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CLP 18: 1994 “A Foreigner Looks at Pan Tianshou.” Pan Tianshou Symposium, Hangzhou

Talk for Pan Tianshou Symposium, Hangzhou, December 1994


It's a very great honor to be asked to be the initial foreign speaker at this distinguished symposium on the great modern master Pan Tianshou, and to speak in the place where he spent so much of his career--first as the head of the Traditional Chinese Ptg. Dept. at the National West Lake Academy of Fine Arts, the first art academy in China, and later, for twenty years from 1945, as the Director of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, before his tragic persecution and death during the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution.

As a foreigner who had, and still has, a very limited comprehension of the problems that artists faced and the conditions they endured during those early years of the P.R.C., I would find it easiest to talk about Pan Tianshou's paintings purely in terms of style, staying safely out of the more difficult topics of their historical position and political implications, topics about which others can speak with far more knowledge and insight than I can. What I want to do, however, is to offer an outsider's view of this matter, acknowledging that it is partial and no doubt somewhat distorted. It may nevertheless convey to my Chinese friends and colleagues some sense of how their situation was perceived by those of us outside. And I want to use this as a tribute to Pan Tianshou.

In 1970, the year before Pan Tianshou's death, a great international symposium on Chinese painting was held at the Palace Museum in Taibei; of course, no mainland Chinese scholars were involved. After the symposium some of us came to Macao; and the first place we were taken by our guide, the exciting place where all American tourists wanted most to go, was the border with "Communist China." A road ran from one side to the other, but an invisible barrier separated our side from the other; we all stood looking across with fascination at scenery that was exactly like what surrounded us, but seemed mysteriously different--it was as if we expected the trees and grass to be red instead of green. China was then a remote, inaccessible place for us, and vaguely sinister.

Two years later, in 1972, Nixon made his visit to China; and in the following year I and ten others came in the first delegation of art historians and archaeologists for a month-long tour; and the mysterious realm at last became a living reality for us. Hangzhou was the last stop on our tour; in 1977 I came again as head of a Chinese Ancient Paintings delegation, and again we came to Hangzhou. But it was not until 1982 that I visited the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, met some of its faculty, and saw some of its collection of old paintings. Since then my association with it has become very close, I have visited it many times, and I feel very much at home here.

In the mid-70s I prepared, for delivery at a symposium at our Center for Chinese Studies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the P.R.C. a lecture on the vicissitudes of traditional painting during those years (a topic on which Judy Andrews has since published a serious study.) I concentrated on the problems that traditional Chinese artists had faced in adapting their art to the new conditions, under political pressures and perils of a kind we could only imagine. (It was not until several years later that we learned about what artists had really undergone.) In my ill-informed presentation of this subject, based largely on a survey of paintings done by traditional masters during those years, Pan Tianshou had a prominent place. I will summarize briefly what I said then, with slides.

S,S. Qi Baishi, as an old and revered master with peasant-carpenter origins and an international reputation, was permitted to continue working with only minimal accomodation to the new requirements; often it was simply a matter of adding an inscription with a patriotic or political message to a painting not essentially different from what he had done before, or adding symbols such as doves of peace to his paintings.

S-- Qi Baishi was able to continue doing this in a relatively unproblematic way until his death in 1957 (when this painting was done.)

S,S. There were precedents, of course, for this practice; Chinese painters had for centuries been giving their conventional images of ink bamboo or blossoming plum a diversity of meanings and functions by adding appropriate inscriptions; and more recently Xu Beihong had done the same: painting over and over his standard image of a spirited horse, but adding inscriptions with more specific messages,

--S for instance this one, on an example dated 1945, indicating that it was intended on this occasion to celebrate the defeat of the Japanese. The image of the horse is the same as always.

S,S. By the later 50s, and for artists not so old and established, more thorough-going and conspicuous kinds of adaptation seemed to be required. Attempts were made to incorporate the new imagery into the settings of traditional landscape paintings, such as in Ying Yeping's 1957 picture in which the traditional figure of the sage gazing into the void is replaced by a foreman supervising the building of a bridge, or Li Shiqing's 1958 work titled "Moving the Mountains, Filling the Valleys." The ideal of harmony between man and nature had given way to one in which man's technological domination of nature was celebrated. For those of us outside China who were familiar with traditional landscape painting, works of this kind seemed rather anomalous, even bizarre. But at the same time we tried to understand the problems and pressures facing these painters, and tried to be sympathetic rather than critical.

S,S. The same was true of our responses to the efforts made by other, more distinguished painters to turn their styles and compositions to new uses; we admired their ingenuity and resourcefulness, while remaining sympathetic, imagining the forces that imposed these requirements on them. Fu Baoshi found ways to transform his romantic landscapes with figures, based on his study of Shitao's paintings, into scenes of the new era, such as his painting of soldiers using a winch and cable system to transport (ammunition?) across a ravine on Mt. Emei.

S,S. Fu Baoshi's earlier paintings celebrated individualism, the solitary scholar in communion with nature, as in the work at right from 1948. Later, as in the 1964 painting at left, a more communal spirit had to be expressed, and we see a procession of farm workers, along with steamboats and factories emitting smoke--the red sky is no longer the nostalgia of twilight, but industrial pollution, and a positive emblem of progress.

--S. Another aspect of the individualistic ideal, the insistence on uniqueness in the work of art, similarly gave way to a tolerance, or even encouragement, of a multiple mode of production, better suited to the needs of the new society.

S,S. Li Keran, in the same spirit, adapted his familiar scene of sailing boats on the Li River to the purpose of illustrating, in a work of1964, a line from a poem by Mao Zedong about a crucial moment in the war to drive out the Nationalists: "Our Mighty Army, a Million Strong, has Crossed the Yangtze." As an example of turning a traditional style to a new use, this seems in itself quite successful.

--S. But beside another portrayal of the same event by a lesser artist, done in 1971, Li Keran's is seen as a work of primarily aesthetic value; although it is certainly the better painting of the two by traditional criteria, it is the other that achieves the greater impact, conveys the patriotic or ideological message with greater force.. This kind of adaptation of established themes and styles did not, in the end, prove to be a good direction for traditional Chinese painting to take.

S,S. Within this context, how did Pan Tianshou respond to the demand that the artist invest his works with political content? The answer, as I presented it in my lecture, was that he scarcely responded at all; he appears to have remained unwilling to compromise. I quoted the writer of the introduction to a book of reproductions of his works published in 1962 claiming that "his style and thought have undergone great change since the Liberation," but pointed out that the change seems more the natural evolution of an artist than a bending to outside pressures. In taking this stance he followed, perhaps, the example of his teacher Qi Baishi, but at a time and in a situation in which an uncompromising stance carried much more danger--his situation was far less secure than Qi's, and he may have paid heavily for his firmness. In putting the matter this way I do not mean to be critical of those other artists who bent more to the pressures, but only to point out that Pan Tianshou's unbendingness seemed to us outside China, or at least to me, an expression of artistic integrity.

Pan Tianshou had, over the years represented by these two paintings--a 1954 landscape at right, one from 1963 at left--developed a very distinctive type of river landscape, made up of strongly-outlined angular forms.

--S. In the late 50s and early 60s these forms evolved into even flatter shapes with equally flat washes of color. The paintings took on something of the look of color woodcuts, while retaining the special strengths, the nuances of touch, of brush painting.

S-- In this work of 1959 he used this fully-developed landscape type as an illustration of Mao Zedong's famous line "Our Rivers and Mountains are Beautiful Like This." The inscription, that is, identifies it as that; the painting does not change at all.

--S. Pan Tianshou's modest picture stands at an opposite pole from the famous, grandiose collaboration of Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue illustrating the same line. Theirs was of course intended for public display in a state hall, so that the requirements were very different. But Pan, too, could have paid more obeisance to political expediency; he chose not to. --S Another type of composition that was Pan Tianshou's own was the one made up of various flowers and other plants arrayed over the surface to make a strong linear structure, again flatly angular in character.

--S. In this work of 1960 he more or less repeats this type, only presenting a greater diversity of plants, and informs us in his inscription that this time it is intended to convey the idea of "Let the Hundred Flowers Bloom." Pan Tianshou's unwillingness to turn his art to the service of political rightness was paralleled, I now understand, by the arguments he was making at this time for preserving diversity and avoiding conformity, in art; but this matter will be dealt with later in a paper by Hsingyuan Tsao.I would assume that these courageous stances were in some part responsible for his persecution at the outset of the Cultural Revolution; if so, he paid a terrible price for integrity. But we can still respect it.

I want to conclude by noting that foreign scholars have another major reason for paying tribute to Pan Tianshou: his early arguments, made in 1926 when the question was still very controversial, about the borrowings from foreign art that Chinese artists of that time were undertaking. First, he pointed out that these borrowings or adoptions were not unprecedented--foreign artists had been coming to China since the Pre-Han period; Buddhism had strongly affected Chinese art and culture in the post-Han centuries; and the coming of Jesuit missionaries from the late Ming had introduced still more foreign elements to Chinese art.

Secondly, Pan Tianshou argued that the time was ripe for an increased receptiveness to the outside world. He gave four reasons, among them the observation that the long history of Chinese painting over three or four thousand years had brought it to a point when "It was not easy to open [new paths] for the future. Therefore, it was necessary to welcome new principles from the outside".

I have myself reached the conviction, after some decades of observing cases of it, that cross-cultural adoptions in whichever direction are on the whole healthy and invigorating, not corrupting, to an artistic tradition, especially when that tradition has reached some stage of stagnation or crisis. I have regularly given two lectures in a survey course on World Civilization at Berkeley: one showing how Chinese painters adopted elements of European style from the works brought by the Jesuits in the Ming-Qing period; the other showing how in the 19th and 20th centuries the borrowings sometimes went the other way: French artists affected by Ukiyo-e prints from Japan, American Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s and after inspired by Chinese calligraphy and painting. In all these cases, the artists who were open enough to take what was useful to them from the foreign sources end up as more interesting and creative than their contemporaries who tried (futilely) to preserve the native tradition uncontaminated.

I am sure that Pan Tianshou, in making this early and courageous argument as well as in his later teaching, established a model of openness that is still being followed by artists and art historians in the programs here today. I cannot, because of my limited knowledge, comment on the artists, but I can say that the art historians here are as a group far more open to methodologies of art history outside China than those in other programs. So I extend my tribute, finally, to our respected colleagues Pan Yaochang, Fan Jingzhong, Cao Yiqiang, Hong Zaixin, as well as their older mentor Wang Bomin--in their continuing efforts to enrich and broaden the great Chinese tradition of art-historical scholarship by selective adoptions of what they find most convincing and useful in foreign writings. In this they are establishing a kind of art-historical equivalent to the theory and the practice of Pan Tianshou as an artist.

Thank you.

Kao Mayching, China's Response to the West in Art: 1898-1937, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford, 1972, pp. 202-204.

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