception of the fine arts.

In 1907, a scholar Liu Shipei (1884-1919) published the first two parts of his article 'Zhongguo meishuxue bianqian lun [On the Development of Chinese Art Studies]' in Guocui xuebao [The Journal of National Essence].4 Liu briefly summarized the different characteristics of Chinese art in various periods from ancient times to the Song dynasty. For example, Liu suggested that categories of art, such as dancing, singing, drawing, writing, and clothing in prehistoric times were limited by their practical uses; in the Western Zhou, art, if represented by bronzes, jades, music, pictures, and textiles, was closely associated with rites; in the Qin and Han dynasties, only epigraphy was worth discussing as art; in the Tang dynasty, because of religious and imperial influences, sculpture, architecture, calligraphy, and painting of Chinese art made great progress. …

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