The true “cultural revolution” in China was not the political Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, but the intellectual consequences of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. These were the first tangible manifestations of China’s cultural conflict with the West-the first attempt at initiating a movement toward a modern Chinese culture. But this movement failed in the arts. There was too little time for artistic retrospection before China was caught up in further struggles for survival: a quarter-century of civil war, eight years of Japanese invasion, and the Communist revolution.
During these decades, three trends evolved in the arts. On one extreme there was a complete disregard for contemporary Western arts and only a rudimentary imitation of traditional Western arts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The emphasis was exclusively on technique, without regard to cultural context. On the other extreme, there was a mindless indulgence in the status quo of China’s traditional arts as they were found at the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Between these opposite directions there was an attempted synthesis that was “neither fish nor fowl” — or as the Chinese saying would have it “bu zhong bu xi” [literally, “neither Chinese nor Western”]. This approach led to the rendering of Chinese folk themes in Western styles and techniques.
As an example of the first trend was the widespread interest in oil painting in the nineteenth-century European style. For the opposing trend, there was the continued popularity of the so-called Peking Opera. Even more representative of this tendency was the revival, in the early 1930’s, of the music for qin (Chinese zither) without really understanding the meaning or significance of its aesthetics. The third trend could be seen in the common practice in the past half-century of rendering Chinese folk songs with an overlay of conventional tonal harmony of the West. Another example would be the recasting of minority nationalities dance movements into the framework of Western classical ballet.
In short, there was not enough understanding of Western culture or knowledge of modern artistic concepts on the part of Chinese artists to revitalize a Chinese culture that would remain true to itself while at the same time benefit from the Western experience. Meanwhile, the tradition of Chinese culture was being chipped away piece by piece by the processes of a so-called “modernization” and “Westernization.” Even then, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, these were fashionable terms among intellectuals.
After the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the same trends and processes continued- and on a much broader scale. For the next thirty years, there were a dominant Russian influence and the strict constraints of Communist ideology. Fortunately, this period was also marked by a considerably higher level of professionalism than before and a substantial increase in the training of talented artists, especially in the performing arts.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China in 1979 marked the real beginning of China's exposure to modern Western arts — a crucial moment in China’s cultural history. By 1983, the fruition of this exposure manifested itself with the emergence of a substantial number of young Chinese composers, painters, and filmmakers who could reasonably match the work of young American artists in their own fields.