The first decades of the twentieth century marked the end of the insular, tradition-bound Qing empire (1644–1911) and the forceful entry of China into the modern age. Foreign influences, largely restricted to a handful of ports and missionary initiatives during much of the nineteenth century, now flooded into China in an irresistible tide. Indeed, the massive influx of Western ideas and products constituted the most important factor defining China’s culture during the twentieth century.
China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) spurred a movement for reform among members of the scholarly class with the ideal of marrying “Chinese essential principles with Western practical knowledge.” During its final years, the Qing dynasty did launch a number of initiatives aimed at modernization, but its efforts were too feeble and too late. Advocates for radical change, particularly the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), were able to capitalize upon growing dissatisfaction with Manchu rule to topple the Qing dynasty. The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 brought about an end to two millennia of imperial rule. During the next two decades, the young republic struggled to consolidate its power: initially by uniting central military and political leadership after the misguided attempt by Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), the first president, to establish himself as emperor; and second by bringing together China’s diverse regions, after wresting control over certain areas from local warlords. In the arts, a schism developed between conservatives and innovators, between artists seeking to preserve their heritage in the face of rapid Westernization by following earlier precedents and those who advocated the reform of Chinese art through the adoption of foreign media and techniques.
As exemplified by Fu Baoshi (1904–1965) and Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), both of whom studied in Japan and traveled abroad late in their lives, some influential artists created hybrid styles that reflected a cosmopolitan attitude toward art and a willingness to modify inherited traditions through the incorporation of foreign idioms and techniques (1986.267.277; 1986.267.361). Zhang, who became a leading connoisseur and collector, based his diverse painting styles on the firsthand study of early masterpieces, while Fu, an academic, learned about earlier works from reproductions and copies.
With the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, cultural activities came under the control of the state. Seeking to reform traditional painting to make it “serve the people,” the Communist government mandated that artists pursue a “revolutionary realism” that would celebrate the heroism of the common people or convey the majesty of the motherland. Taking the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union as orthodoxy, Chinese painters found a model among their own countrymen—emulating the Western-derived academic realism of Xu Beihong (1895–1953). Painting from life rather than copying ancient masterpieces became the principal source of inspiration for most artists (1986.267.192). But excessive bureaucratic oversight and the shifting demands of politics often had a detrimental effect. The Communist party’s effort to encourage plurality and free expression under the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956–57, for example, was soon cut short by the antirightist purge of 1957; while the Great Leap Forward, of 1958–62, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, although intended to bring society into conformance with the party’s progressive ideals, actually led to the persecution of many well-known artists and had a stultifying impact on creativity.