It will be one-sided if we equate realism in traditional Chinese modern art with that in the western world, as they have different orientations. In the face of modern challenges, Chinese invented their realism by incorporating traditional Chinese civilization with their perceptions of an authentic, powerful and modern China.
Realism occurred after two major changes in the history of Chinese arts. The first change refers to the Stele Movement that Kang Youwei advocated. Kang believed that realism is the foundation of western art. Xu Beihong, one of his followers also highly valued neoclassical school represented by Jacques-Louis David and initiated its aesthetic education in China. The second change came at a time when Chinese artists sought to introduce western art to China. Because of that, the socialist artistic tradition with realism was challenged and began to acquire new meanings. Such fields as conceptual painting, experimental video, social art, and theater performance have all been influenced by the change.
In these two changes, different types of modernism appeared as a rival of realism. The first type is modernism featuring self-discipline initiated by Paul Cézanne, while the second refers to Enlightenment Modernism characterized by "cultural zeal." Here in China, realism is more like a painful exploitation made by Chinese people to overcome its historical constraints than a mere copycat from the western world.
To overcome one certain type of outdated historical view, we have to learn to create a new one, even if sometimes the old has taken the form of realistic oil painting. As the forerunner of realism in China, Kang Youwei, influenced by the Gong-yang School in the Qing Dynasty (a subfield of Confucianism), was maybe the last self-revolutionist in Chinese classical civilization.
Spring and Autumn Annals, one of the six classics of Confucianism, is seen as a book that embodies the supreme wisdom of the Chinese people in reflecting on their history. Historical reflection is not only what Confucianism excels Daoism and Buddhism. More importantly, it is also an advantage boasted by the Chinese civilization. It's not commonly seen in the time-honored world history that a civilization can keep a record of its history for such a long and consistent time at such an amazing scale. Among all the commentaries on Spring and Autumn Annals, Gongyang Zhuan stands out as it is precise and science-based. Kang Youwei succeeded in injecting new ideas into the book by applying it to the real world where he lived, leading to revolutionary changes in such areas as politics, academia, arts, and education. Meanwhile, he also managed to envisage a future world where the concepts of Gongyang Zhuan can truly turn into reality. He expressed his ideas in his masterpiece Da Tong Shu. Liang Qichao, one of his followers, then inaugurated Chinese Futurology and Science Fiction Art.
It is unthinkable what would happen to China's cultural and political practice if all the concepts of Gongyang Zhuan, including ideas like “Bo Luan Fan Zheng” (a political term, bringing order out of chaos), “Xiaokang Society” and “Tong San Tong” (three laws for governors) failed to win their due place. All these concepts prove that the wisdom of Gongyang Zhuan has never been left unrecognized throughout Chinese history. Also, these concepts also serve as important pillars of Chinese contemporary art. Realism is a backbone of arts in the new era, rather than a loser in a modern art movement.
About the Stele Study Exhibitions
Stele Movement is a political and aesthetic movement starting from late Ming Dynasty to late Qing Dynasty. As the last important art and cultural movement of classical China, it also represents the epilogue of modern Chinese political and artistic trends. This movement, commonly known as a calligraphy trend, actually exerts a much broader impact on the Chinese society. On the one hand, it added fresh ideas to the traditional Confucianism, as evidenced by new philosophical systems established by Ruan Yuan and Kang Youwei, two famous Chinese thinkers. On the other, global awareness emerged at the end of Qing Dynasty. Artists who influenced by the trend, such as Xu Beihong, eventually shaped contemporary Chinese culture and academic system.
Stele Movement can help us in identifying the relationship between ancient Chinese civilization and a globalized world. Through discussion, we hope we can learn more about the Chinese history while engaging in art creation. To reinterpret Confucianism and sharpen global awareness, which explains the reason why we would like to revitalize the stele movement, has been a key trend of modern China. Stele movement offers us the best way to understand many concepts in a Chinese context rather than Dao and skills, rule and arts, sacrificial ware and etiquette.