2009.03.09 Mon, by Translated by: 宋京
Spheres of Influence
Spheres of Influence: Western Art in China and the Vehicles, Actors and the Motives which Brought it Here

This year in honor of the Expo, Shanghai has seen an inundation of artistic projects from all corners of the globe. Some were great; some over-hyped and some occurred in a void – the black hole that is the Expo grounds, out of the sight (and mind) of the Shanghai artistic community. Who isn’t still fending off calls from people asking them to schlep down to see this or that poorly conceived Expo project?

Quality aside, China has never in its history seen so many foreign artistic projects on its soil and in light of this, it seemed fitting to examine the history of Western art into China. This is a dialogue that has spanned centuries and covers a variety of purposes and motives, from the commercial to the ideological to the purely artistic.

Knowledge of Western art entered China through a variety of channels, including Jesuit priests, Chinese-run schools, Japanese art teachers, art books from Europe and Japan, magazines from the Mainland and Taiwan, returnee students, exhibitions and through a limited number of exchanges with Western artists. Because of all of the filtering of information and the fluctuating political climate, China’s modern art history is not a mere reflection of Western art history with a bit of “lag-time” added in, but a history which flirts with different Western movements, then retreats, then flirts with other movements only to return to the previous movements. At the same time, there is the enduring parallel history of guohua (Chinese ink painting) which has continuously exerted influence on China’s modern artists.

Tingqua, Shop of Tingqua the Painter, 1860

Here I shall attempt to trace the footsteps of Western influence, to look at the actors involved and the vehicles they used to spread awareness of Western art to China from the mid-16th century to the 1980s (1). In a second article to follow in the 3rd issue of Randian, I will look at the artists and theorists made an impact on the Chinese avant-garde beginning in the mid 70s and continuing to the present.

Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Influence

China’s first contact with Western painting was certainly one loaded with religious and political motives, but nonetheless the Jesuits do get credit for introducing the medium to China.

The first oil paintings were brought by Matteo Ricci in 1601, when Ricci offered gifts to the emperor in Beijing. Thomas H. C. Lee explains inChina and Europe: Images and Influences in Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, that there were quite a large number of Western paintings in China in the late Ming Dynasty. Though there were no works by the great masters, the priests brought over illustrated books featuring Renaissance and Baroque images, which were passed between friends (mostly Christian converts in Nanjing and Beijing) (2).

Those who had access to such images were generally fascinated with the realism – the use of western perspective techniques and chiaroscuro. The Chinese term for the paintings 凹凸画 autuhua which translates roughly as “concave/convex” painting captures this fascination with the three-dimensional (3).

A few painters such as Zeng Qing, managed to draw something of Western realism into his technique although he was painting in ink:
He painted portraits the looked like reflections of the models in a mirror, capturing wonderfully their spirit and feelings. His coloring was deeply rich. The eye pupils were dotted for the effects of animation; although [the faces] were only on paper and silk, they would glare and gaze, kit their eyebrows or smile, in a manner alarmingly like real people (4).

Yet not everyone was supportive of these forms and criticized Western painting is wholly mathematical, technical and the work of mere artisans or in the words of Zou Yigui (Tsou I-kuei):

The Westerners are skilled in geometry, and consequently there is no the slightest mistake in their way of rendering light and shade [yang-yin] and distance (near and far). When they paint houses on a wall people are tempted to walk into them . . . Students of painting may well take over one or two points from them to make their own paintings more attractive to the eye. But these painters . . . are simply artisans (5).

Interior of a Chinese Porcelain Shop, artist unknown circa 1830

Despite this kind of scorn from court artists, the Jesuits actually managed to train a number of Chinese artists in this style so that they could help produce for the needs of the church. Artists such as Yu Wen-hui / You Wenhui 游文辉, who had studied oil painting from a Jesuit in Japan, produced a portrait of Ricci along with what would later become sought-after paintings of religious scenes, which were hung in China’s Christian churches at the time (6).

Towards the end of the 17th century, Western painting in China gained momentum due to the reign of Emperor Kangxi who was supportive of Western science. A school of Sino-Western painting was born through the efforts of artist Jiao Bingzhen – who produced a series of illustrations of rice cultivation which would help spread an understanding of Western perspectival drawing techniques. Western painting received another boost in 1736, with the Qing Imperial Painting Academy, established by emperor Qianlong. The academy trained literati painters in Western techniques, which they would bring with them when they returned to their home cities (7).

While at in the beginning of the Jesuit era, the introduction of Western painting had a distinctive religious motive – the magically realistic paintings won many converts in China as they did in the West – its promotion and dissemination in the late 17th century happened increasingly through the efforts of the Chinese court.

The “export painters,” of the 19th century however introduced a more one-sided commerce driven form of exchange. At that time, artists in Macao, Guangdong and Hong Kong were working more-or-less as hired hands producing paintings for consumption abroad – a precursor to Shenzhen’s Dafen painter’s village.

Author Fa-ti Fan lays out the scene for us inBritish Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire and Cultural Encounter:
According to one account from the 1830s, there were about thirty studios of export painting in the neighborhood of the foreign factories alone. . . . The trades were usually family run, passed down from generation to generation . . . A painting might pass through several hands before it was completed. One artisan traced the outline, another drew in the figures, a third man painted the background and so on. . . . The finished paintings were shipped to Europe by the crateful, as well as carried home as souvenirs by Western visitors (8).

The Hongs at Canton, Attributed to Lam Qua, 1830-1835

These works mostly consisted of serially produced landscapes and colonial flavored scenes of everyday life – tea picking and silk production. Other subjects included ships – a craze driven by the British and their interest in shipbuilding technology.

Chinese painters also produced quite a number of portraits of monarchs or saints that, though lacking the identifiable facial features, often were given some kind of prop as to be recognizable by their buyers (9). Many of these artists working in Guangdong and Macau were inspired by Western painters such as George Chinnery, Auguste Bourget, William Prinsep, Thomas Watson and Charles Wirgman, who were based in China and other parts of Asia. But China also produced its own masters, painters such as Tinqua, who amassed large numbers of assistants and worked in assembly line studios as described above.

Though this business model made a great impact on the livelihood of the painters involved, it failed to make an impact on “fine art” per se. This says art historian Michael Sullivan is largely a result of the kind of foreigners involved in the painting trade. While the Jesuits made efforts to have exchanges with educated Chinese, the merchants involved in export painting made no such overtures (10).

Tushanwan Arts and Crafts School

Throughout the export painting era, China’s Jesuits, nonetheless maintained a presence. Shanghai was the center of Jesuit activity in China and in the mid 19th century, the Tushanwan Arts and Crafts School had a great influence in introducing a broad range of Western art techniques and creating educational materials for Chinese student – which would help plant the seeds of modern painting in China.

Originally a Jesuit run orphanage, Tushanwan introduced an art training studio at the initiative of father Joannes Ferrer in 1852. There orphans learned wood carving techniques, Western oil painting techniques, printing technology and stain glass manufacturing, skills which they could later use to gain employment.


The school also produced several drawing and painting manuals and is known to be the first place in China where Western painting was taught in a systematic way. Teaching methods included asking students to copy models to learn how to accurately render the human form in three-dimensional perspective (11). Though these may seem like basic staples of any drawing class, these techniques were wholly foreign to students used the rather schematic renderings of the human figure typical of Chinese painting.

Of course, there was still a motive present in the Jesuits activities – the subjects were often overtly religious and served the needs of the church. Many works were hung on church walls and sold to private buyers. Still Tushanwan artists gained international recognition for the quality technical quality of their work, and the Jesuit priests offered an important chance for non-orphans, artists such as Xu Beihong and Xu Yongqing, to be schooled Western painting techniques (12).

Study Abroad and the Growth of Western Art Academies in Shanghai

One Tushanwan student, Zhou Xiang, even started up his own painting school in 1911, the first Western painting school, which specialized in painting backdrops for photography studios. Other students were self-taught, scrounging whatever materials they could find to paint – advertisements and images from periodical magazines bought at the used bookstores which used to line Peking Road.

In 1912, Liu Haisu, a huge figure in the history of Chinese art (yet a namesake to a woeful museum in Shanghai’s western suburb of Hongqiao), opened up a school which in 1915 would become the Shanghai Painting and Art Institute—at the tender age of 17. Liu Haisu was renowned not only for his vigorous brushwork, but also for displaying nude paintings and introducing life drawing classes at the institute. The first model was a 15 year-old-boy, but Liu Haisu was later able to find a Russian model to pose for the students. This act incurred the wrath of a local warlord and much criticism from the church. The idea of painting the human body proved to be far too much for the still conservative post-Qing Dynasty sensibility, but Liu Haisu’s mission was rescued by the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists who promoted more open modern attitudes towards art and education.

Tushanwan wood shop

Shanghai also saw other school openings as with Wu Shikuang’s Institute of Pictorial Art in 1914 and in Xujiahui, the Jesuits still had a role teaching French landscape techniques through the Université Aurore in 1919.

Shanghai’s foreign presence actually played a big role in this early dialogue between China and Western art, says Shanghai-based critic and playwright Zhao Chuan, “In the case of Shanghai, French art had a big impact. The French Concession had a strong cultural impact; the other concessions were more commercial. In the 30s, lots of artists went to France and Belgium to study (13).” The French concession was home to a small group of intellectuals who were painting in the styles of Cubism, Fauvism and Symbolism, and in the 30s there were a number of magazines such as Yishu Xunkan, Yifeng and Yishu which helped spread an understanding of Surrealism as best as could be done through translation (14).

In terms of overseas exchanges, most students headed for France or Japan, a few Chinese students whose families emigrated to the US ended up studying art there. It was only later in the 1990s that the US-based Chinese artists would exert a much more important artistic influence. This large exodus abroad actually began as early as the 1870s and was further pushed along by the end of the war in Europe and the internationalism of the May Fourth Movement, which emphasized the need to broaden horizons.

New Institutions and a Manifesto in Beijing

Beijing was also a very influential entry port for Western painting, with figures such as Cai Yuanpei, being instrumental in providing affordable art education. Known as an inspired educator and scholar, Cai Yuanpei established a school for those who couldn’t afford painting called the After Hours Painting Research Society (1918), and later Beijing University followed his lead with the Common People’s Night School (1920).

Beijing, at that time, attracted a number of foreign artists, such as a French artist, André Claudot, who in turn became inspired by Chinese ink drawing, and there was also the Czech artist, Vojtech Chytil, who helped facilitate artists Wang Meng and Sun Shida to study at the Prague Academy of Art.

But political tides were turning in Beijing and after 50 professors were arrested due to their “radical” ideas, Lin Fengmian and others fled elsewhere. Before they departed in May 1927, they convened for the great Beijing art meeting where they issued the following manifesto, which declared their belief in a new philosophy of art:

Down with the tradition of copying!
Down with the art of the aristocratic minority!
Down with the antisocial art that is divorced from the masses!
Up with the creative art that represent the times!
Up with the people’s art that stands at the crossroads (15).

Interestingly enough, it would take the masses some time before they really began to accept these art forms, though there was growing interest in Western painting in Shanghai.

Still the manifesto indicated a strong rejection of the traditional elitist approach to art – where much of an artist’s training entailed imitating the masters – and advocated a realistic reflection upon the travails of modern life. This contrasted sharply with the traditional ink-painting philosophy, which dictated that one should elicit a moral and philosophical ideal through idealized depictions of nature.

View of Urbs Campensis, an anonymous engraving from germany, 1608

Southern Chinese Schools

After leaving Beijing, Wu Fading and Lin Fengmian opened up the National Hangzhou Arts Academy with Cai Yuanpei 1928, which is the predecessor to CAA in Hangzhou. Soon there were art schools all across the Yangtze River Delta including Suzhou and Nanjing.

Guangdong as well received a start in Western painting from the help of returnees Ren Ruiyao and Hu Gentian (who both studied in Japan) and Feng Gangbai (who studied in San Francisco). Together they founded the Red society Chishi 赤社 in 1921, which despite the name had no Communist connotations and mostly produced rather tame portraits and landscapes. Other smaller departments were started up in Fujian, Chengdu, Chongqing and Wuxi (16).

Early Japanese Influence

At this time much of the influence of Western art styles was filtered through Japan in the form of Japanese teachers in China, students going abroad (there were over 1,000 of such students in the 1900s) and Japanese language translations of Western art books. Such translations included texts such as the Futurist Manifesto by F. T. Marinetti (17).

In Shanghai artists and intellectuals gathered to exchange modern ideas at the Uchiyama Shoten bookstore (18). Uchiyama Kanzo, the bookstore’s owner was seen as the most important figure in the Sino Japanese literary dialogue. The bookstore was located on Sichuan Lu and stocked a selection of books, which included Japanese translations of Western law texts, Western literature translated to Japanese and a huge selection of books on Marxism. Most of the Chinese clients of the bookstore were students who had lived abroad in Japan and the store became a kind of literary salon, where Uchiyama frequently organized meetings between Chinese and Japanese writers (19). The bookstore was almost a second home to Lu Xun, who was a daily visitor. Uchiyama Shoten also served as his poste restante for politically sensitive mail, and Uchiyama frequently harbored the writer when he took refuge there from the secret police (20).

In 1902 when Western drawing and painting techniques were incorporated into school curriculums, from primary right through to college, rafts of Japanese teachers were brought over to China to help in the task of instruction (21), but during the May Fourth Movement, many students made a political statement by turning away from Japanese artists, teachers and institutions (22).

Lu Xun and the Japanese connection

Despite this anti-Japanese sentiment, the Japanese would later become influential in China’s woodcut movement when Lu Xun invited 13 students from Shanghai to learn woodcutting techniques from artist Uchiyama Kakichi. Lu Xun helped spread awareness of the medium through his collection of Japanese and Russian woodcuts and following the Japanese invasion Uchiyama’s Chinese disciples spread their techniques throughout China some working in Yan’an and other sites of revolutionary activity (23).

The woodcuts had a folksy roughness to them meshed with Communist goals of proletariat outreach and they were also cheap and easy to produce for rapid dissemination. The socially conscious subject matter, strong graphic style and gripping drama they possessed would have a great impact on the more realistic ideological imagery found in propaganda posters.

Early Soviet Influence

The exchanges with the Soviet Union, though ideologically charged, nonetheless would have a momentous impact on Chinese contemporary art with the adoption of Socialist Realism as a dominant style from the 50s until the late 70s.

A group called the Wanderers (also known as the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions), operating in the late 19th to early 20th century would have a great impact on in terms of both style and subject matter. These artists roamed the countryside depicting scenes of everyday life (particularly the hardships), an idea which coincided with Maoist ideas about going out to the countryside for re-education and also paralleled the actions of the woodcut artists.

Julie F. Andrews writes of the influence Wanderer Konstantin Maksimov, who was the first Soviet painter sent on official exchange in 1955. The event was lauded by artist Jian Feng:

Comrade Makismov’s arrival in China enables us to directly and systematically study the advanced artistic experience in the USSR. We believe that under Maksimov’s direction, our art education work and training of our painting teachers will bring forth extraordinarily important and valuable contributions (24).

Competition to get into Maksimov’s classes was intense and those who made the cut had it made, finding prominent positions in art institutions when they returned home from their studies.

Maksimov’s painting was not the polished realism we associate with much Socialist Realist poster art but a more expressive style, which incorporated blocks of color; this style was also picked up by Chinese students who had gone abroad to Leningrad to study at the Repin Art Academy. Maksimov’s legacy not only had an impact upon students who studied with him but on the Chinese art world as a whole. His approach to colors; his view that students should specialize in one particular theme; his introduction of complicated compositions typical of Chinese socialist realist history painting; and his methodical approach to teaching all contributed to the level of technical skill achieved by Chinese art students today (25).

Xiongshi Art Monthly

Limited Information Exchange in the 70s and 80s

When China’s artistic realm began to liberalize in the 70s and 80s, there was a flourishing of different forms of early modern painting everything from Cubism, to Fauvism to Impressionism. But though there was again a hunger to explore Western painting styles, access to information was funneled through relatively few channels.

Wu Liang, a critic and editor of cultural journalShanghai Culture describes the scene for us, “For one, the exchange students of that era were few, most visitors to the West were those traveling short term on government official trips – they would go to the Louvre and come back and write about what they had seen.”

Having little access to works of contemporary art, many artists had to rely on often-shoddy reproductions, with poor detail and distorted colors. Says Wu Liang “I saw the Impressionist reproductions, and then after when I went to the US and saw the real works by Monet and Van Gogh. I realized that the reproductions I saw before were very simple reproductions. To see the techniques, brushstrokes and the relationships between the colors you need to see the original (26).”

Sitting in his office located in the ivy-clad writer’s club on Julu Lu, Wu Liang recounts a story of Chen Danqing, who happened upon a painting of a woman on the back of playing card and then painted his own version. Although initially quite pleased with the result, he felt despondent after seeing original works of the same genre in the flesh during a trip abroad says Wu Liang, “He said, ‘I can’t paint. These are so well done; how can I paint anything?’” (27)

Still as chances to go abroad were few and cameras and photocopies were still quite expensive, art books were always a hot commodity writes Zhao Chuan in his article, “Past Events of Shanghai: 20th Century Radical Art in Shanghai.” (28)

“Yu Youhan lent a book of Maurice Utrillo to Ding Yi. Because he had only just met Ding Yi, he only lent the book to him for one day. The book was brought back from an exhibition in Japan and had already passed through many pairs of hands. This kind of book was only available at the Shanghai Artist’s Association. Ding Yi took it to the cafeteria and painted 10 works in one night. On the canvas were the simple compositions, which would become the starting point for his later “Appearance of Crosses” series.

Zhao Chuan remarks that the Shanghai Artists Association 上海美术家协会 was one of the few places which had a good collection of catalogues and served as a meeting place for friends to exchange materials.

At the time artists were desperate for information about Western art. Says Zhao Chuan, “In the 70s in the Shanghai Theater Academy, the library was only open to the profs, so artists such as Zhang Jianjun had to ask for special permission to go in. The profs would let them in and lock the door so no one could see that they were in there.” (29)

Xiongshi Art Monthly

Magazines in the 80s Provide Access to Images of Western Art

In the 80s Magazines like Meishu Yicong, Shijie Yishu and Xiongshi Meishu (Hsiung Shih Art Monthly) would greatly enlarge access to Western art, though reproductions often left something to be desired says Wu Liang, “Xiongshi Meishu from Taiwan had the best reproductions because the printing technology in Taiwan was better at that time than in China. Also it used this kind of Taiwanese Chinese, which didn’t have the kind of prejudices or the same personality. Because Taiwanese had done a lot of exchanges abroad, they wouldn’t overreact to something that was foreign and new, they were less excited about these things.” (30)

Here Wu Liang points at the issue of filtering, how information about Western art was presented in a different way – as something not extremely foreign but nonetheless written for an audience that was not ultimately familiar with the material.

Live Transmission: Limited Person-to-Person Contact in the 80s

While in the 20s Lin Fengmian was greeted in Shanghai with a banner reading “Welcome President Lin,” announcing his appointment to the Beijing Academy, artists who returned from abroad in the 80s were not initially lauded as pioneers. Says Wu Liang, “In the Nationalist era, we felt we had to study because the country was backward. Liu Haisu came back and started up schools – they had a lot of freedom, but in the 80s it was different. In the 80s they didn’t come back. Now the sea turtles [returnees] come back because there are certain policies or can get certain treatment.” (31)

It was not until the mid-late 2000s that we started seeing the return of artists who had been working abroad, but only a few took teaching positions. Xu Bing made an impact through his appointment as vice-president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2008 and Chen Danqing returned to teach at Qinghua for a stint in 2000, but quit in 2005 citing great frustration with the Chinese education system, which required art students to pass English exams.

Other returnees, such as Ai Weiwei who came back in 93, provided inspiration to young artists, transmitting ideas (such as art’s capacity to make political statements) to the artists who worked with them in their ever-expanding studios and to the community at large.

Jean-Michelle Basquiat, In Italian, 1983. Acrylic, oil paintstick, and marker on canvas mounted on wood supports, two panels.

Starting in the 90s Westerners who were living in China also helped provide knowledge of not only the art of the West but also more practical resources says Zhao Chuan, “The system, was a Western system, Western curators, Western gallerists, through their support, they helped us build our own system. Most of these resources were from abroad. We started to learn through this how to install, how to make works. In the 90s we were always looking at catalogues and dialoguing with foreign curators, seeing slide shows, and learning how to participate in Chinese contemporary art.” (32)

Curators such as Hans Van Dijk affectionately known by artists as lao hanse, is largely viewed as the first important curator and critic in Chinese contemporary art. Van Dijk counseled artists about their works and held small-scale exhibitions in his apartment in Beijing in the early 90s (33). Other curators who made an impact in the early days included Jean-Hubert Martin, whose “Les Magiciens de La Terre,” (1989) was the first major exhibition to feature Chinese contemporary artists abroad and Harald Szeemann would make an even larger impact in 1999 by introducing Cai Guoqiang (and his Rent Collection Courtyard) to the Venice Biennale in 1999.

1) The reverse influence of Chinese art in the West is also a very valid topic

(2) Thomas H. C. Lee, China and Europe: Images and Influences in Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1991, p 254.
(3) Thomas H. C. Lee, China and Europe: Images and Influences in Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, p255
(4) Thomas H. C. Lee, pp 257-258.
(5) Michael, Sullivan, The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989, p 80
(6) David E. Mungello, The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800, p 42
(7) John W. O’Malley, S.J., Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy,The Jesuits II: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540-1773, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2006 p 263
(8) British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire and Cultural Encounter, President and Fellows of Harvard College, USA, 2004, p 48
(9) Christina Baird, Liverpool China Traders, Peter Lang International Academic Publishers: Bern, 2007, p 110
(10) Sullivan, p 82
(11) Selling happiness: calendar posters and visual culture in early-twentieth… By Ellen Johnston Laing, p 63
(12) Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China, p 30
Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China, p 42
(13) From a interview between Rebecca Catching and Zhao Chuan held in Shanghai in August 2010.
(14) Michael Sullivan, Chinese Art in the XX Century, p 52
(15) Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China, p 44
(16) Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China, p 45-52
(17) “Points of Encounter – a Timeline to Be Completed,” Defne Ayas, with contributions by Leo Xu, Francesca Tarocco and Matthieu Borysevicz
(18) “Points of Encounter – a Timeline to Be Completed,” Defne Ayas, with contributions by Leo Xu, Francesca Tarocco and Matthieu Borysevicz
(19) Christopher T. Keaveney, Beyond Brushtalk: Sino-Japanese Literary Exchange in the Interwar Period, p28-30
(20) Lydia H. Liu, Trans-lingual Practice: Literature National Culture and Translated Modernity China, 1900-1937, Stanford University Press, 1995, p
(21) Michael Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-century China, p 27
(22) Michael Sullivan, Chinese Art in the XX Century, p 46
(23) Julia F. Andrews and Kuiyi Shen, “China 5000 Years,” exhibition texthttp://kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/Exhibitions/5000YearsText.html
(24) Julia Frances Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979, p 152
(25) By Julia Frances Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979, p 155
(26) Julia Frances Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979, p 152
(27) From an interview conducted by Rebecca Catching with Wu Liang in Shanghai, August 2010
(28) Zhao Chuan, “Shanghai, Past Events”, Shanghai, Culture, 2009, p 86
(29) From an interview conducted by Rebecca Catching with Wu Liang in Shanghai, August 2010
(30) From an interview conducted by Rebecca Catching with Wu Liang in Shanghai, August 2010
(31) From an interview conducted by Rebecca Catching with Wu Liang in Shanghai, August 2010
(32) Interview conducted by Rebecca Catching with Zhao Chuan in August 2010