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Modernization of China and the Making of 'Modern' Art
Oscar Ho Hing-Kay

The history of China since mid 19th Century has been an unceasing struggle for modernity, if modernity is defined as a process of moving into industrialization, urbanization, and as development in technology and democracy. Situated amidst endless quests for modernization, Chinese art is also closely lined with this long struggle for modernity, although for a long time it takes on a path different from the modernist movement in the West.

Humiliated and exploited by Western Imperialism, the Chinese try to save their nation, ironically, by imitating their enemies. The first major campaign for modernity, the "Foreign Affairs Movement", is launched during the 1860s. The modernization, however, is limited to the military and technological area only, as there is a wide spread belief that China still has its cultural superiority, and "the West is for practical use only". It takes almost half a century for the definition of "modernity" expands from purely technological to political then to the cultural sphere .

While there are endless debates over the definition of 'modernity' in China, there is a common agreement that the old feudal system must be abolished. Being modern (that is, being up-to-date and progressive) implies a critical review of the established, with the achievement of the West as references. The modernization movement reaches its peak when a large scale demonstration is held in Beijing on May 4th, 1919. This famous May Fourth Movement, which calls for modernizing China with science and democracy, triggers a wave of cultural modernization that remains influential today. The number of art school grows dramatically since the outbreak of the Movement, as art education is regarded an important part of the new cultural movement.

In 1927, the "National Grand Meeting on Art" is held Beijing and a call for "art for the people" is agreed. Modernity is not about personal expression or exploration . It is a critical, educational process to bring China from emperors and eunuchs, warlords and slaves into a modern, "civilized" world.

The 19th Century and even the early part of the 20th Century, it is basically a period when the Chinese are getting acquainted with Western art, from the handling of oil paint media, understanding perspectives, to dealing with such issues as nudity. By 1930s, with the increased number of artists trained in the West and Japan, the modernist movements in the West is not totally foreign to Chinese artists, although the "Western art" scene in China is dominated by a realism evolving from the French Academy tradition. With Shanghai as the base, a short-lived "modernist" movement does create some turbulence in 1930s. In the manifesto of the avant-garde group "Breaking Wave Society" , these artists declare: "We need to freely unify a world of formalistic construction"we deplore all the old form and colour, we need new technique to reflect the spirit of our new time"the scream of the Fauvist, the transfiguration of Cubism, the roaring of Dada"Chinese art of 20th Century needs a new spirit."" However, these Fauvist, Surrealist, Constructivist and Expressionist work soon lose their ground and are criticized as "filthy egotistic sentimentality" as the social and political crisis in China increases. It is social realism that represents the progressive. While Kathe Kollwitz remains much ignored in Europe, in China she is already a widely admired figure influencing many generations of progressive artists.

If "art for art"s sake" is a characteristic of modernism, then the battle for modernism is already lost in China by early 20th Century, when there is a heated debate between "art for art"s sake" or "art for people"s sake", and the latter takes a dominating lead. The early movement for modernity in China has it own distinctive definition: it is an act of critique with a specific purpose to revitalize a people and save a nation.

In Hong Kong, modernity has a different meaning. After the People"s Republic of China is established in 1949, the British colony ceases to be a temporary shelter and becomes home to the many refugees from China. After the transitional period of 1950s, the idea of 'modernity' is introduced in 1960s, as a result of an economic bloom.

In the 60s, 'mor-dun' (modern) is the most popular phrase in Hong Kong. It means being fashionable and Western. The critical nature of Chinese modernity is gone. 'Mor-dun' fits well with a subtle official campaign for a new Hong Kong at a time when China is rampaged by the infamous Cultural Revolution. A vision of a glossy, Western looking 'mor-dun' Hong Kong not only helps the newly developed local industries to be better in tune with the global market, but also separates Hong Kong from the backward and chaotic China, which remains a threat to the British. The promotion of 'mor-dun' through rock concerts, youth dance parties and beauty contests becomes more active after a series of Leftist riots in 1967. The end of the riots also mark a turning point where the government begins to get actively involved with "cultural promotion".

During this 'mor-dun' period comes the 'Modern Water and Ink' movement, the first self-consciously Hong Kong art movement that has been actively supported by government run museums until today. The movement, led by Lui Shou Kun, calls for a blending of Chinese ink painting with Western modern art. In their work, China is the ancient landscape of mountains and mist, a literati world that hardly exists in Hong Kong. As for the West, it means the abstract strokes of the Abstract Expressionists such as Kline and Gottlieb. Modernity means a formalistic marriage of a remote East and an abstract West without touching on critical issues such as the West that colonizes Hong Kong or the East called the People"s Republic of China. The movement comes to a quick decline when Lu's followers, because of limited understanding of Western art, turns to relying on formulated arrangement based on basic principles of design such as big verse small, solid verse airy for the make of "modern" art.

It is in the 80s, when a pluralistic development is brought in by a new generation of young artists returning from overseas, the dominance of 'Modern Water and Ink' is finally challenged. If 'contemporary art' is a post-modern phenomenon in which the domination of certain prominent movements is replaced by a decentralized, pluralistic scenario, Hong Kong art in the 80s has entered a "contemporary" era, a term that does not carry the same specific meaning as in the West.

In China, the struggle for modernity continues. If modernity means a denial and replacement of the past, then Cultural Revolution is one of the greatest modernist movements. For the communists, capitalism belongs to the near-modern era, and a socialist state is the true manifestation of modernity. In the name of creating the new, China has gone through a terrifying 10 years of savage destruction of anything old.

Soon after the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao, China goes through another round of modernization. In 1979, Deng Zhao Ping launches another ambitious campaign to modernize China. Similar to the previous modernization movements, the campaign focuses solely on technological and economic reform. The sudden opening up of China, nevertheless, generates much excitement and expectations among artists and intellectuals. Although cultural modernization is not part of the official agenda, artists are eager to join in to create a new, "modern" art for the new China. During the early part of the 1980s, modernization in arts is a basically humanist movement. For many, the acknowledgement of being human is an important step moving away from dehumanizing confinement of the Cultural Revolution. The first major art movement of the new era, for example, is the "Wounded Art", which sympathetically reveals the reality of poverty and human suffering.

The opening up of China leads to new encounters with modern and contemporary culture of the West. For Chinese artists, the sudden encounter of a hundred years of Western modern and contemporary art via publications and touring exhibitions (including the much discussed Rauschenberg exhibition in 1985) is exciting and overwhelming. The so-called "New Wave 85" marks the beginning of a period when Chinese artists trying to catch up with the entire modernism within a few years. At the famous 1989 China Avant-gardes exhibition, the entire Western modern/contemporary art history is on display. Art works stylistically linking to Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impression, Fauvism, Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, to installation, conceptual and performance art, etc. are all in display in one venue.

If modernism in the West is vaguely defined as the art from late 19th Century to 1970s, followed by a "post-modern" period in which art is referred as "contemporary", then such distinction between modern and contemporary is insignificant in China, as in Hong Kong.

Within the historical context of the Chinese modernization movements, it is fair to say that much of the Chinese "modern" art , including some of the anti-establishment work of the 1980s, take on a strong critical view and missionary zeal to destroy the old and to revitalize China with the new. While the line between "modern" and "contemporary" is not that clear, it is possible to draw the line between modernism and post-modernism, if post-modernism means a denial of the vision, faith and passion of the previous Chinese modernists. It is at Tiananmen Massacre the line is drawn in 1989.

After the June 4th Massacre, "modern art" in China is brutally suppressed. Disillusion and political suppression lead to helplessness and cynicism. A new nihilism emerges, which is best summarized by artist Fang Li Jun"s comment - "Only an idiot can be fooled one more time after being fooled a hundred times. I prefer doing something meaningless, cynical, confused and lost, than being cheated again. Don"t try to educate me in the old way. I would put ten thousand question marks on each piece of teaching, deny it and trash it" . The zeal and faith over modernization are gone. 1990s signifies a turning point when the critical nature of art disappears. Devoid of any faith, passion or ideology, some artists like Fang withdraw themselves into a total denial (or turn to exile), and as time moves on, they are further disoriented by an international art market that takes a great interest in such cynicism and nihilism.

Chinese modern art is part of a long modernization movement of China. It takes on a path different from modernist art of the West, and does not come to a meaningful encounter with Western modernism until 1980s. Unfortunately the encounter is brief, as the modernity advocated by communists, like the "Mor-dun" promoted by the British colonists, is a politically screened adoption. The critical, missionary elements of modernity, which are valued by artists and intellectuals are brutally denied and suppressed. The 1980s enriches the Chinese artists with new vocabularies and possibilities, but the political suppression and the new orientation (or disorientation) generated by the economic reform has brought the modernist movement in China to a quick end. While China is still working toward modernization, its art has entered a post-modern era.