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Northwestern University

What's Chinese About Chinese Art?

Anyone who watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing couldn’t help but be impressed by the display of Chinese creativity, technology, and engineering. The dramatic presentations, full of colorful references to ancient Chinese painting, archeological treasures, and China’s complex cultural history reflected the ambitions of a country ready to take its place as a world power. The light-filled extravaganza seemed to proclaim, “We’ve arrived!”

The Olympic ceremonies, like officially sanctioned public statues and monuments of eons past, signified China’s history and political aspirations. In other words, they presented the story China wanted to tell about itself and the direction in which it wanted to move. That outlook was informed by previous artistic styles as well as by national myths and a coherent identity—the traditional and the contemporary coming together in a wholly unique way.

The forging of national identity through art fascinates Sarah E. Fraser, associate professor of art history and an internationally recognized expert in Chinese painting. She studies how archeological and ethnographic projects have fed this identity-formation through the excavation of relics and research into diverse ethnic groups. Her newest book, What Is Chinese About Chinese Art? Archeology, Identity, and Politics, 1928-1947, which is due out in 2010, delves into China’s efforts to create a national identity after not just hundreds but thousands of years of dynastic rule. This shift from an imperial system to a republic was a major undertaking that affected all dimensions of Chinese culture.

Fraser’s research focuses on the Republican Period that began in 1912 with the end of the Qing Dynasty, which had been in power since 1644. The newly formed Republic of China found many challenges, the most pressing of which was domination by warlords and fragmentation by foreign powers. By the late 1920s, though, the Republican government was established, and national research institutions devoted to culture, such as the Education Ministry and the Central Research Academy located in Nanjing, began digging through the country’s past in order to view it through a more modern lens. “For Chinese intellectuals it was a way of bridging earlier history with the present, and investing modern China with meaning,” Fraser explains.

Scholars also wanted to learn more about the peoples living in frontier areas, in particular those separate from the dominant Han. China is home to many different ethnic groups such as the northeastern Hezhe people or Qiang in the southwest, many of whom live in outlying areas and have their own languages. Fraser posits that researchers in the 1920s were asking: “How do you work out a theory of nationhood or statehood that incorporates linguistic groups that are not Chinese? How does the dominant Han culture understand these minority groups? How do the Han conceive of a nation that takes it all in?”

Motivating this quest in the 1920s was a desire not only for information but also a way to counteract widely held racism in Europe and America against the Chinese. “Today we know about the length of China’s history and its accomplishments, which bolsters a sense of national pride. But that wasn’t true in the 1920s,”  Fraser says. “Academics were aware that China was not taken seriously as a power and that the rest of the world put China at the bottom of the racial scale. The first archeological digs put China on par with other old civilizations.”

Fraser notes that culling from the past wasn’t new to China—scholars in dynastic China had a longstanding interest in studying ancient cultures and incorporating earlier styles into new objects to advance legitimacy and claims to power. For example, painters in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) had integrated archaic styles and motifs in their works, and ceramics and bronze designers evoked ancient times with particular glazes, inlays, and motifs. What set the later digs apart from earlier efforts, Fraser argues, was the use of new techniques such as photography, mural reproduction, and systematic, hands-on excavations.

According to Fraser, “Archeology in China didn’t exist before 1928. There were no excavations conducted with scientific and systematic methods. There was never an attempt to go out in the field, identify ethnic groups, and collect scientific samples. Cultural samples and records of material culture were entirely new things.”

In her book Fraser examines three projects of the minguo (Republican) period: an archeological site in the Yellow River Valley, an ethnographic study on China’s southwest frontier, and another archeological site on the famous Silk Road—a far-reaching, interconnected network of trade routes.

Fraser’s research is full of lively personalities exploring the edges of an emerging nation. For example, there’s Fu Sinian, one of the founders of the Academia Sinica (the national academy of the Republic of China) and the founding director of the government-sponsored Institute of History and Philology. A famous educator and linguist, Fu had trained extensively in Germany and England, and returned to China with newly developed archeological techniques in 1926.

Fu launched state-sponsored digs in 1928 at Anyang in the eastern Yellow River plains, which yielded treasures that showed China’s early expertise in metalworking. His crews unearthed ritual objects from Bronze Age imperial tombs, including zoomorphic vessels inscribed with text that celebrated ancestral lineages, and Neolithic harvesting knives with blades made from jade.

“These were all difficult to make,” Fraser attests. “Bronze is an alloy of metals that needs to be melted and poured into molds incised with intricate zoomorphic motifs. These show the highest level of craftsmanship; they required many artisan hours and natural resources.”

Fu’s teams also discovered pits containing more than 20,000 oracle bones, which provided an historical source of the Shang dynasty (roughly 1766-1122 B.C.E). Scholars read inscriptions of divinations on turtle shells and bovine scapulae for information on early politics, religion, and clan structure. The bones provided critical insight into the early stages of Chinese civilization.

Just as critical as the oracle bones themselves, Fraser observes, was the careful method in which they were collected. When crews found huge deposits of bones in ritual waste pits, they removed them en masse, crated them, and brought them back to Nanjing for inspection. In earlier times, Fraser theorizes, archaeologists might have removed the bones individually in the field, destroying the context in which they were found.

The bones, bronze relics, and tools gave scholars tangible proof of early China’s high level of civilization. “Before this point there was no real record of early history. There had been speculation about the earliest dynasties, but no hard evidence,” Fraser says.

In addition to the digs at Anyang, Fu oversaw the efforts of ethnographers and anthropologists in Sichuan and Yunnan, near the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, to collect information on non-Han peoples, such as the Tibetans and the Dai. In the dynastic period, the Han always viewed these frontier zones as a mystery. “They were part of China, but not Chinese.”

Researchers such as Li Siyong and Ling Chunsheng were seeking a wider ancestral lineage for the modern Chinese people that included Han and non-Han peoples. They documented the different languages of these frontier groups and made dictionaries of the largely pictographic Naxi script; they collected cultural data, such as the customs of Qiang and Dai ethnic groups, and the structure of Tibetan Buddhist temples.

In the process they took thousands of photographs, many of which show researchers conducting physical anthropology—measuring and calibrating different ethnic groups through biometric data. In particular, ethnographers measured individuals’ skulls and skeletons, examined native dress, and compared each minority group to each other and to the Han. Artists such as Zhang Daqian and Wang Ziyun made close copies of monuments on the Silk Road and near the ancient capital of Chang’an (Xian). The ultimate goal was charting a national identity.

While anthropologists and ethnographers investigated Anyang and southwestern frontier zones, Zhang Daqian explored the pictorial roots of Chinese painting in the northern town of Dunhuang, located on the Silk Road. Minguo researchers had found caves near Dunhuang that were full of murals from the Tang and Song dynasties. They had also found tombs that held foreign coins from the Byzantine Empire, metalwork from Persia, and glass from the former Roman Empire, that pointed to Dunhuang as an important international commercial hub in the 7th to 9th centuries. The exquisite Buddhist paintings, which had been forgotten for centuries, became a source of national pride.

As one of the most famous and prolific Chinese artists of the 20th century, Zhang had a strong interest in medieval painters and indigenous folk motifs, which he incorporated into his own creations. With help from a team of Tibetan assistants, Zhang copied more than 250 Dunhuang paintings on cloth and paper from 1941 to 1943, during the Sino-Japanese war. These copies circulated widely in periodicals and exhibitions in 1943.

“These artists were involved with recapturing the glory of early China,” Fraser reflects, adding that Zhang’s efforts to reproduce China’s earlier splendor made him a national hero. “He found a pictorial language that spoke to people and that drew on the Chinese past rather than on imported artistic forms from European art. There was the feeling that a lot of traditional Chinese culture was not interesting or valuable. But at the same time, people were proud of the antiquity of China. They were looking for ancient objects that spoke to cultural grandeur and monumentality. After Japan’s invasion of China in 1931, there was the fear that China was going to disappear.”

According to Fraser, Zhang did his part to cultivate the image of a cult hero. He dressed in 12th century robes and cap, kept a long beard, and walked with an antique cane. “He was clever, very entrepreneurial, and worked with other artists who had skills he didn’t. But at the same time he was tearing murals off the wall to see earlier layers of wall painting. He was a complicated figure.”

Zhang left China in 1948 and traveled the globe, living in Brazil, India, and California before settling in Taiwan. In 1956 he visited Paris, where he met with Pablo Picasso. The two created paintings with stylistic elements from each other’s oeuvre, and legend has it that Zhang told Picasso upon viewing his works that he had used the wrong brushes—the Spanish brushes were a little bulkier than the Chinese version.

The three projects studied in Fraser’s forthcoming book show the explorations of a country taking its first steps toward a cohesive national identity by reaching back to the past. Says Fraser, “This was part of the Republican experience—drawing on the arts of the multicultural frontier to highlight China’s earlier cultural brilliance. Artists changed the concept of what China is.”

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