Published in the Center for US - China Arts Exchange Newsletter, Fall 1995.
In December 1990, on his first trip to China since the events of June 1989, Center Director Chou Wen-chung retraced the steps of a 1987 trip, undertaken to look at the climate for intellectuals and artists of that time. The 1990 Ford Foundation-supported trip began in Yunnan Province’s capital city of Kunming and the rural area of Luxi County, where Chou was exploring the feasibility of designing a Center project on Yunnan's minority nationalities. Following the Yunnan visit, Chou traveled to Xi’an and then repeated the earlier Chengdu, Beijing, and Shanghai itinerary, focusing on meetings with painters, writers, musicians, and scholars. The purpose of the visit was to assess the effects of Tiananmen and its aftermath on the intellectual and artistic atmosphere in some of China’s major cities. The following are edited excerpts from Chou's report on the “Intellectual Climate in China Since the Tiananmen Events.”
The observations in this report, ultimately aimed at both American and Chinese readers, will be more meaningful if considered in a Chinese historical context. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the ability to assimilate foreign cultures is a fundamental characteristic of Chinese civilization. The influx of foreign influence has, however, always been effectively counterbalanced by the capacity of Chinese civilization to reshape ideas from other cultures on its own terms. This usually happens over a long period of disintegration and amalgamation — at a time of rebirth in Chinese history. The best-known example of such a time of cultural transformation is the period leading up to the Tang dynasty — a dynasty with a culture that was neither ancient Chinese nor Central or South Asian.
The most recent such period in China’s history has, perhaps, been unfolding for over one hundred fifty years now. For three-quarters of a century, symbolically from the Opium Wars of 1939 to 1860 through the so-called “Open Door” policy advocated by the United States in 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, China experienced some of the worst political and economic exploitation and racial humiliation in its history. As might well be expected, there was a concurrent process of the disintegration of an already decaying culture.
It is unfortunate that China’s first exposure to modern Western culture should have taken place in such oppressive circumstances. The result was predictable. It inspired two powerful and diametrically opposed reactions: cultural xenophobia, on the one hand, and complete Westernization, on the other. The ensuing conflicts in the arts between these two extremes have never been resolved. Worse, no middle ground has taken hold in the Chinese mind throughout the past century.