Turmoil, Representation, and Trend: Modern Chinese Painting, 1796-1949
The Opium War of 1839-1842 was an important event in nineteenth century China; many historians use this event as the most important demarcation of recent Chinese history. Yet there is still ample room to discuss whether this event marked the fundamental changes in the characteristics of Chinese society, or whether it signified the Chinese loss of independence in cultural and historical developments, or whether it demonstrated the Chinese “reaction” and “response” to the Western world. The effects of the Opium War can be seen in China’s diplomatic relationship with the West, her international trade, and the political and economic history of Guangdong and other costal cities, which did not entirely alter the path of development of Chinese history. Mid-nineteenth century Chinese painting did not experience fundamental changes due to the Opium War; Western influence on nineteenth century Chinese painting was limited and partial; Chinese painting developed according to her own “historical track,” and there was certainly no such thing as “responding to the impact of the West.”
With the expansion of capitalism in the sixteenth century, which engendered transformation in Chinese philosophy, Chinese painting was situated in that process of modernization. From the way Wu school painters became increasingly professional and Dong Qichang’s advocacy of Southern and Northern School, from the way the Orthodox School became the Court School to the way Yangzhou painting became increasingly professional, from the formation of the “Jinshi” school to the rise of the Shanghai school … one can find the threat of transformation of recent Chinese painting. This development between 1800 and 1840 was not only interrupted and interfered with by the West, but also continued to develop over the entire nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chinese culture followed a special internal method of development from the ancient to more recent history—a gradual transformation, not a revolution. One cannot apply Western concepts and standards to explain Chinese culture and painting history.
Ren Xiong (1823-1857) was an important painter of the mid-nineteenth century, and is one of the Three Xiong of Shanghai (with Zhang Xiong [1803-1886] and Zhu Xiong [1801-1864]); he was also one of the Three Rens (with Ren Xun [1836-1893], and Ren Yi [1840-1895]). Along with Ren Yu [1853-1901], they formed the Four Rens. Ren Xiong was both crucial and influential in the formation of the Shanghai School.
Zhu Xiong and Zhang Xiong, senior to Ren Xiong by more than 20 years, achieved their fame mainly through bird-and-flower painting. They synthesized the xieyi and mogu methods, and were “pioneers in reforming bird-and-flower painting in the mid-nineteenth century.” Zhu Xiong was from Jiaxing in Zhejiang, but lived in Shanghai, and his bird-and-flower painting was close to that of Zhang Xiong except that his brushwork revealed more freedom. Both Zhu Xiong and Zhang Xiong were influenced by Chen Chun, Zhou Zhimian, Yun Shouping, and Wang Wu. Zhang Xiong was also from Jiaxing, and had painted a teaching manual in four volumes. Because he had a large following, his school was called the Yuanhu School. Zhang Xiong lived in Shanghai for many years where, in addition to painting, he amassed a good painting collection. Due to his longevity, he attracted a large following and enjoyed a high reputation. But Zhu Xiong and Zhang Xiong’s paintings reveal fewer characteristics of Shanghai School painting.
Wang Li (1813-1879 or 1817-1885) was from Suzhou and lived in Shanghai as a professional painter. He was discovered by Zhang Xiong. Wang Li’s painting reveals more of the mundane aspects of urban life through a method echoing that of eighteenth century Yangzhou masters, as well as Zhang Xiong and Zhu Xiong. Wang Li’s figure painting followed Chen Hongshou. In mid-nineteenth century Shanghai the influence of Gai Qi and Fei Danxu was replaced by that of Chen Hongshou.
Zhu Cheng (1826-1899 or 1900) was Zhu Xiong’s younger brother. Because Wang Li gained fame, Zhu Cheng followed Wang Li. His painting style differed from the literati style. Even though Zhu Cheng clearly influenced Ren Yi, his categorization as an early Shanghai school painter remains debatable.
Hu Yuan (Hu Gongshou, 1823-1886) was a Shanghai native who gained fame, attracted the patronage of urban bankers, and became an influential figure in Shanghai art circles. Hu Yuan’s landscape painting influenced Ren Bonian, and his flower painting revealed his personal style.
During the formative stage of the Shanghai school, Zhu Xiong and Zhang Xiong represented the shift from the literati tradition to the professional Shanghai school style. Later on, Wang Li’s works revealed obvious professional flavor catering to the taste of Shanghai city dwellers. Wang Li, Zhun Cheng, and Hu Yuan all lived into the late nineteenth century—the peak of the Shanghai School. Their mature works were mostly created during their later years after the Shanghai cultural atmosphere had changed. In this respect, Ren Xiong, who passed away in 1857, was a crucial figure in the formative stage of the Shanghai School.
Ren Xiong, from Xiaoshan, Zhejiang, left home around age twenty-one. Traveling in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, he might have supported himself as a professional painter. In 1848 he met Zhou Xian (1820-1875) and was invited to Jiaxing, where he lived with the Zhou family for three years. He copied paintings in Zhou’s collection, which became an important stage in Ren Xiong’s artistic career and helped define his personal style. In 1850 Ren Xiong encountered Yao Xie (1805-1864) and moved into Yao’s house for over a year. In addition to studying Yao’s collection, he also improved his literary and poetic skills. In 1856, Ren Xiong returned to Xiaoshan for one year to focus on his painting. That year he finished his famous works Yu Yue Xianxian Xiangzhuan Zan (set of 80) and Jianxia Zhuan (set of 43), which were carved onto wood blocks by Cai Rong and published by Wang Ling. In Yu Yue Xianxian Xiangzhuan Zan, the height of nineteenth century woodcut printing, Ren Xiong fully revealed his talent. In 1857 Zhou Xian visited Ren Xiong in Xiaoshan, and Ren, ill at the time, accompanied Zhou to Xiangyun Monastery. Ren passed away in the tenth month that year. Though Ren Xiong had a short life, he created numerous excellent works and was a crucial figure in the formative stage of the Shanghai school.
Shan Guolin, Preface, for 『Selected Works of Shanghai School Masters from the Collection of the Shanghai School』. Hong Kong: Daye Publishing Company, 1991, p. 2.
Qin Bingwen (1803-1873) was from Wuxi, Jiangsu. Excelling in landscape painting, Qin first followed Gao Jian’s (1634-1707) style, and traced his style to Yuan masters. He gained fame in the south when he was young, but in his middle years Qin studied Wang Jian, then Wang Shimin, obtaining the essence of the Southern School. He traveled extensively in the south and began to learn the art of painting landscape from nature. Qin’s small format landscape paintings are especially exquisite, though his large format landscaped are less impressive.
Qin Bingwen formed a painting society with Zhang Shibao (1805-1879) and Wang Fang (1799-1877), a noteworthy event of the Tongzhi period. This kind of society, which was rare in Beijing, differed from traditional literati painting societies because it was a means to expand the market.
Zhang Zhibao, a native of Shandong, was a versatile artist capable of painting landscape, bird-and-flower, and figures. He particularly excelled in figure painting, and learned from the styles of Chen Hongshou and Cui Zizhong; his brush method derived from Han dynasty brick carvings, employing jinshi calligraphic aesthetic. Wang Fang was from Yanghu (Changzhou) and also excelled in landscape painting. He followed Yuan dynasty style, and his contemporaries regarded the works done during his middle age as his best.
Zhu Angzhi learned landscape painting from the styles of Huang Gongwang and Dong Qichang, and his style is similar to Dong’s. Later he studied Yun Shouping and Wang Hui. In his middle age he copied many ancient works.
Zhang Dunpei, a Suzhou native. He excelled in landscape and flower painting. He modeled after Tang Yin, and he modeled his color application method and calligraphic style after Wen Zhengming. Zhang was known for his connoisseurship and shared his fame with Zhu Angzhi in the Wu region.
Huang Jun started his career as an artist by copying Huang Ding (1650-1730), and Wang Zhuan (1623-1709). His style was based on that of the followers of the Four Wangs. After his return to his hometown, he shared the fame with Zhu Angzhi and Zhang Peidun, like the three legs of a tripod.
Ren Yi, 1840-1896, was originally named Run, and his sobriquet was Bonian. He left his hometown Ningbo with his uncle Ren Xun to Suzhou to become a professional painter. There he befriended Hu Gongshou and Sha Fu. Later the same year he moved to Shanghai and stayed there for twenty-eight years until his passing. The public appeal of Ren Bonian’s painting is seen in his vertical subject matters, from legendary folklore to everyday life, combing professional painting with street lives, and reflecting the market demand of his time. He was also skilled in flower, fruit, household animals, and portraiture. He painted from life, a trend he must have helped develop. Ren Bonian was an outstanding representative of the Shanghai school, and was an influential painter in recent Chinese painting history, particularly the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When the reform trend rose, Ren Bonian’s method of painting from life also won him an increasingly high reputation.