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A Master in the Shadows

How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does moral commitment trump personal survival?

Such questions do not always have self-evident answers, and especially not in the case of China, where revolutions of many different kinds swept their turbulent way throughout the country for over a century. During that long period, bloodless coups and the most violent upheavals alternated and overlapped, sometimes combining with local forces to overthrow incumbent regimes, at others invoking the claims of various foreign powers for special treatment and territorial control. The Chinese were confronted by a sea change of options, ranging from imperial rule to republican experiments in governance, from progressive to parafascist militarism, from Japanese occupation to elitist single-party control from the right and the left, or the self-induced chaos of domestic mass movements.

The Chinese artist Fu Baoshi, who lived from 1904 to 1965 and is the subject of the elegantly structured and biographically rich exhibition and catalog now at the Metropolitan Museum, provides us with a range of entry points into the China of his time, many of which have been only partially explored. Yet the title of the show, “Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution,” though certainly broad, still does not quite catch the full richness and ambiguity of the materials presented here. Cumulatively, these details of Fu’s hopes and experiences provide us with nothing less than a variety of new perspectives through which to explore an unusual life in a time of opportunity and challenge.

Fu Baoshi was born in the waning years of the Qing dynasty, to a farming family in the prosperous city of Nanchang. The city was the capital of Jiangxi province in central China, and in the later nineteenth century had been the base of operations for a number of innovative national administrators, some of whom had been especially involved in exploring the cultural currents from the West. Because of his father’s repeated bouts of illness and the family’s poverty, Fu received no formal schooling until 1917, when he was thirteen, but this experience of hardship seems to have had certain advantages for the family. Fu’s father moved to the city and worked at various nonfarming jobs, one of which was as an umbrella mender, and Fu himself as a child brought some money into the family by working as an apprentice in a ceramics shop. From this experience he grew fascinated with the designs that were used as the decoration on fine porcelain, and that in turn stimulated an interest in drawing and carving, so that by the age of seven or eight he had learned to draw and also to write some of the classical characters on his own.

That experience, in its turn, led Fu to an interest that was to stay with him all his life, the art of seal carving. This was an extraordinarily demanding art form, in which the carving of the small stone seals—stamps bearing names or epithets and often used as signatures on paintings and official documents—depended on the artist’s detailed knowledge of the materials, along with a piercing eye and intense manual dexterity. Fu’s talents in this difficult work aroused local interest, and the chance to make more money by carving seals on commission. With support from a member of the gentry who was active in a local cultural association, Fu was permitted to attend—on an informal basis—private classes on the Chinese classical literary and artistic traditions.

* * *

News of the boy’s unusual skills spread, and in 1917 he was admitted to the First Normal School of Nanchang. The death of Fu’s father in 1921 did not prevent Fu from advancing to the high school level, which was designed to help boys prepare for a teaching career. Fu briefly selected the English language as his major field, but soon switched to majoring in art. He continued to carve seals on commission, and on occasion he also forged seals or paintings of earlier masters. As Anita Chung, one of the main organizers of this exhibition and the author of a lengthy and detailed essay on Fu, remarks, when Fu’s teachers learned of these teenage forgeries, “not only did the school not punish him, [but] the principal encouraged him to develop his individual style. To the young art student, this was perhaps an important lesson concerning authentic artistic creativity.” Several of Fu’s seals are included in the exhibition, including one particularly exquisite piece whose six-character impression reads “Plucking the pollia on a flat island” and on three sides of which, covering an area of less than five square inches, are engraved the 2,765 characters of Qu Yuan’s poem “On Encountering Sorrow.”


iconNanjing Museum

Fu Baoshi: Prague Castle, 1957

By good fortune, four of Fu’s early hanging landscape scrolls, dated by their inscriptions to the year 1925, survived, and were preserved in a Tokyo museum. Displayed here, in the first room of the show, they demonstrate Fu’s great abilities as he turned twenty-one, and provide a striking way to open the exhibition. These landscapes are meant to show exemplary styles of the past, about which Fu comments at the top of each painting—admiring, for instance, the “vigorous style” and “dry brushstrokes” of the seventeenth-century masters Gong Xian and Cheng Sui. Referring to the eleventh-century painter, poet, and calligrapher Mi Fu, Fu wrote, “Later artists…could only pile up the ink dots without imparting openness and closeness. The result was not satisfactory.”

Upon Fu’s graduation in 1926, the school appointed him to teach in the primary school, and in 1929 he was promoted to the junior high school division. Those three years were among the most violent in China’s modern history. Shanghai was torn by colossal strikes that brought most industries to a halt, until Chiang Kai-shek ordered his armies—which had marched north from Canton in 1926—to smash the major unions and banish the Communist Party from Shanghai and other cities. It was also during 1927 and 1928 that the Communists retreated from the last major urban centers they had once controlled, and that Mao attempted to build a new set of revolutionary bases in the mountainous countryside around Hankou. This indeed was an “age of revolution,” but Fu stayed in the Nanchang region, teaching Chinese painting theory, Chinese art history, seal carving, landscape painting, and flower-and-bird painting. During this period, too, Fu finished the draft of two books: one, with material drawn from his own teaching, painting, and research experience, titled An Outline History of the Transformation of Chinese Painting, was published in 1931; the second, Studies in Seal Carving, was compiled between 1926 and 1929.

The partially typeset version of this second book was destroyed in early 1932, during the heavy Japanese bombing and shelling of Shanghai that occurred during the short, violent conflict of this period, and it was not until 1934 that the book finally came out in revised and expanded form. During these years of the early 1930s, Japanese troops had also been expanding their power in Manchuria, which was rapidly becoming effectively a Japanese colony—Korea had already been a Japanese colony since 1910, and Taiwan a Japanese colony since 1895.

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The near destruction of Fu’s manuscript coincided with the period of his greatest affection for, and involvement with, Japan and Japanese scholars. As several of the essays in the exhibition catalog make clear, in the late 1920s and early 1930s a complex but different kind of intellectual and aesthetic struggle was being waged among many Chinese and Japanese writers and scholars. It was a battle in which the Chinese cultural legacy in East Asia was being subjected to intense scrutiny, and was very much in doubt. The guardians of China’s artistic traditions—among whom Fu himself could now be seen as a junior member—were working and living on the margins of survival. Western aesthetic categories dominated most of the world’s arts and historical records. To unsympathetic observers, the traditional categories of Chinese art—decorated porcelain, seals, calligraphy, and paintings in ink—were static and outmoded, incapable of further creative development in their current forms. Oil painting, together with new forms of expression and spectacular technical achievements, dating back to the Renaissance, had simply passed China by. The ink landscapes in the literati tradition—paintings by scholar-bureaucrats in a simple style and inscribed with poems—that Fu celebrated in both his scholarship and his own painting were especially, in the words of the catalog entry on Fu’s 1933 landscape in the style of the fourteenth-century painter Wang Meng, “criticized as backward, conservative, and stagnant…the antithesis of individualism.”

Japan’s position in these culture wars was a pivotal one. Chinese students had been flocking to Japan since around 1900 (just before Fu was born), and to France from 1920 onward. With skills honed overseas, the Chinese students came back to a China that had been shattered by Japanese military and economic assaults, and had also been weakened by Western territorial aggression. It is only from such a dark perspective that we can now understand the historical logic that lay behind the 1931 visit to Fu Baoshi made by one of China’s most celebrated painters, Xu Beihong. Xu himself had just returned to China from eight years of study and painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was currently teaching and working in the art department of the National Central University of Nanjing, not far from Nanchang. When he encountered Fu, Xu was deeply impressed by Fu’s abilities as a painter and seal carver, and by his determination to recapture ancient Chinese purities of line and texture.

Xu asked the military governor of the Nanchang region to grant Fu a stipend to study in France, backing his request with a gift of one of his own celebrated horse paintings. Fu tried to clinch the bargain by giving the governor two of his seals. Since there was still not enough money for Fu to go to France, Xu narrowed his requests for funding to the support of Fu in Japan, and to the deepening of his skills in ceramics, which happened to be one of the most profitable products in Jiangxi.

This somewhat hasty lobbying by the two Chinese painters led, perhaps to their surprise, to Fu’s residence in Japan, from September 1932 to June 1933, and from August 1933 to June 1935. During this period, once his Japanese language skills reached a high level, Fu was formally enrolled in the advanced graduate programs offered in Tokyo by the distinguished professor of fine arts Kinbara Seigo, by whose study of Chinese aesthetic concepts going back to the early third century Fu had been greatly impressed. Fu translated several works by Kinbara into Chinese, studied a wide range of historical texts on the earlier Chinese and Japanese artistic traditions, and held a successful one-man show of his own paintings and seal carvings in Tokyo in May 1935.

* * *

This Japanese experience was transformative for Fu, and gave him a new sense of China in a global setting, and of the nationalist significance of China’s past traditions to China’s own history. As summarized by the authors of the catalog, what Japan did for Fu was that “specifically, it heightened his sense of national and cultural consciousness, which would add a political dimension to his art historical writing and art making.” Among many opportunities that now became available to Fu, perhaps the most important was that he developed a deeper understanding and admiration for the brilliantly talented so-called “eccentric” Chinese painters such as Shitao, a member of the royal house who narrowly escaped death and was forced to live in hiding during the disintegration of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century—a political circumstance in which Fu found solace and inspiration during a time of foreign aggression and perceived national decline. In her biographical essay, Anita Chung writes that Fu perceived Shitao “as a yimin, or ‘leftover subject’ of the fallen Ming dynasty, who witnessed the country’s tragic fate.” Fu summarized his view of Shitao’s importance in a 1936 essay: “His art is not only a harmonious symphony but also the saddest tune of the human world…. For an artist living under foreign invasion, only autumn and winter scenes could symbolize suffering and depression.”

These studies became more difficult in June 1935, when Fu learned that his mother was seriously ill and returned to Nanjing, where he also taught Chinese art history and painting theory at the National Central University. In the summer of 1937 full-scale war between Japan and China broke out, and led to disastrous defeats for China: Shanghai was lost, Nanjing was ravaged, Beijing was occupied, and the main Chinese armies retreated deep inland to the city of Chongqing.

Fu joined the exodus, undertook propaganda work for the Nationalist forces, continued his research into the creative worlds of Shitao, and spent what time he could with his growing family of five children. His painting grew in power and originality, and in 1940, refusing to join Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang, he ceased Nationalist propaganda work altogether and devoted his energies to a series of one-man shows in and near Chongqing.

When the Japanese war ended in 1945 Fu took no governmental posts, but neither does he seem to have done any undercover work for the Communists during the ensuing civil war, though at least one of his close friends definitely did so. When, in late 1948, the Nationalist forces crumbled under the final Communist assaults, Fu was offered the chance to retreat to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s surviving forces, but he declined to go. Once again, the revolution swirled its destructive winds around him, but he himself remained unscathed, as far as we can tell.

For many visitors to this exhibition, the Communist years will come as something of a letdown, even though Fu could still conjure up tempestuous visions, and some of his battle scrolls are stupendous. Also, Fu grasped the pictorial and personal opportunities offered by the publication of Mao Zedong’s poetry, and shrewdly saw how the act of studying and illustrating the poems—as in the painting of Mao swimming in the Yangzi River in the exhibition—could be used to shelter himself and his family from various forms of criticism. Fu was allowed to keep his former university position, but it must have been a major blow to him when a university-wide “curriculum adjustment” committee canceled his classes on Chinese painting theory, calligraphy, seal carving, and art history, all of which were dropped from the class rosters.

Fu continued to receive prestigious commissions, including working on an enormous landscape for the newly built Great Hall of the People, and he was invited to take part in two major delegations, one to Eastern Europe and one to the former Manchu regions bordering on North Korea. The catalog includes a remarkable painting of the Prague Castle, with a foreground of trees and foliage drawn, as the catalog puts it, with “dancing movements of the brush [that] enliven the architectural forms.” But he was obliged to make many “self-criticisms,” and it became necessary for him to modify his dark and sundered landscapes, so that he could not be accused of anti-proletarian pessimism in early–Mao era crackdowns on free expression such as the Five-Anti campaign and the repression following the Hundred Flowers movement.

Fu Baoshi died, apparently of a heart attack, in September 1965, just before the awful force of the Cultural Revolution could destroy him and his family. He would surely not have lasted long once the Red Guards learned the details of his propaganda work for the Guomindang, his long residence in Japan, and his passion for China’s ancient art, with its seals and its calligraphy and its purist admiration for the past. As it is, we can note how, in his last paintings, he felt it wise to decorate his swirling mists and distant vistas with ever brighter washes of pink, orange, and red. That way no one could accuse him of slighting the revolution, the one he lived through as well as the one that he made.

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Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

Chinese Art in an Age of Revolution: Fu Baoshi (1904–1965)
an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, October 16, 2011–January 8, 2012, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, January 30–April 29, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Anita Chung
Cleveland Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 242 pp.

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This article was first published in the April 5, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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