In William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844) — the first commercially published book with photographic illustrations — there are two calotype prints capturing the front and profile of a plaster cast of the Hellenistic marble Bust of Patroclus. Photo-reproduction of works of art would gradually replace traditional methods such as drawing and engraving and have a pervasive impact on both the practice of art and the study of art history.1

In China, the mechanical and commercial making of photographic reproductions of art did not appear until the beginning of the twentieth century. Examining the symbiosis of photography and printing as a new medium in Chinese periodicals published between the two Sino-Japanese Wars (1895–1937), the study reveals how the concept of meishu (fine art), introduced and debated by late Qing and Republican intellectuals, was promulgated and visualized in the photomechanical print culture. This paper spotlights technology in the making of photo-illustrated magazines that addressed both Chinese and foreign art and takes a closer look at the complex interconnections between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, elitism and egalitarianism.

Before Photography

Similar to their counterparts in Europe, Chinese connoisseurs and artisans found multiple ways of reproducing and representing old artifacts before the advent of photography. In addition to exact copies, replication sometimes resulted in trans-material practices. Neolithic ritual objects of jade or bronze, such as the cong prismatic tube, were recreated as ceramic vases. Statues of the Buddha were repeatedly made of gilt bronze, stone, and wood. Calligraphic examples were transcribed from paper to steles and rubbed back onto paper.

Royal patrons were not deterred by the difficulty of capturing three-dimensional objects on paper. Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1126), of the Northern Song dynasty, commissioned Wang Fu (1079–1126) to produce Xuanhe bogu tulu (Illustrated catalogue of antiques in the Xuanhe Hall), a thirty-volume compendium that records more than eight hundred pieces of bronze from the Shang to Tang dynasty in the imperial collection at the time.2 The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796), of the Qing dynasty, had painting albums made to record antique porcelains stored in his duobaoge treasure boxes.3

The Chinese enthusiasm for ink painting inspired duplication through both manual and mechanical processes. Replicating an original painting was a common practice justified by the last principle of Xie He’s (fl. sixth century) Six Laws, chuanyi moxie, or transmission of ancient models by copying.4 Take the handscroll Wangchuan Villa, by the poet-painter Wang Wei (699–759) of the Tang dynasty, for example. The original was long lost but copied multiple times by his contemporaries as well as, later, admirers such as the early Qing master Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715).5 In 1617, a tenth-century copy by Guo Zhongshu (910–977) was made into a stone carving from which rubbings were made. Now Guo’s copy is also lost and only the rubbings remain.6

When the desire for mass distribution arose, painters and woodblock craftsmen collaborated in the art of printmaking. One of the earliest products of their partnership was Meihua xishengpu (Pictorial manual of plum blossoms), designed by the Northern Song literatus Song Boren and published in 1261.7

By the late Ming dynasty, fine-outlined pictures could be found in all kinds of printed materials, such as novels, calendars, and painting manuals.8 The production of polychromatic painting manuals demanded even more advanced woodcut and printing craftsmanship, the result of the exacting standards for high-quality lines and controlled color tones. The technology that met such high criteria appeared in the 1620s and was called douban or muke shuiyin, literally meaning woodcut and water-based ink printing.9 Its production was arduous. The printmaker had to scrupulously transcribe the lines and shades from the original painting draft onto multiple blocks. Each block carried one color, and by pressing them in sequence from light to dark, the process replicated the effect of color gradation. Among the classical painting manuals created with this multi-block color printing method were Shizhuzhai huapu (Painting manual of the Ten-Bamboo Studio, 1627–1633) and Jieziyuan huazhuan (Painting album of the Mustard Seed Garden, 1679).10 Such manuals were meant to impart painting techniques and compositional skills rather than to reproduce actual masterpieces, largely due to the technical constraint that an original painting was intermediated through a custom-made drawing of simplified brushwork and structure.

Reproducing Traditional Meishu as National Patrimony

At the turn of the twentieth century, modern printing technologies imported from Europe and Japan rapidly superseded indigenous xylographic ones. Two popular photomechanical printing media were photoengraving (zhaoxiang tongxinban) and collotype (keluoban, boliban). A relief process carried out on copper or zinc plates, photoengraving was developed in France around 1855 and imported to Shanghai by Jesuits at the Tushanwan (T’ou-sè-wè) Catholic Church, in Xujiahui, at the turn of the century.11 In 1906, Guocui xuebao (Journal of the National Essence, 1905–1911) included in issue 10 a photoengraved print of the picture of members and guests posing in front of the newly opened library of the Association for the Preservation of the National Essence (Guoxue baocunhui).

The next year, the monthly began to employ the same technology to reproduce painted portraits of historical figures in replacement of lithographic portraits produced in earlier issues: The image of Confucius (figure 1) in issue 1 of 1905 is likely a standard portrayal of the sage in woodblock prints that was transcribed by the printing technician; in contrast, the portrait of the late Ming official Ni Yuanlu (1593–1644; figure 2) in issue 1 of 1907 is a photographic print of an original ink painting by Zeng Jin (1568–1650). Furthermore, photoengraving made it possible to include photographs of Chinese antiques in the journal, in which art and literature were regarded as embodying the national essence (guocui).12 Although groundbreaking as a mechanical process, photoengraved prints are granular and blurry because of the use of halftone screens, and it is the other importation, collotype, that proved to be the more popular technology in producing high-quality images in early-twentieth-century China.

Commercial collotypes were invented in the late 1860s in Germany and England13 and introduced to China between 1875 and 1885.14 Shanghai’s Tushanwan printers initially used collotype to reproduce images of the Virgin Mary.15 Chinese publishers quickly mastered collotype printing technology through Japanese instruction.16 Both photoengraving and collotype are reprographic techniques based on photography and have the advantageous capacity to shrink or enlarge an image through making a film negative and thus a printing plate of the desired size. Unlike photoengraved relief plates, however, collotype plates are coated with a light-sensitive gelatin solution that hardens after being exposed to light through a photographic negative, resulting in a planographic printing medium with microscopically fine reticulations.17 In the late Qing and early Republican periods, collotype enabled new forms of art publishing such as facsimiles of different formats of painting as well as books and periodicals illustrated with various-sized photographs of works of art.18

Shenzhou guoguang ji (National Glories of Cathay, 1908–1911) was the first collotype-printed periodical in China and one of the earliest Chinese publications dedicated to mass-disseminating photographed Chinese art treasures. Published by the Cathay Art Union (Shenzhou guoguang she), in Shanghai,19 the first issue of Shenzhou came out in February 1908, and following issues were published every two months until June 1911.20 Both the editor in chief Deng Shi (1877–1951) and the coeditor Huang Binhong (1865–1955) were members of the Association for the Preservation of the National Essence (Guoxue baocunhui) and later collaborated on compiling a collection of Chinese art treatises entitled Meishu congshu (A compendium of fine art),21 which still offers the most comprehensive literature review of Chinese writings on art before the twentieth century.22

Shenzhou perfectly exemplifies how modern technology served the purpose of creating a cultural product in accordance to traditional aesthetics. The thread-bound (xianzhuang) publication adopted the format of traditional books — the text reads from top to bottom and from right to left and the page sequence is reversed, so the page is flipped from left to right. Initially photoengraved and collotype plates were both used to print on copperplate paper.23 The publisher claimed that although more expensive and time-consuming, increasingly more collotype plates would be used to produce better images for the viewer’s enjoyment.24 The higher pictorial quality of collotype over that of photoengraving is palpable through comparison. For example, the enlarged detail of the photoengraved print of a painting by Li Shichuo (d. 1770) bears the trace of a halftone screen (figure 3), a matrix of evenly distributed dots across the surface of the photoengraved plate, which results in a blurry and granular appearance; in contrast, the fine reticulations of the collotype plate better capture the tonality of ink and the subtlety of brushwork in the painting by Hongren (1610–1664; figure 4). As of the nineteenth issue (February 1911), all paintings were printed with collotype plates on fine Xuan paper, purportedly because imported paper could not sufficiently display the beauty of ink painting.25 Most plates were in black-and-white, and color plates were used sparsely — one or two per issue at most, and sometimes absent altogether.

Underscoring the aesthetic and nationalistic value of antiques, the editors aimed to incorporate as many available sources as possible, covering all sorts of artifacts and curios from China’s past. Relics were categorized according to their medium and then organized chronologically. Beginning from issue 8 (April 1909), the table of contents was divided into the subcategories of metal, stone, calligraphy, painting, clay, bricks, tiles, rubbings, coins, jade, ceramics, and miscellaneous artifacts.26

As suggested by the name of the journal, this whole range of Chinese cultural relics were incorporated to demonstrate the national glories and the value of traditionalism. Equally important is that the photographically reproduced images of artifacts helped visualize the newly coined term meishu, a word borrowed from the Japanese equivalent bijutsu, which was meant to translate the European concept of fine art. In Shenzhou’s first issue, the editor Deng Shi started the preface by defining meishu with the Kantian idea of art being created by genius and went on to talk about the significance of studying art in both aesthetic and nationalistic terms. Deng’s reference to Kant was based directly on Wang Guowei’s (1877–1927) discussion of art.27

Expert at Chinese language, history, and philosophy, Wang pioneered interpreting meishu in the context of literary and aesthetic studies. In 1904, he divided meishu into architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, and music.28 Acknowledging the European categorization of fine arts, Wang Guowei nevertheless thought China had art forms and aesthetics that were distinct from those of the West. Wang enumerated the forms of art that were uniquely Chinese — calligraphy, bronzes of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, rubbings of the Qin and Han, stone steles from the Han to the Song, and woodblock-printed books in the Song and Yuan. Although some of these media also existed in Western art history, the Chinese forms were to him unique because they all reflected the aesthetic concept of guya (antiquity and elegance).29Guya is what made some Chinese arts outliers to the Western definition of art, something that couldn’t be comfortably described as the beautiful and sublime by Immanuel Kant.30 The categorization of Chinese works of art adopted in Shenzhou seems to have followed Wang’s argument.

Aligning Meishu with Art

The Chinese term for the English “fine arts” and the French beaux arts is meishu, borrowed from its Japanese counterpart bijutsu around 1897.31 Chinese scholars did not, however, widely adopt meishu in their writings until the first decade of the twentieth century, and they had no consent on the boundaries of the term—from as narrow as calligraphy and painting only to all expressions of beauty.32 Another term, yishu, roughly translating into “art,” was sometimes considered equivalent to meishu, but has a more convoluted etymology.33 In Lydia Liu’s transcultural study of Japanese and Chinese languages, yishu is a return graphic loan (kanji terms derived from classical Chinese), in contrast to meishu being a Sino-Japanese-European loan word that did not exist in classical Chinese.34

In the 1910s, meishu as a neologism quickly gained its popularity, more so than the indigenous and revitalized yishu.35 The word then made a frequent appearance in the titles of books and magazines and in the names of art academies, among them the famous Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts (Shanghai meishu zhuanke xuexiao). Its school journal was also called Meishu. The meaning of meishu was updated in the following decades by returnees from Europe, such as Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), who studied at Leipzig and brought back Kantian philosophy. In 1920, the German-educated minister of education and headmaster of Peking University proposed the narrow and broad definitions of meishu. To Cai, meishu in a narrow sense referred to architecture, sculpture, painting and drawing, and industrial designs and decorations. Broadly speaking, its range can extend to other expressive forms, such as literature, music, and dancing. He clarified that the narrow definition of meishu was used in Western art history and the broad one in Western aesthetics.36

The deepening comprehension of the Western idea of art in China came side by side with the desire to match Chinese art history with the main branches of fine art, namely architecture, sculpture, and painting, in the West. Although late-Qing scholars like Wang Guowei contended that China had traditional art forms and aesthetics distinct from those of the West, younger scholars of China’s Republic bent more toward the Western model of a tripartite classification of fine arts into painting, sculpture, and architecture and recategorized different forms of Chinese art accordingly. The arts of calligraphy and painting had long been the major, if not sole, focus of scholarly interest in the dynastic periods. Sporadically, studies on architecture, bronze, ceramics, lacquerware, ink cakes, and other playful forms of applied arts appeared largely due to the collectors’ personal interest.

To compensate for the monothematic concentration on painting, some late-Qing and republican writers determinedly promoted the significance of sculpture and architecture in Chinese art history. In 1920, Yu Jifan (1891–1968) called for a serious study of sculpture in China.37 In the field of architecture, experts — among whom Liang Sicheng (1901–1972) was the most famous — also began to systematically record and research traditional buildings. Liang studied architecture and architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University in the 1920s, conducted extensive field research on old temples and bridges after returning to China, and published Zhongguo Jianzhushi (Chinese Architecture History) in 1945.

The concept of Chinese art containing the three main parts, architecture, sculpture, and painting, was standardized in new art histories such as Teng Gu’s (1901–1942) Zhongguo meishu xiaoshi (A short history of Chinese art, 1926) and Li Puyuan’s Zhongguo yishushi gailun (An Outline of Chinese art history, 1931). After graduating from the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Teng Gu studied in Japan and got his master’s degree in literature and art history, then went on to Germany and obtained his doctorate in art history at Berlin University. In Zhongguo meishu xiaoshi, he used a short paragraph to mention the existence of stoneware, earthenware, carpentry, and oracle bones in prehistoric times, and spent the rest of the book on sculpture, architecture, and painting.38 Li Puyuan’s strategy was similar, and he treated epigraph, bronze, jade, seal, and ceramics all as subcategories of sculpture.39 The young art historians’ effort was likely aimed at showing the significance of Chinese art in accordance with Western values. In other words, they positioned Chinese art on equal footing with Western art through the comparable categorizations.

Picturing New Meishu

Shenzhou’s focus on traditional art, albeit facilitated by modern technologies, would soon be disdained by the May Fourth generation as conservative or even feudal in the New Cultural Movement (mid-1910s–mid-1920s), and the kind of art the traditionalists sought to preserve and promote would become an overshadowed part of meishu in the changing outlook of Chinese art. Meanwhile, photomechanical printing also facilitated the exposure of imported art forms, especially Western painting and photography, in popular magazines. Initially, such efforts were based on arbitrary editorial interests rather than being carried out systematically. For example, Youxi zazhi (The play magazine, 1913–1915), a short-lived monthly of theatrical literature supported by the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies writers,40 frequently featured in the first few pages of each issue snapshots of notables and stage photos of plays.

Photography as a new medium was intriguing enough for the editors to include a photograph showing the “largest photo camera” in China at the time, a marvel of technology guarded by two photographers and a printing-plate technician (figure 5). Occasionally, Western paintings were included. In issue 13 (1914), Zhou Shoujuan (1895–1968) “gifted” the photographs of four “famous Occidental paintings” to the reader (figure 6). Captioned only with English titles and with no other information on the paintings,41 the photographed works of art were probably meant to offer another distraction in the frivolous life of modern Shanghai.

The assimilation of the European discourse on art in China developed side by side with the tenacity of paying homage to the uniqueness of traditional art, which in nature became a problem of how to integrate Chinese and so-called Western traditions for the purpose of reshaping modern Chinese art. An expedient way was to create a disjunction between contemporary practices and conventional ones.42 The typical May Fourth approach, which separated the present from the past, was adopted by the Ministry of Education’s First National Exhibition of Fine Art, in 1929. Headed by Cai Yuanpei, the organizational committee prioritized the display of the 2,250-odd contemporary works and put the rest, including a few thousand paintings from the Five Dynasties to the Qing, a few hundred works by recently deceased artists (jinren yizuo), and dozens of Japanese and European works, in the “reference” (cankaopin) section, where displays rotated almost daily owing to the sheer number of pieces to be exhibited in a short period of time and limited space.43 Selected works of art were photographed and printed in the two volumes, gu and jin (past and present), of the exhibition catalogue, Meizhan tekan (Special issue of the art exhibition).44

A summit of institutionalizing art exhibitions in the modern Republic, the 1929 National Exhibition was authoritative on defining the semantics of meishu that had integrated the rediscovery of China’s art history and the introduction of European artistic traditions. Categories under contemporary art were painting and calligraphy, epigraphy and seal-carving, Western painting, sculpture, architecture, arts and crafts, and art photography. Compared to the contents of Shenzhou, the 1929 categorization of meishu signified the cosmopolitan ambition of developing a modern Chinese art that was respectful of its own tradition and competitive on an international scale.

Technology Foregrounded

The collotype exhibition catalogue contained dozens of black-and-white photographs and five color prints and was sold at a staggering price of twenty silver coins. As a matter of fact, by the late 1920s, collotype faced strong competition from new, cheaper photomechanical printing processes that produced images of similar or higher quality. The new technologies were adopted by photo-illustrated pictorials such as Liangyou (The young companion) to carry on the task of spreading visual literacy to an even wider readership. In 1929, the year when Meizhan tekan was published, the annual subscription rate of the monthly Liangyou was 360 cents, less than one fifth of the price of the collotype exhibition catalogue. In the April 1929 issue (No. 37), Liangyou reproduced Hu Boxiang’s (1896–1989) ink painting of horses that was shown at the National Exhibition.45 The photographic prints were of satisfactory crispness and, more important, cheaper to make thanks to the up-to-date offset printing process (jiaoban or xiangpiban).

Invented in 1875 in England, offset lithography replaced flat presses with rotary cylinders, which increased the speed of printing,46 and in 1901, clearer and sharper images were attained by printing from rubber rollers instead of metal ones.47 The highly efficient mechanism arrived at Shanghai’s Commercial Press in 1915 and by the 1920s was widely used in publishing photograph-filled pictorials.48

A printed emporium that offered a balanced sampling of multiple facets of modern life, Liangyou was commercially successful and set a high bar for its imitators and competitors.49 A strong contender in terms of printing technology and coverage of art was the monthly Meishu shenghuo (Arts and life, 1934–37). Founded in April 1934 with an equivocal objective of integrating art and life, Meishu shenghuo borrowed much of Liangyou’s format of reporting news with photographs. But it expanded the portion of art news and art appreciation. The magazine was funded by Jin Youcheng (1886–1988) to promote the high-quality production of his K & K (Sanyi) Printing Company, in Shanghai.50 K & K was equipped with advanced offset printing presses and cameras and famous for its color printing products such as calendar posters, cigarette cards, magazine covers and inserts, and art reproductions. Its advertisements in Meishu shenghuo proclaimed the company was the expert of photomechanical printing in China and its equipment topnotch in East Asia (figure 7).

Sponsored by a printing company, the magazine consciously emphasized the media and processes of photomechanical printing. The head printing technician, Liu Puqing (1900–1974), was on the editorial committee, and each issue reserved a few pages for articles on the history and progress of printing and photography, written and translated by Liu and his colleagues.51 The editorial note of the first issue reported that the volume was printed with both photogravure (zhaoxiang aoban) and the edgier medium of offset gravure (aoshi pingban).52 Liu made a still-life photograph of fruits in issue 5 (August 1934) to serve as an example of color offset gravure printing,53 the colors in which are richer and more saturated because the intaglio plate holds more ink on its indented surface. In issue 26 (May 1936), a photomontage occupying two pages takes a glimpse into the backstage of the magazine’s operation (figure 8). Noticeably, an image could be modified at different stages as a positive, negative, as well as in the process of retouching the printing plate. Also featured are two photographers at work, one re-photographing pictures (fanshe) and the other making color-separation photographs (fense sheying).

The editors of Liangyou were also interested in sharing with the reader the technical side of making a photo-illustrated pictorial. In issue 100 (December 15, 1934), a three-page spread showcases the whole procedure of publishing the popular magazine (figure 9). Images and texts in the spread record in tandem the synergy of photography and printing. Photographs are mailed in by correspondents and readers as well as taken by journalists dispatched by the press. The editors select what pictures to use, and decide the format and size. The pictures are shrunk or blown up through the process of re-photographing, and the films are retouched to ensure high quality. Then the printing plate is made, and “the wonderful photogravure machine begin[s] its speedy work.” Color pictures, including the famous covers presenting female celebrities, are more complicated to make. The negative of a photograph is retouched and sometimes hand-colored. Color-separation negatives are then made and retouched, and converted to metal plates for printing.

The quest for perfecting the photomechanically reproduced image was accompanied by the pursuit of polychrome. The coloration of reproductions of works of art has been achieved by different methods. Hand-painted colors existed in earlier examples, such as the albums commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor and those produced with multiple woodblocks in Ming and Qing painting manuals. In photomechanical printing, sometimes a grayscale image was simply covered in a color other than black, which could be used creatively to vivify the photographed objects.

In issue 18 (September 1935), the black-and-white photographs of a jadeite censer and a lacquer vase are covered in green and red ink, respectively (figure. 10), which is not the most accurate but nevertheless an effective way of indicating the materials of the objects. As a matter of fact, the photographed images of cover girls in Liangyou’s early issues were printed monochromatically, probably because color cameras and film were not yet widely adopted. The handful of truly polychromatic cover pictures were reproduced from paintings, the production of which required a strenuous process. A same object must be photographed at least three times using different filters to separate the red, green, and blue components, resulting in three or more grayscale negatives that were then inverted to cyan, magenta, and yellow plates.54 The cost and labor demanded by this process must have deterred the full-scale application of color printing in the magazines. Both Liangyou and Meishu shenghuo contained at most five color pictures, including the cover, in each issue.

Meishu Democratized

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin pointed out in a dialectic manner the change in the nature of art brought about by mechanical reproduction. His concern for the diminishing “aura” or authenticity (“cult value”) of the work of art was compensated for by the public’s easy access to art through reproduction (“exhibition value”).55 His emphasis that art was emancipated from its ritualistic roots and instead subject to politics, a discourse suitable in a period of heightened nationalism and colonialism, downplayed the contribution of such reproduction in dispersing visual literacy of art among the masses. As proved by the printed kaleidoscopes like Liangyou and Meishu shenghuo, photographic reproductions of works of art were employed to popularize the concept of meishu with visual materials that brought otherwise inaccessible fine art to China’s modern citizens.

Shenzhou guoguang ji as a pioneer in the Chinese experimentation of mechanically picturing works of art both testifies to and contradicts Benjamin’s theory that the “cult value” of art was to be replaced by its “exhibition value” in modern times. It has been argued that practices such as printing on xuan paper maintained some of the ritualistic context in which connoisseurs appreciated the work of art originally.56 The “exhibition value” of photographs of works of art in Shenzhou undeniably served a political role in fostering patriotism among its readers. But that is not all.

Because the status of the work of art changed irrevocably from being hidden to publicized thanks to mechanical reproduction, the ramifications of such “exhibition” went far beyond nationalist and elitist pursuits. One consequence was the commodification of antiques and curios and the exploitation of their market value.57 With the incorporation of non-Chinese works of art in new pictorials, such as Liangyou and Meishu shenghuo, photomechanical printing unleashed the democratic potentials of art in education, recreation, and consumption.

The usages of printed photographs of works of art in the pictorials can be divided into three interrelated types. The first group includes figures and plates that supplement art historical writings. For example, beginning in March 1927, Liangyou carried installments of an illustrated history of Western art that was based on contemporary survey texts published in Europe and China.58 According to the editor, Liang Desuo, the purpose of the installments was to photograph and print as many works of art as possible. The serial was eventually published as a book in 1931.59

Pictures of the second type serve as illustrations in news reporting on art exhibitions as well as less time-sensitive topics on art from various collections, cultures, and times. The pictorials commonly contained illustrated news of art exhibitions in and out of China. Private collections of art were exposed through special reports. The Latvian E. A. Strehlneek promoted his collection of porcelains that were allegedly from the Guyuexuan collection of the Qianlong Emperor.60 The reader was also taken on trips to foreign ancient cultures such as the Angkor Wat.61

Last, all photographic reproductions, particularly those pictures with little or no textual description, offer the experience of appreciating or consuming art. The reader could choose from a plethora of works of art, from ancient bronze to contemporary color photographs. For example, a two-page spread in issue 89 (June 1934) of Liangyou stages a scrambled montage of random works of art: several ink paintings in the formats of handscroll and hanging scroll, an altarpiece, a sculpture, and even a pair of shots of two recent theatrical works, all of which constitute this “page for fine arts (meishu).”62

When China’s Republic strove to be recognized as an equal among nations, Chinese art was tasked with enriching the cosmopolitan culture of the quickly modernizing state. As the semantics of meishu consolidated and expanded with the rediscovery of China’s own art history and the introduction of European artistic traditions, photomechanical reproduction of art served the indispensable role of visualizing meishu for the masses and, at the same time, generated a unique print culture in response to the technical, political, and aesthetic exigencies of Chinese modernity. Representing various forms of meishu — Chinese and foreign, old and new — photographs of works of art in Late Qing and Republican journals and pictorials facilitated diverse understandings of fine art and contributed to the hybridity and multiplicity of modern Chinese photography and print culture.



Helena E. Wright, “Photography in the Printing Press: The Photomechanical Revolution,” in Presenting Pictures, ed. Bernard Finn (London: Science Museum, 2004), 21–42.


The project started in 1107 and was completed in 1123. The bronzes are divided into twenty types, the terms for which, including ding, jue, and zhong, are still used today. Each object is illustrated; inscriptions, if any, are rubbed and transcribed; measurements of size, volume, and weight follow, along with a commentary on the origin and history of the item.


Four albums of the sort, painted around 1785, are in the collection of the National Palace Museum, in Taipei: Zhentao cuimei, Jingtao yungu, Fangong zhangse, and Shanzhi liuguang. Each album has ten leaves. each of which illustrates a ceramic vessel at the top and contains the measurements and commentary underneath. The albums are now kept separately from the porcelains, but originally each album and its ten pieces were kept in a single treasure box.


Xie He was an art critic and artist in the Southern Qi dynasty (479–502) of the Six Dynasties (220–589). He conceived the theory of the “Six Laws” in Guhua pinlu. For a review of the contested English translations of the six laws, see Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, eds., Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 10–15.


For various pictorial depictions and poetic descriptions of Wangchuan Villa in history, see Jian Jinsong, “Xiandi yanjiu xia zhi Wangchuantu, Wangchuanji yu Wangchuan Wang Wei bieye chuanshuo xinlun” (A new discussion on the Wangchuan paintings, the poems on Wangchuan, and the tales of Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Villa with field research), Taida wenshizhe xuebao (Humanitas Taiwanica) 77 (2012): 115–66.


The stone carving was made by Guo Shiyuan (fl. ca. 1573–1620) and commissioned by Shen Guohua (fl. ca. 1573–1620). “The Wangchuan Villa, Rubbing,” Digital Scrolling Paintings Project, Center for the Art of East Asia, University of Chicago, accessed September 24, 2018,


The prints were made from recarved blocks. A copy is preserved at the Shanghai Museum.


For a brief history of Chinese printing, see Luo Shubao, ed., Zhongguo gudai yinshuashi tuce (An illustrated history of printing in ancient China), trans. Chan Sin-wai (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 1998). For histories of woodblock illustrations and printed imagery in China, see Kobayashi Hiromitsu, Chūgoku no hanga: Tōdai kara Shindai made (Chinese woodblock illustrations: from the Tang through the Qing dynasty) (Tokyo: Tōshindō, 1995); Clarissa Von Spee, The Printed Image in China: From the 8th to the 21st Centuries (London: British Museum Press, 2010).


It was first carried out by Hu Zhengyan (1581–1672), native of Xiuning, Anhui, in 1619. He collaborated with several Anhui woodblock carvers to produce Shizhuzhai jianpu (Letter manual of the Ten-Bamboo Studio) and Shizhuzhai huapu. Luo, ed., Zhongguo gudai yinshuashi tuce, 83.


Ibid., 83 and 91.


It was invented by Frenchman M. Gillot. Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 18761937 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004), 59–60.


Established in 1904, the Association for the Preservation of the National Essence assembled a group of literati-intellectuals who were well aware of China’s changing society and sought to save Chinese traditions from relentless turmoil. Its members actively participated in publishing as they debated the hot topic of “national essence.” For studies of the Association for the Preservation of the National Essence and Guocui xuebao, see Laurence A. Schneider, “National Essence: Conservative Approaches to Cultural Continuity,” in idem, Ku Chieh-kang and China’s New History: Nationalism and the Quest for Alternative Traditions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 33–40; Tze-ki Hon, “National Essence, National Learning, and Culture: Historical Writings in Guocui xuebao, Xueheng, and Guoxue jikan,” in Historiography East and West 2 (2003): 242–86; idem, Revolution as Restoration: Guocui xuebao and China's Path to Modernity, 19051911 (Leiden: Brill, 2013); Yu-jen Liu, “Zhaoxiang fuzhi niandaili de Zhongguo meishu: Shenzhou guoguangji de fuzhi taidu yu wenhua biaoshu” (Chinese art in the age of photographic reproduction: the art periodical Shenzhou guoguangji), Guoli Taiwan Daxue Meishushi Yanjiu jikan 35 (2013): 185–244, 258.


The first commercial collotypes were produced in 1868 in Germany by Josef Albert and in 1869 in England by Ernst Edwards. “Collotype & Pochoir,” University of California at Santa Cruz, University Library, accessed June 5, 2018,


Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 28; Song Yuanfang and Sun Yong, eds., Shanghai chuban zhi (Records of Publishing in Shanghai) (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexue yuan chubanshe, 2000), 863.


Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 64.


They were either trained by Japanese technicians in Shanghai or sent to study in Japan. Ibid., 64.


“Collotype,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., accessed June 5, 2018,


Some of the Shanghai printer-publishers specializing in collotype were Wenming Books (Wenming shudian), Cathay Art Union (Shenzhou guoguang she), and Youzheng Books (Youzhen shuju). Because the gelatin coats were easily worn, the use of collotype was restricted to the reproduction of paintings, stele inscriptions, and rare woodblocks. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 64.


The business was established in 1908 with collotype and letterpress printers. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 285. The translation “Cathay Art Union” appears in an English advertisement in issue 10. Shenzhou guoguang ji (National glories of Cathay) 10 (1909), n.p., after the contents. The same advertisement contains the original translation of the journal title, Chinese Pictures and Art Curios. My translation, National Glories of Cathay, following Roberts’ reworking, is literally closer to the Chinese title. Claire Roberts, Friendship in Art: Fou Lei and Huang Binhong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 53.


After the twenty-first issue (June 1911), the journal was halted, probably because of the increasing social unease that preceded the Xinhai Revolution (October 1911–February 1912). The twenty-second issue resumed in February 1912, and the name of the periodical was changed to Shenzhou daguan (Grand views of Cathay). Publication continued until 1922. The last issue (16; 37 in the whole series) of Shenzhou daguan is dated October 20, 1922. In issue 12 (issue 33 in the whole series), published in March 1917, an announcement after the contents says the original plan of publishing the journal on a bimonthly basis would change to quarterly due to the economic hardship of publishing antiques during a national crisis. Shenzhou daguan 12 (1917): n.p., after the contents. In 1928 and 1929, the Cathay Art Union published another eight issues under the title Shenzhou daguan xubian (Sequels to Grand views of Cathay), containing only works of calligraphy and painting.


It was published between 1911 and 1936 and contained four volumes, forty issues per volume. Huang Binhong and Deng Shi, eds., Meishu congshu (A compendium of fine art), 4 vols. (Shanghai: Shenzhou guoguang she, 1911–1936).


For the significance of compiling traditional texts on art and categorizing them in accordance with the evolving concept of meishu, see Ogawa, “Regarding the Publication of the Meishu Congshu (Fine Arts Series): The Introduction of the European Concept ‘Fine Arts’ and the Japanese Translated Term ‘Bijutsu,’” Universitätsbibliothek der Universität Heidelberg (2003), accessed September 17, 2018,; and Yu-jen Liu, “Publishing Chinese Art: Issues of Cultural Reproduction in China, 1905–1918” (PhD diss., Trinity College, Oxford, 2010), 105–42.


The technologies and materials were imported from Japan. Shenzhou guoguang ji 1 (1908): 4.




The publisher even decided to add to each issue one or two paintings printed on silk. The practice was limited largely by the high cost, according to the publisher. Shenzhou guoguang ji 19 (1911): n.p., after the contents.


Occasionally, the medium-specific categorization is violated. Issue 21 has a category called “sculpted images” (zaoxiang) that includes stone and bronze statues.


The sentence “fine art is the production by the genius” as a summary of Kant’s discussion of art and genius appears in the essays by both Wang and Deng. Wang Guowei, “Guya zhi zai meixue shang zhi weizhi” (The place of antiquity and elegance in Aesthetics), Jiaoyu shijie (World of education) 144 (1907): 1; Deng Shi, “xu” (Preface), Shenzhou guoguang ji 1 (1908): 1.


Wang Guowei, “Kongzi zhi meiyu zhuyi” (Confucius's ideology on aesthetic education, Jiaoyu shijie (World of education) 69 (1904): 3.


Wang, “Guya zhi zai meixue shang zhi weizhi,” 4; cited in Hui Guo, “Writing Chinese Art History in Early Twentieth-Century China” (PhD diss., Leiden University, 2010), 117.


Guo, “Writing Chinese Art History in Early Twentieth-Century China,” 117.


The Japanese term bijutsu was coined in 1872 in the prime minister’s proclamation of Japan’s participating in the 1873 Vienna exposition. Ogawa, “Regarding the Publication of the Meishu Congshu,” 13.


For the changing categorization of meishu in early-twentieth-century China, see Guo, “Writing Chinese Art History in Early Twentieth-Century China,” 116–20.


Ibid., 114–16.


Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity — China, 19001937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 305.


The positions of meishu and yishu in early-twentieth-century China are expertly explained in Ogawa, “Regarding the Publication of the Meishu Congshu,” 10–11, and Liu, “Publishing Chinese Art,” 126–32.


Cai Yuanpei, “Meishu de qiyuan” (The origin of fine arts), Huixue zazhi (Journal of painting studies) 1 (1920): 1.


Yu Jifan, “Kuaixie yanjiu diaosu” (Hasten the studies of sculpture), Meishu (Fine arts) 3 (1920): 109, cited in Guo, “Writing Chinese Art History in Early Twentieth-Century China,” 118.


Guo, “Writing Chinese Art History in Early Twentieth-Century China,” 118–19.


Ibid., 119.


The editors were two major Butterflies writers: Chen Xu (hao Diexian, 1879–1940) and Wang Dungen (1888–1951). For a study of this popular literature, see E. Perry Link, Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: Popular Fiction in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Cities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).


The Cave of the Storm Nymphs was painted by the English classicist Edward Poynter (1836–1919) in 1902/3, and The Foam Sprite, by another English classicist, Herbert James Draper (1863–1920), in 1895. The artists of the other two paintings still need to be identified.


Such expediency was typical of the May Fourth generation’s treatment of Chinese history and literature. Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); and Ying-shih Yu, “Neither Renaissance nor Enlightenment: A Historian’s Reflections on the May Fourth Movement,” in The Appropriation of Cultural Capital: China’s May Fourth Project, ed. Milena Dolezelova-Velingerova and Oldrich Kral. (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2001), 299–324.


Almost 10,000 works of art were exhibited. The contemporary part included 1,231 works in painting and calligraphy, 75 epigraphy and seal-carving, 354 Western painting, 57 sculpture, 34 architecture, 280 arts and crafts, and 227 photography. The rest, approximately 100 Japanese works, approximately 70 Western, a few hundred works by recently deceased artists (jinren yizuo), and a few thousand paintings from the Five Dynasties to the Qing, all belonged to the “reference” (cankaopin) part. The display in the reference section was changed every three or four days because of the huge amount of old paintings. Shenbao, January 28 and May 3, 1929, cited in Lu Huan, “1929 nian diyici quanguo meishu zhanlanhui zhanlan jizhi yanjiu” (A study of the exhibition mechanism of the 1929 First National Art Exhibition), in Meishu guancha (Art observation) 12 (2007): 99.


Volume “gu” includes only a limited amount of paintings from the Five Dynasties to the Qing, works by recent deceased artists, and bronzes and rubbings of stone steles (jinshi). Volume “jin” omits epigraphy and seal-carving (jinshi) and sculpture (diaosu) and adds six contemporary Japanese paintings (waiguo zuopin).


Liangyou (The young companion) 37, April 1929, 32.


Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, third edition (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1988), 146–50.


Nicole Howard, The Book: The Life Story of a Technology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 140–48.


Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai, 63.


For recent researches on the pictorial, see the papers in Paul G. Pickowicz, Kuiyi Shen, and Yingjin Zhang, eds., Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis, 19261945 (Leiden: Brill, 2013).


Jin Youcheng founded the company in 1927 through shares. The printing workshop was destroyed in 1937 during the Japanese air raids. After the communist takeover, the company went through a series of mergers and eventually became a part of Shanghai Municipal Art Printing Company, in 1978. Song and Sun, eds., Shanghai chuban zhi, 851.


The essays came out as installments. For example, the first issue carries the first installments of several articles: “Jindai pingban yinshuashu zhi lilun yu shishi” (Theories and applications of modern lithographic printing), by Liu Puqing; “Zhaoxiang aobanshu” (Photogravure), by Mi Wenrong, and “Meiguo yinshua jishu zuijin zhi quxiang” (Current trends of American printing technologies), by a certain Lin.


“Bianhou” (Editorial afterword), in Meishu shenghuo (Arts and life) 1, April 1934, n.p.


Meishu shenghuo 5, August 1934, n.p.


“Color Printing,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., accessed September 24, 2018,


Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” translated by Harry Zohn, transcribed by Andy Blunden, Marxists Internet Archive, accessed September 24, 2018,


Yu-jen Liu, “Second Only to the Original: Rhetoric and Practice in the Photographic Reproduction of Art in Early Twentieth-Century China”, in Art History 1 (2014): 90.


Yanfei Zhu, “Transnational Canon Formation: The Rediscovery of Ming Yimin Ink Painting in Modern China, 1900–1949” (PhD diss, The Ohio State University Columbus, 2013), 76–83.


Liang Desuo compiled the serial using mainly Sir William Orpen’s The Outline of Art, Solomon Reinarch’s Apollo: An Illustrated Manual of the History of Art Throughout the Ages, and Lü Zheng’s Xiyang meishushi (Western art history). Liangyou 13, March 1927, 21.


Liang Desuo, Xiyang meishu dagang (An outline of Western fine art) (Shanghai: Liangyou tushu yinshua gongsi, 1931).


Liangyou 10 November 1926, n.p., and 13 March 1927, 17. In the Liangyou issues, the foreign collector is mentioned only by his Chinese name, Shi Dezhi. In 1930, the same Shi Dezhi published a catalog on his ceramics collection, Guyuexuan mingci (Famous porcelains from the Guyuexuan), with the English name E. A. Strehlneek. Back in 1914, a painting catalog, Zhonghua minghua (Chinese Pictorial Art), was published by E. A. Strehlneek, whose Chinese name was Shi Deni. It is possible that Strehlneek used different Chinese names in different circles and times. For a review of the painting collection, see Zaixin Hong, “From Stockholm to Tokyo: E. A. Strehlneek’s Two Shanghai Collections: A Global Market for Chinese Painting in the Early 20th Century,” in Terry S. Milhaupt, et al., Moving Objects: Space, Time, and Context (Tokyo: National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, 2004), 111–34.


Liangyou 21, November 1927, 22–23.


The inclusion of theater here accentuates again the unsettled denotations of meishu at the time. Liangyou 89, June 1934, 26–27.

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