Wu Dacheng (1835-1902) and the Modern Fate of Chinese Literati Culture

Wu Dacheng (1835-1902) and the Modern Fate of Chinese Literati Culture


Friday, November 06, 2015
2:30 PM - 4:30 PM
Bunche Hall 10383

China by the late nineteenth century had been governed for centuries by a class of scholar-officials selected by a series of civil service examinations. Scholar-officials were both the nation’s political elite and men of letters (wenren, often translated as literati) who played important roles in the field of artistic production. They were at once the primary patrons of elite art and the elite artists who produced it – poets, calligraphers, painters.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, imperial China encountered unprecedented crises in a new and challenging international environment. Many key economic and political changes took place in China at that time. In 1905, the civil service examination, the institutional foundation of the traditional scholar-official class and literati art, was abolished, and a modern educational system was introduced. Younger generations who had majored in fields of practical knowledge were recruited into the government, and the composition of the elite underwent a profound transformation. The literati or scholar-official class disappeared as a historical phenomenon in the twentieth century, yet its art has continued as a major cultural legacy and an integral component of Chinese national identity. In its new social and cultural contexts, elements of this tradition have continued to have profound effects on recent generations of non-literati. For this reason, the study of art produced by scholar-officials in the last decades of imperial China becomes a significant foundation for understanding the modern fate of literati art.

My research will attempt to answer several key questions. To what extent was art by scholar-officials of the second half of the nineteenth century a response to the challenges of the new international environment? What role did literati art play, if any, in projects to reform and modernize China? To what degree was their art transformed in its new social context? In what ways?

My study of the modern fate of Chinese literati culture (including its art) will begin by focusing on Wu Dacheng, a senior government official and distinguished scholar, artist, collector, and art patron. Wu passed his metropolitan examination in 1868 and became a successful government official, including service as governor of Guangdong and Hunan provinces. He actively participated in contemporary politics and was a member of the reform party. He had been sent to the northeastern province of Jilin in 1880 to improve defenses on China’s Russian border. In 1894-95, Wu led the Chinese army against Japanese imperial ambitions in this northern area. In short, as a senior government official, Wu was keenly aware of China’s international environment and was deeply involved in domestic politics and international affairs.

Wu Dacheng also is significant to studies of the modern fate of literati culture, for hardly any contemporary politician could match his accomplishments in scholarship and art or his impacts on scholarship and art in the twentieth and even twenty-first-centuries. As a scholar, Wu conducted groundbreaking paleolographical studies of inscriptions found on ancient bronze and stone objects; he also studied ritual jades and seals. Overall, his scholarship profoundly influenced modern Chinese archaeology.

Wu Dacheng was a refined calligrapher and painter who created many important artworks. He also assembled a massive collection of art and antiquities. His collecting activities had enormous influence on the practices of modern collecting. His grandson Wu Hufan (1894-1968) was one of the most influential collectors of twentieth-century China.

Wu was a well-connected figure in late Qing politics and culture, and the topic of my study will be broadened by analyses of some of his contemporaries with similar backgrounds. Based on an investigation of the art and collections of Wu Dacheng and his friends, I will attempt to unfold and flesh out the relationships that prevailed between art and politics in nineteenth-century China.