Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2014
Chia-Ling Yang and Roderick Whitfield, eds. Lost Generation: Luo Zhenyu, Qing Loyalists and the Formation of Modern Chinese Culture London: Saffron Books, 2012. 312 pp.; 119 ills. Cloth €34.95 (9781872843377)

Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940) lived through the tumultuous transition from Imperial to Republican China while uneasily jostling no fewer than five different personal profiles: a knowledgeable reformer who pushed for the Chinese adaptation of foreign methods in agriculture and education by editing newspapers and book series between 1896 and 1910 that promoted these ideas; a classical scholar who understood the importance of the recently discovered Dunhuang images, texts, and artifacts, along with new archaeological finds in the form of inscribed oracle bones to shift the text-focused traditional connoisseurship to the new disciplines of “archaeology” and “art history”; a businessman who financed his vast acquisitions and their publication with the proceeds from his sales of Chinese paintings to Japanese collectors, the sale of his own calligraphy, and contributions from the Chinese widow of a wealthy Shanghai Jewish merchant; and an official during the last years of the Qing empire, who refused after 1912 to chair the Department of Archaeology at what is today Peking University, but was willing to join the loyalist “little court” of the last Emperor Puyi in Tianjin after the latter’s eviction from the Imperial Palace in 1924. He was long castigated as a greedy businessman oblivious to losses to the newly validated “national” heritage resulting from selling precious pieces abroad, while his refusal to serve the Republic not only earned him the reputation of being one of a group of yilao (“leftovers” from the old society), but even worse, his willingness to become engaged in the Japan-sponsored Manchukuo landed him the name of a hanjian, a “traitor” to the fatherland.

Important political changes on both sides of the Taiwan Straits over the past few decades have created enough leeway to abandon the habit of subsuming all of a person’s activities under a unified political evaluation. Luo’s voluminous writings and letters have been republished, and several biographical and art-historical studies have appeared in Chinese and Japanese. During the last decade some art historians in the English-writing world had the courage to write their dissertations on Luo as well as other individuals with a similar profile. Lost Generation: Luo Zhenyu, Qing Loyalists and the Formation of Modern Chinese Culture is the first Western-language monograph devoted to this “lost generation,” and its editors, Chia-Ling Yang and Roderick Whitfield, are to be congratulated for assembling eight contributions based on fresh research and supplementing them with exceedingly useful extensive appendices that provide a roster of the Chinese, Japanese, and French people with whom Luo had communicated, along with a very detailed and well-researched chronology of Luo’s life and labors, and even a list of the 249 (!) books he authored and the periodicals he edited.

Wang Cheng-hua opens the volume with a superb study of Luo’s crucial role in the formation of a new taxonomy of Chinese art and archaeology. Informed by the 1871 Japanese Meiji government’s decree on heritage preservation with its detailed list of categories of objects of primarily historical rather than aesthetic value, Luo began collecting and publishing objects such as mortuary statues (which had infelicitous associations), aesthetically unattractive tiles and bricks, and moulds for bronze objects. Wang sketches how for these three-dimensional objects Luo introduced the neologism qiwu from Japan to differentiate them from shuhua (painting and calligraphy), but then consolidated its rather diffuse use by making it into a modern scholarly discipline—Qiwuxue (qiwu scholarship). This field allowed the historical and archaeological records to supplement and correct each other.

With an approach informed more by cultural history than by art history, Shana Brown’s contribution documents a veritable “hunger” for collecting antiques amid modernization. The cultural standing to be achieved hinged on connoisseurship, taste, and one’s handling of the troublesome question of antiques and national heritage. Collecting was easily seen as just “playing with antiques.” The difficulty with Brown’s stimulating essay comes from its extrapolation of very broad points from what looks like anecdotal evidence culled from a wide variety of sources covering a vast time period.

From a sociological perspective, Robert Culp explores the publishing history of this period. He documents how the biggest Shanghai publishing houses were competing (and commercially successful) in producing large sets of classical Chinese works at relatively modest prices. Many people with a traditional education and literati habitus but not a loyalist agenda like Luo found work as editors on these projects, and the national distribution of these sets helped “democratize” access to the written heritage. At a time when Japanese collectors were buying entire libraries from around Shanghai, these publications contributed to “national heritage” preservation. The key ingredients (modern publishing technology, employment of literati with traditional education, selection of works with difficult access, national distribution, affordable pricing) had been developed by the Shenbao guan publishing house in Shanghai since the 1870s, and the Republican period publishers were following its example.

Tamaki Maeda’s and Hong Zaixin’s fascinating essays trace the historiographical impact of the Chinese “Southern School” literati paintings introduced by Luo in Japan and the West through sales, exhibitions, and publications. The term originates with the late Ming painter Dong Qichang who differentiated a “southern” school from a “northern” school, a differentiation modeled on the story of a split between the “southern” school of Chan Buddhism with its emphasis on “sudden enlightenment” rather than the long years of study stressed in the “northern” line. Japanese collecting preference had previously been for paintings that would fit a tea ceremony and Zen environment, and the first Japanese history of Chinese art reflected this focus. The first generation of Western collectors and art historians in their turn valued Song Dynasty paintings above all, and this preference informed the first Western histories of Chinese art. The option of a chronology built on features of period style, which also opened the way for a finer differentiation between originals and copies, gained ground only gradually against alternatives such as schools (southern/northern) or media. Maeda and Hong argue that most of the attributions from either side would be considered wrong today—whether the “Southern School” works dealt with by Luo and the Kyoto school of Chinese art that developed as a result of his work, or the “Song” paintings appreciated in the West. They show, however, that Luo’s introduction of these paintings into the public debate was instrumental in advancing the reconceptualization of the dynamics of Chinese painting history and instigating the inclusion of post-Song paintings into the canon. The business side of Luo’s activities and his renown as a connoisseur during his time in Kyoto (1911–1919) is elaborated by Hong. Although the evidence is fragmentary, it becomes clear that most of Luo’s money went into building up his collection and library and that his publishing ventures were unprofitable. As opposed to charges depicting Luo as greedy, the figure that emerges from this study is a scholar with modest personal habits but an insatiable obsession with acquiring old books and paintings.

Yang Chia-ling follows Luo’s activities in the Japanese controlled port of Lüshun in 1928 and later in Manchukuo. Pai Shih-ming surmises in his essay that during the 1890s Luo was following the assessment of the founder of Japan’s modern education system, Izawa Shuji (and, later, Zhang Taiyan), that adherence to basic Confucian values was instrumental for maintaining peace and stability in a society while it was modernizing in other aspects along Western lines. Much of Luo’s devotion to antiquities was fueled by this belief. He was neither unaware of the mismanagement occurring under the Qing nor uncritical of Japanese rule of Manchukuo. At the same time, his experience of Republican politics with its endless fighting between warlords convinced him that the Republic lacked and even discarded the basic values without which peace and order could not be maintained. It seems that the same considerations led him and many like him to consider a period of Japanese control as a necessary evil on the way to a future China where these values would be honored again. Luo was not an opportunist. Besides insisting on Puyi being treated as a real emperor, he demanded autonomy from the Japanese for his projected museum/library/research center. Luo had hoped to form an institution in Manchukuo with structures that would eventually become the model of national learning for a new China. Yang does a wonderful job tracing the sorry history of Luo’s magnificent and voluminous collection of books, objects, and paintings, dispersed as it was by burning, looting, and chaotic handling (most of the surviving items have not been cataloged to this day). Somehow the fate of this collection resembles that of the man who brought it together.

The volume concludes with a study by Shao Dan on Luo’s loyalty. It was not with the emperor or with the Qing as a dynasty as had been the case with earlier—and much praised—loyalists. Luo constantly refers to “China” as the place to which he belonged, not to Manchukuo as a permanent “homeland” for Manchu and Chinese bannermen. It is an irony of the history that the man who dedicated his life to preserving the “national heritage” of China and make it accessible, who was committed to China’s modernization, and who had close ties with French and Japanese scholars such as Paul Pelliot, Édouard Chavannes, abbot Count Ōtani, and Naitō Konan should enter the history books as a “traitor.”

The studies assembled here excel in handling sources and scholarly literature in Chinese, Japanese, and English. They are, however, largely stand-alone pieces with little direct interaction, a problem shared by many edited volumes. This leads to some overlap in basic and specific information. The translations of the papers originally written in Chinese as well as of quotations from Chinese sources are by and large reliable but contain a number of unwarranted mistakes.

The papers cover many aspects of Luo’s life and labor. The overall argument of the book—that Luo materially contributed to the “formation of modern Chinese culture”—is well substantiated. Hopefully it will stimulate a detailed study of his long years as an editor and journalist of periodicals introducing modern ideas. The volume is timely and welcome with its careful studies detailing the shifting taxonomy of Chinese art; the development of a chronology based on period style; the formation of the concept and the first institutions to preserve and research the “national heritage”; the cultural interaction between China and Japan; the formation of an international scholarship on Chinese art; the fate of one of the great collections of Chinese books and artifacts; and the complex, contradictory, and even tragically ironic trajectory of a single individual through the maze of China’s internal turmoil and foreign relations during its transition from empire to nation.

Rudolf G. Wagner
Senior Professor, Chinese Studies, Heidelberg University