Contemporary Chinese Art

Chinese Beauty and the Renaissance

An Introduction

In 1983 I received an invitation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to present a paper at a laser conference in Guangzhou (Canton). I had never been particularly interested in China, but considered this an opportunity to learn something about this country as an intellectual challenge. I spent several months to learn some 100 words of Chinese and their characters and made a list of places I wanted to see. Besides Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu I was fascinated by the caves of Dunhuang in the Taklamakan Desert with their Buddhist murals. Unlike the Russian Academy, the Academia Sinica showed a cold shoulder to my travel plans, they were not a tourist office. They did help me to get the special visa required and paid for a flight to Lanzhou, but denied all further assistance. I paid myself and made all arrangements and tramped for 5 weeks all across Western China. Dunhuang became the great surprise experience of this trip.

At the Guangzhou conference I had met Zhu Qingshi, then a bright young physicist, who had just returned from a year at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. I visited him in Xining, Qinghai and walking through the dark town at night, we tried to answer each others questions: his, 'why was there never a Renaissance in China?' and mine, 'what is Beauty in Chinese Art?' - These two conundrums have continued to occupy my thinking off and on for 30 years. The following pages are a partial exposition of what I have learned in the interim.

In answer to my question Zhu recommended to visit the gardens of Suzhou, which I did on a second seven-week journey through China in 1987. I found, what he had expostulated that true Chinese Beauty, at least in paintings before the 19th century is monochrome and subservient to poetry. The colorful Buddhist murals of Dunhuang are derived from Indian painting and are foreign to Chinese painting in the true sense.

Zhu's search for a “Chinese Renaissance” is more multi-layered. During that night in Xining we made various aspects of Chinese social structure and philosophy responsible: Confucius, who refused to discuss death and gods and human emotions; the structure of Chinese bureaucracy with its emphasis on literary achievements, and the conservative values of Chinese thinking. But we overlooked two factors: that the term “Renaissance” is a misnomer as far as China is concerned, and that the roots of the problem lie much deeper.

Renaissance, Rebirth, the historical rediscovery of Greek and Roman artistic values after 500 years of medieval dominance by Christianity simply does not apply to China. Moreover, Buddhism teaches a form of repeated Rebirth that is deeply rooted in Chinese thought and preempts such a revolution.

At this juncture I came across Gish Jen's lecture “Tiger Writing.” Jen, using examples from art and her own life, explores the aesthetic and psychic roots of the independent (Western) and interdependent (Chinese) self—each mode of selfhood yielding a distinct way of observing, remembering, and narrating the world.

This psychological individuation took place in certain parts of Europe during the 12-16th century Renaissance and has eluded China ever since. Copying cars or airplanes is a mechanical process that can be taught and learned, as it were mechanically. The creation of an individual who can think independently requires a complete psychological change of values of society. Mao tried but ended in creating chaos. Zhu Qingshi is now attempting to change the traditional Chinese university system at the South China University of Science and Technology (SCUST) in Shenzhen. The obstacles he faces are overwhelming – and I wonder whether he will approve, when I call the revolution in the Chinese arts the cutting edge of a Chinese 'renaissance.'

My first encounter with Contemporary Chinese Art came through the book by Uta Grosenick and Caspar H. Schübbe, “China Art Book, The 80 Most Renowned Chinese Artists,” Dumont, Köln, 2007, which forms the base of my selection. In the 6 years since its publication Chinese Contemporay Art has exploded, and a new assessment with the help of the internet appeared desirable. My selection of artists was guided by my personal interests and the artistic qualities of the new work of the most influential among them. The emphasis is on painters, sculptors, and photographers, largely because their work can be shown in this format, performance art and videos cannot. Obviously, my list could easily be expanded.

As usual I have kept my comments short. I attach two extended critical essays which discuss the subject from the Chinese perspective. The first by Lin Nu gives the historical background of the development. The second, written by two renowned expatriat writers, Yang Lian and Yo Yo, voices the skeptical views of the conservative Chinese intellectuals, to which all my Chinese friends belong, who refuse to even look at my webpage. Yang and Yo induced me to add a page describing four traditional artists for contrast and as reference.

My strongest impression from this labor has been the realisation of how deeply these artists have been affected psychologically by this individuation process. Anyone born before 1960 is grappling with their memories of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and the events of 1989. However, unlike their predecessors - or Gish Jen's father - they are able to analyse and express these experiences through their work, requiring a phenomenal effort in an interdependent society. The youngest, born after 1970 are preoccupied with fame, money, and their personal emotional problems like most of their young Western counterparts.

I would very much appreciate to hear your comments.

Rolf Gross
September 22, 2013