Rescuing Literati Aesthetics: Chen Hengke (1876-1923) and the Debate on the Westernization of Chinese Art

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Lai, Kuo-Sheng
Kuo, Jason C.
During the nineteenth century, China, which had always been an agricultural nation, suffered from the penetration of the industrialized Western Empires. With their much more sophisticated artillery, the West defeated China in many wars. The Chinese scholar-officials had always viewed foreigners as barbarians and were unwilling to learn from them. However, some of the scholar-officials sensed that China would languish without learning from the West and thus promoted westernization. This started the debate on westernization. Chen Hengke (1876-1923) was a traditional artist and art theorist, who lived to witness the decline of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the new Republic. At that time, many Chinese intellectuals such as Kang Youwei, Cai Yuanpei, Chen Duxiu, and Xu Beihong urged the westernization of Chinese painting. They thought that Chinese painting could not compete with Western painting in terms of the accurate rendering of nature, that is, realism. However, many traditional Chinese painters refuted the westernization of painting and defended traditional Chinese literati painting. Among the latter, Chen Hengke was one of the leading figures. He wrote "The Value of Literati Painting" to defend traditional painting. A Japanese art historian Omura Seigai also wrote a book The Revival of Literati Painting to defend Chinese literati painting. This thesis discusses the background of westernization, Chen Hengke' s life, his opinions on art, and how he defended Chinese painting.