Transplanting Literati Painting into the Modern Art School System: Guohua Education at the Shanghai Fine Arts College, 1924-1937

By Zheng, Jane | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Transplanting Literati Painting into the Modern Art School System: Guohua Education at the Shanghai Fine Arts College, 1924-1937


Zheng, Jane, Studies in Art Education


This article examines the transition of Chinese painting from literati painting, exclusive to the scholar-amateur or scholar elite-the backbone of the Chinese traditional culture-to a new genre, guohua (national or traditional Chinese painting). It studies the role of artistic institutions in this process, using the Shanghai Fine Arts College as an example. This research draws upon a number of primary sources to shed light on the way in which modern art schools institutionalized literati painting, and the rationale of guohua education in the Chinese Painting Department in the College. This research shows that while competing with professional artists teaching in private studios, the College developed its own pattern of guohua education which preserved literati painting principles and enhanced efficiency in teaching technical skills but was intrinsically weak in inculcating the scholarly spiritual content of literati painting. Thus, the College played a role in developing a style of semantically exhausted literati painting known as guohua.

The term guohua emerged in the late Qing period (18th-19th century). Guohua uses traditional Chinese media such as brush and ink on xuan paper (a particular traditional Chinese paper), and generally, adheres to principles and theories of literati painting. It thus resembles the artistic representations found in literati painting.1 In 20thcentury Chinese painting history studies, the debate on the guohua issue is concerned with whether guohua is a modern phenomenon. For a long time, the English translation for guohua was "traditional (Chinese) painting," and guohua was viewed as "conservative" or "not modern," antithetical to yanghua or xihua (Western-influenced Chinese painting) (Sullivan, 1959, 1996; Kao, 1972).

The following scholars propose that guohua is not completely "traditional." Hobsbawn and Ranger (1983) believe that guohua is closely related to but distanced from the tradition. Wong (2006) argues that guohua is a modern phenomenon, though inextricably linked to the tradition in cross-cultural interactions. Shen (1996) suggests that guohua encompasses some innovative reforms (e.g. integrating epigraphic and calligraphic skills into painting skills), and that these reforms were made when guohua painters responded to Western influences. Andrews and Shen (2002) maintain that guohua is a type of "quasi-traditional Chinese painting," and its practice is an active, "self-conscious, idealistic, and even modern enterprise." Wong (2006) uses a new English term, "national-style painting," to describe guohua.

These discussions have identified the main forces that drove the modernization of literati painting as being individual artists who advocated the political meaning of guohua as a national symbol (Shen, 1996; Wong, 2006) and artists who obtained an overseas educational background in Europe and Japan (Wong, 2006). The majority of Chinese painters, who practised guohua, however, did not have an overseas educational background.2 Also, the literati painting tradition is characterized by a pursuit of personal freedom from the political world (Fong, 1993), and many guohua painters followed this tradition. A question remains as to whether those painters without overseas educational background or political interests played any role in transforming literati painting into guohua.

From the 1 990s, one cohort of scholars began to be interested in the interaction of culture, society, the economy, politics, and the changing forces in the Chinese art world (e.g., Lee, 1989; Waara, 1994; Hay, 1998). In particular, the recent discourse on "artistic institutions or institution-like structures" (AAS, 1999, 2005) offers a new lens through which to explore modernity in Chinese painting. The major transition in 20th-century Chinese art is believed not only to lie in the nature of art itself, but also in the art world that involved the majority of ordinary painters without overseas educational background or political interests. …

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