This Exhibition Has Ended

February 2, 2018
July 8, 2018
In the Gold Gallery, Floor 2L

During the first half of the twentieth century, the movement to “modernize” China was led by Chinese intellectuals who considered aesthetic education and the experience of art to be a cure for an emotionally depressed and morally degraded society. In their view, art was key to broader change, and they promoted an expansive role for it in politics, government, and societal development in general. Art practices were considered among the most important elements associated with “modernization,” and hence became the subject of heated discussions on their role in promoting and establishing “new” cultural movements and sociopolitical reforms.

Intellectual debates on the history and meaning of Chinese art and Chinese culture ranged from linking calligraphy and painting with democracy and political reform, to asserting the role of art in upholding both “modern” and classical traditions. Within painting, Chinese tradition was held up against Western influences. Within calligraphy, proponents of the stelae tradition (beixue) clashed with proponents of the classical manuscript school (tiexue). Members of various artist groups identified themselves as supporters of literati painting or loyal followers of the archaic style; and as adherents of Chinese traditional painting or experimenters with Western styles and techniques.

This exhibition highlights the diverse group of Chinese intellectuals who actively engaged in the political and educational reforms and ideological debates of a unique nation-building project—one that positioned “art” as a solution to the late Qing dynastic crisis and as a catalyst for the formation of the Republic of China. Works on view include paintings and calligraphy from the Johnson’s permanent collection and archival resources from the Cornell University Library to present a range of essential art practices carried out by Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century.

This exhibition was curated by Yuhua Ding, PhD candidate in Cornell’s Department of the History of Art, assisted by Elizabeth Emrich, curatorial assistant for Asian art, and under the supervision of Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art, at the Johnson Museum.

Hu Shih (1891–1962)

Recognized as a “national scholar” for his contributions to Chinese thought, Hu was an advocate for science, democracy, and liberal politics. Born to a family of scholars in Anhui province, he received a strong traditional Chinese education in his youth. As a young man Hu moved to the United States to study literature and philosophy; after graduating from Cornell in 1914, he studied with John Dewey at Columbia University, where he earned his PhD. Upon his return to China, Hu became a professor at Peking National University.

Hu Shih’s interest in the idea of the Renaissance took shape on his return from America to China. Hu used the term “Renaissance” as a symbol of what he wanted both for the present and the future, as a channel to introduce into China “a new thought, a new spirit of individual and social responsibility, a new culture.” Hu’s preoccupation with the idea of the Renaissance led him to modernize the Chinese language, and to be an iconoclast in the literary revolution during the “New Culture Movement” of the 1920s.

In 1927 Hu Shih was invited to the US as a distinguished guest lecturer at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia, among other institutions. His return was widely reported by the American press. Lewis S. Gannett, a well-known journalist with the New York Times, introduced Hu Shih to his readers in the article “Hu Shih: Young Prophet of Young China,” published on March 27, 1927. Gannett enthusiastically wrote, “Hu Shih was known as ‘the father of the Chinese Renaissance’. . . . The literary revolution which he led to victory was a more important chapter in history than either the political revolution which overthrew the Manchu in 1911 or the Nationalist movement of today.”

Hu served as an ambassador of the Nationalist government to Washington from 1938 to 1942. After the establishment of the Communist government in 1949, Hu moved to the United States. In 1958 he went to Taiwan to assume the presidency of the Academia Sinica, China’s leading scholarly organization, a position he held until his death.