Artistic Responses to Marginalization

The following post contains information from multiple previous posts arranged in a different way. This is meant to compliment the author’s tiehua galleries:

As we have seen, the establishment of the Qing Dynasty was no easy time for the Han Chinese—they were once again under hegemonic rule—this time by the Manchus. The dynamic of marginalization, however, shifted over the years of the Qing, and a new set of destabilizing factors arose: China eventually became marginalized by other empires. Subjects mobilized the creative forces of art and poetry to carefully indicate their feelings as well as preserve their culture. Though this became divided by those preferring a return to the fundamentals of Chinese society, whereas a louder voice called first for the radical shift to a republic, and eventually the People’s Republic of China.


Before the responses, I’d like to review the various forms of marginalization and difficulties in Chinese society between 1644 and 1911:

Early Qing

The Han, to varying levels, ceded their place in society to the Manchus. Building on this, though, the Qing Dynasty assured its hold on power by mandating that half of high officials were Manchu (“Qing Dynasty”). Despite being a minority in the populace, Manchus would occupy not only the throne, but also half of the notable governmental positions. Additionally, downward social mobility became a general phenomenon in China, with wealth and power becoming more and more centralized (“China”).

The imposition of Manchu customs, most obviously dress and hair, was devastating for Han literati. According to Struve, this unjust symbolic shift to “barbarian” ways inspired some, for example, to retreat to a life of clerical Buddhism (159). With all of this blatant marginalization, few Han could see those days in a positive light. Fang Yizhi, for example, referred to it as “the time when heaven was filled entirely with blood.” (qtd. In Li 2).

Indeed, retreat culture gained much traction in these days—as outlined by Li, Ming subjects were forced to become either remnant or eremitic subjects upon the dynasty’s fall. This surely spelled out hardships for individuals on both sides.

For those who stayed, there were restrictions. Literary societies, for instance, were barred from conducting solely political activities (“China”).

Read more about the early Qing.

Late Qing

By the late Qing Dynasty, remnant and eremitic Ming subjects had long passed—anyone living only knew the marginalization of the Qing, with no firsthand Ming experience for comparison.

357px-China_imperialism_cartoonNonetheless, as stated, society became increasingly stratified. Rebellions from various levels of society shook the empire—the Taiping, Nian, and Muslim revolts weakened and divided the empire.

Yü asserts that the shift from the tribunal system was a fateful one: “… the replacement of the tributary system by the treaty system in the 1840s already marked the beginning of the end of the traditional Sinocentric world order. It would take Chinese intellectuals five more decades to see the full implications of this historic event” (135).

Literati (as we’ll see) became increasingly corrupt, self-interested, and ignorant of the Confucian values that were meant to guide the nation (elaborated on later).

A series of wars occurred as well. These all resulted in embarrassing defeats that led to the promotion of Western trade interests—in sense, a form of imperialism grasped China and started marginalizing the empire. The “icing on the cake,” so to speak, came when even another East Asian nation, Japan, won wars against and began marginalizing China as well.

Yü explains,

The marginalization of China did not fully manifest itself until the end of the first Sino-Japanese war. It was a catastrophe of this magnitude that finally awakened Chinese intellectuals to the painful truth that China had been marginalized not only in the world but in East Asia as well (137)

The former center of the world was marginalized inside and out, prompting increasingly radical responses by exasperated Chinese subjects.

Read more about the late Qing.



Within the widespread dissatisfaction with what had become of life in China, some sought a return to the very basics of the empire’s Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist guiding principles. Society had become too much for these values; it had forgotten them in these individuals’ visions.

One way this was manifested was through retreat culture. This concept, says Li, had long held its place in Chinese culture, and had long been an understood method of reordering one’s reality (8). This long history even began in the basic tenets of Taoism, and to a lesser degree Chinese Buddhism. A hardline adherent to such doctrines of cultivating oneself in nature and “unlearning” all of the ills of society would do just that—leave society for a simple life in nature.

26991031501_8a4bb4aecf_zAn extreme example is seen in the experience of Xu Fang, who “was said to so abhor contact with society that he would put calligraphy and paintings in a basket on his donkey, along with a list of items he needed, and let it go by itself to the city gate” (Li 12).

Nevertheless, the also important Confucian side of this response wasn’t so keen on leaving behind society—it championed the role of learning alongside others. One Confucian scholar, Gu Yanwu, once stated “To learn alone without friends, one becomes ignorant and fails to achieve fruition; stay for long in one corner, one becomes [adversely] influenced without being aware of it” (qtd. In Li 14).

In terms of governance, however, these scholars understandably sought a return to the fundamentals of Confucian administration, being highly critical of the self-interest that had taken a hold of many officials. One such dissatisfied individual, Ye Kunhou, once prosed, “Only the officials are shameless./ If we just refrain from loving money,/ When we work just a little on the people’s behalf,/ They are moved to eternal gratitude” (qtd. In Esherick 84). Ye Kunhou and others wanted society to return to the harmonious ways of Confucian, philanthropic governance; however, this would also be minimal: Ye Kunhou was driven to believe that “a government that governs least governs best” and this need for light government “reflected the fundamental Confucian obligation to serve and protect the emperor’s subjects, to ‘nourish the people’” (Esherick 68).

Understandably, though, not all individuals in Chinese society so peacefully pondered the perceived ills of Chinese society: others became hostile towards Western influences. In the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese subjects “rose to avenge the national humiliations of the previous six decades,” burning churches and foreign residences, killing missionaries and Chinese Christians (Bo and Wang).


The lines of leftist responses and general acceptance of changing circumstances are difficult to draw at times; however, an acceptance of the new and Western generally characterized this. Eventually, these forward thinkers would spearhead the movement for a republic, and then bolster up the Communists decades thereafter.

Interestingly, the remnant subjects might have been the more left-leaning counterparts of the more conservative eremitic subjects. Li states, “…eremitism implies the rejection of politics and history, whereas being a remnant subject is by definition a political stance responding to a historical situation” (8). In this sense, then, remnant subjects could have been the beginning of those who took in the harsh circumstances of marginalization and potentially resisted them.

Among these remnant subjects and their descendants, many resisted the traditional conceptions of the path to success as civil service: An increasing number of literati made their ways in scholarship, painting, poetry, as well as other arts, in addition to assuming “leadership in public welfare, mediation of disputes, and local defense” (“China”). This was the case for Tang Peng as well—he resisted the traditional conception of what a blacksmith by trade was supposed to produce.

The city of Shanghai became a refuge from the rebellions that shook the Chinese countryside—many artists and collectors ventured to the city during the Taiping Rebellion. The city grew both in commerce and art, with artistic groups taking on quite Western, humanistic motifs, horrifying conservatives with their embrace of “traitor art” (Sullivan 278, 282).

By willingly absorbing Western influences, formerly seen as inferior, these artists committed a very direct form of resistance.

Overall, their interpretations gradually drifted away from solely Confucian, taking in ever more Western ideas. At first, this was justified under the view of Chinese origins of Western learning, but eventually the pure absorption of such influences simply embraced all. As stated in my Late Qing post:

A step in radicalization first came in the shift from interpretation of Confucian doctrine and other historically Chinese theories on society to the discovery of completely new views by intellectual elites (Yü 126-127). Understandably, this ended up taking a highly Western focus as modernization generally meant westernization in this era. Yü states, “that what they identified as China’s “national essence” turned out to be, more often than not, basic cultural values of the West such as democracy, equality, liberty, and human rights (130). This type of thinking certainly promoted the overturning of the dynasty and the formation of a republic.

Evasive Techniques

Utilization of Analogous Moments: The Song Dynasty

Ma_Yuan_Walking_on_Path_in_SpringAs seen in my blog pose “The Song Dynasty’s Influences on Tiehua,” many artists in the Qing Dynasty looked back to this period. This was not only due to the period’s large influences on the Chinese arts in general—it was an ideal period to compare the circumstance of the time to. In literature, authors, as asserted by Li, “the favored historical analogy, however, was the fall of the Song dynasty, probably because both of its debacles involved foreign conquests” (40).


Freedom of speech and expression was never present in ancient Chinese society—thus many literati devised indirect techniques. As asserted by Li, “there is a long tradition of conveying praise and blame through subtle yet pointed poetic language, but restraint and indirectness in early Qing poetry are sometimes also functions of political caution” (37). Through indirect references, poets and even painters can indicate their views in ways that could deceive their government or dynasty.

A major method in this was purely emoting rather than discussing the reasons for such emotions. Wang states, “when poets and painters respond in a poetic manner to distressing and disturbing traumatic events and circumstances, they neither report, document, nor narrate. They simply emote” (185). In this way, artists could still express their negative feelings of dissent, but not in ways that pointed the finger at their rulers.


26395933643_d75c86e298_zOn a fundamental level, when an artist utilizes motifs of another’s work, this also requires the acceptance of it as a model of excellence; however, this is also done at a different time and through a different bias (Powers 745). The word Powers uses for this is “citation.” Essentially, artists can indicate their views on certain periods through strategically selecting influences from said periods—the ones they find pleasing and select can show they approve on one era over others.

Intriguingly, this makes subjectivity in art much more complex and possible, selected from an effective marketplace of ideas. As Powers puts it, “…one is free to choose from among any number of styles those that best exemplify one’s own, personal values. In this instance, the source of authority shifts from an absolute, timeless standard to a relative, personal one” (747-748).


Paintings and poems also had a way of depicting what the viewers thought and felt. Sullivan states, “…the actual subject, we might say, is this very experience of concentrating and then widening, a process that the viewer also undergoes” (412). In this context, resistance can be reflected and appeal to many viewers who also feel a sense of sadness or despair at their circumstances. This also took on actual subjects, with those who had come to epitomize retreat culture after fleeing political hardships making their way into many depictions, along with Mount Lu (Nelson 21).

Adding to the concept of art as a coping mechanism, this kind of sympathizing was also a way to contemplate deep issues without resorting to violence. As asserted by Adorno, “Contemplation without violence, the source of the joy of truth, presupposes that he who contemplates does not absorb the object into himself: a distanced nearness” (qtd. In Sullivan 414).

Ideological Backbone

Iconographic Tradition

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 4.24.01 PMDeep in Chinese history, specifically during the period of the five dynasties, life began to become less alongside nature, thus, as asserted by Richard Edwards “”Chinese painting… moved … from a world in which distances and the realities they embraced were looked upon with apprehension and dread to a time of their complete acceptance as areas of contemplation, visual wandering and delight.” (qtd. In Shaw 184). Thus, in earlier Chinese history, art became a means of bringing nature, which society had started to lose, to any viewer—landscapes long acted as an escape from the perils of a sometimes tumultuous society, which acts on this long iconographical tradition (Sullivan 411). A major concept in this tradition is Mount Lu, a classic symbol of eremitism, outlined in detail in “Ideology and Subjectivity.”


The wide use of landscapes in Chinese art has origins in the philosophies and spiritualties of the region as well. Mount Lu, in Taoism, is listed as part of the “cave heavens,” officially defining it as a sacred site beyond being a symbol for eremitism (Nelson 16).

While Taoism more directly championed nature, Confucian scholars still had a need for its wonder. Their difference when it comes to eremitism is explained by Shaw:

“The contemporary Confucian tradition sought to cultivate increasing refinement and ritualization of human interactions within the social framework. Taoists, on the other hand, saw the social framework as a source of corruption of human beings’ essentially benevolent and trustworthy spontaneity” (185).


Works Cited

“China”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Esherick, Joseph W. Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History. Berkley: University of California Press, 2011. Print.

Li, Wai-yee. “Introduction.” Trauma and Transcendence in Early Qing Literature. Eds. Wilt L. Idema, Wai-yee Li, and Ellen Widmer. Cambridge, MA: the Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. 1-70. Print.

Nelson, Susan E. “Catching Sight of the South Mountain: Tao Yuanming, Mount Lu, and the Iconographies of Escape.” Archives of Asian Art 52 (2000/2001): 11-43. Print.

Powers, Martin J. “The Temporal Logic of Citation in Chinese Painting.” Art History 37 (2014): 744-763. Print.

“Qing dynasty”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Jun. 2016 <>.

Shaw, Miranda. “Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Landscape Painting.” Journal of the History of Ideas 49.2 (1988): 183-206. Print.

Sullivan, Mark. “The Gift of Distance: Chinese Landscape Painting as a Source of Inspiration.” Southwest Review 92.3 (2007): 407-419. Print.

Wang, Eugene. “The Elegiac Cicada: Problems of Historical Interpretation of Yuan Painting.” Ars Orient 37 (2007): 176-194. Print.

Yü, Ying-Shih. “The Radicalization of China in the Twentieth Century.” Daedalus 122.2 (1993): 125-150. PDF.

Bo, Zhiyue, and Jianwei Wang. “Chapter 4: Fall Of The Qing And The Struggle For Control.” History of Modern China. N.PAG. US: Mason Crest Publishers, 2006. History Reference Center. Web. 17 July 2016.