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Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
ISSN 0577-9170; DOI 10.6503/THJCS


A Debate on the Reform of Chinese Painting in Early Republican China

Vol. 26 No. 4   12/1996  


A Debate on the Reform of Chinese Painting in Early Republican China


Kuiyi Shen









Key words

reform, National Essence, Modernity


      How traditional painting should respond to Chinese modernity has been a puzzle over which Chinese artists and scholars have agonized since the beginning of the century. Facing the collapse of the moral authority of Confucianism and the glaring superiority of the modern West, Chinese intellectuals of the early twentieth century were caught in a difficult bind, both attracted to and repelled by their own tradition and the Western model of modernity. In the art world, the major concerns were how to evaluate the thousand-year-old heritage of traditional Chinese painting in the light of Western art’s powerful new influence, how traditional Chinese painting might best respond to modernity, should Chinese artist accept a “totalistic” attack on tradition and adopt “wholesale Westernization”, or instead entrench themselves in tradition to resist and Western influence, and what kind of reform, if any, Chinese artists should implement for traditional painting. To answer these questions, an intensive debate about traditional Chinese painting emerged nationally in the 1920s and 1930s. many famous artist, writers, and scholars and most major art journals were involved in this debate. The art world was basically divided into two groups, one called “Reformist”, the other “National Essence”.

   Both “Reformist” and “National Essence” groups realized that meaningless imitation in traditional painting, the result of hundred years of stagnation, left it unable to meet the needs of modern society, and that the reform of Chinese painting was inevitable. However, the “reformist”, most of whom had received western training in Europe or Japan and were impressed by West artists’ abilities to depict objects directly from nature, believed that the reform of traditional Chinese painting required assimilating the methods of Western art. Representatives of this group were Hsu Pei-hung, Lin Feng-mien, Kao Chien-fu, and wang Ya-ch’en, as to how to reform Chinese painting with Western methods. however, there several different opinions among the reformists.

    On the other side, facing the challenge of Western influence and attacks from the “reformist”, the “National Essence” group tried to find a way out within the traditional of Chinese painting itself, and regarded defending the tradition of Chinese painting as their inescapable responsibility. They, in fact, did not reject the reform of Chinese painting, and they also wanted to break away from the painting style of the late Ch’ing period, but they tried to reform painting with ancient masters’ styles and techniques of the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan periods, not with those of Western art, the representatives of the “National Essence” group were Chin Shao-Ch’eng, Ch’en Shi-tseng, Huang Pin-hung, He T’ien-chien, and Cheng Wu-ch’ang.

   This paper, through reviewing the major points of view of both groups in the debate and putting them into the political and cultural contexts of Chinese of the time, evaluates the meaning and value of this debate to the development of modern Chinese art.



Author: Kuiyi Shen
Genre: Article
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