Is Art History of China Useless in a Pandemic?
The study of Chinese art has long been a specialised field bridging the disciplines of art history and Chinese studies. This essay challenges, as always in a real-life crisis, the usefulness of art history of China in the current Covid-19 pandemic. The agency of art historians is put under the historiographical grill. Through two brief case studies, the essay argues that art historians, though mortal and fragile, are actually professionally equipped to strike the core consequences of the pandemic in its social, political, and cultural aspects.
What can art historians do with their expertise in face of a pandemic? Art historians and the arts, admittedly, could not cure any symptom caused by the novel coronavirus termed SARS-CoV-2. Yet, the various forms of arts can largely ease the anxiety, anger, and sorrow caused by the infectious disease. During the transition from an epidemic to a pandemic, especially after the enforcement of global travel bans, lockdowns, and border closures, numerous cultural institutions have taken actions to reach out to an exceptionally larger audience, enabling art works and artists to bring solidarity and relief to people in difficult situations. Many museum professionals are surely art historians, who have thus been contributing to fighting the pandemic with their institutional resources and digital platforms (Farago, 2020). Equally, those who study and teach it can make useful contributions during a crisis. An appropriate and most recent example, with all particularities revolving around the Covid-19 pandemic, is the work of art historian Michelle C. Wang.
An Art Historian Strikes Back
Michelle C. Wang is associate professor of art history at Georgetown University. On May 12, 2020, she published an essay in response to the cover illustration and its interpretation in the May issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID), the official journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US. The journal features a piece of silk embroidery with motifs of a leopard, wave, and five bats, which is an early-Qing rank badge in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Rank Badge with Leopard, Wave, and Sun Motifs. Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late eighteenth century, silk and metallic thread, 27.31 × 28.57 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Inv. no. 30.75.1025, available at: www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/68969.
In their interpretation of the rank badge, the two co-authors start with imagined walks in Qing dynasty Chinese cities including Wuhan (Breedlove and Fung, 2020: 1056), although Wuhan as a city did not exist before 1927. Referencing the history of Chinese rank badges from, among others, an online store selling “exquisite antique textiles and ethnographica” that the shop owner “culled from the four corners of the earth” (Sarajo, 2020), the authors give their best shot for the epidemiologists’ connoisseurship of Chinese art. In a seemingly genuine form of art appreciation, they indicate a damaging narrative in which a long Chinese tradition of human involvement with bats is related to the current coronavirus pandemic, ignoring both the predominant motif of leopard, and the number of bats that derived from the five good fortunes (wu fu 五福) in the Book of Documents (Qu, 1977: 83).
Wang, having read this piece of connoisseurship, did her homework on herbal medicine, bubonic plague, zoonotic infections of snow leopards, and even one relevant FBI report. On April 22, one week after the journal was published online, she initiated a conversation with Byron Breedlove, the journal’s managing editor and one of the co-authors. She attempted to convey the fears of her Asian-American friends, colleagues, and students caused by the wilfully interpreted illustration (Wang, 2020). Her concerns of racism and xenophobia and her explanation on the misappropriation of artwork were, disappointedly, brushed off with insistence on their misconduct and mistrust of her professional knowledge.
In her counter-essay, consequently, Wang elaborates the iconography of the rank badge, explains the wordplay of bats and good fortune in the Chinese language, and points out the irrelevance of the embroidery to the coronavirus, Covid-19 pandemic, or any of the journal’s articles, basing all of her arguments on existing research. Wang’s timely essay demonstrates an art historian’s capability to correct an irresponsible practice in academia that fuels xenophobia directed against Asian-American communities, while in China, another art historian reacted promptly in defence of the right to criticise.
Freedom of Art Criticism in the Name of Nationalism
In China, the writing of art history has served nationalism throughout the twentieth century, although the schemes and effects of nationalist art history turned out not in the least alike in different times of crisis. The “corona-crisis” is apparently a major test confronting the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which swiftly turns to the familiar tool of nationalism for a remedy. Many painters in mainland China seized the opportunity to make thematic works in praise of the “national spirit” (minzu jingshen 民族精神) or “great leadership.” Lacking sophistication or above-average taste, most of the works simply plagiarised photojournalism or earlier propaganda posters (Zhang, 2020). The works unavoidably caused massive online criticism, but very much enjoyed the favour of the authority. The People’s Daily intervened in support of the vulgar taste, aggressively interrogating and stigmatising its critics: “who gave you the power to trample on art?” (Wang Gen, 2020).
Zhang Xiaoling, a prominent painter and art historian, responded. In an essay published on February 25, he courageously contradicted “a certain news authority” by stating the common sense: “To criticise is the right of all those who criticise, a right that requires to be conferred by nobody” (Zhang, 2020).
This is almost a battle-cry to defend freedom of speech, a right written in the constitution of the People’s Republic yet absent in its everyday politics. Penned on the eighth day after the death of physician Li Wenliang (February 7, 2020), the esteemed whistle-blower in the pandemic, Zhang’s essay echoes to Li’s wide-spread statement that “a ‘healthy’ society should not have merely one voice” (Qin and Ding, 2020). Nonetheless, to make the battle cry agreeable to (self-)censorship, Zhang strategically stands under the flag of Chinese political correctness: nationalism. The modernity of modern Chinese art, he argues, resides in the “entangled marriage of revolution and art.” He quotes artworks of revolutionary artists who were close comrades of Mao Zedong, then summarises their success, in art and beyond, as “having ideal and ambition in intertwined politics and arts.” The ultimate goal of thematic paintings of significance, Zhang adds, is to “construct the spiritual epic of the nation.”
To all appearances, these remarks embrace nationalism, but his quotes of Hannah Arendt and Albert Camus can clear his name as a liberal as well. In the ambiguous color of nationalism, he paints an “enormous system of value,” which consists of conscience, life, and love, and overwhelms the “established ideology in China.” In a time when professors are secretly reported by their students, internally investigated by their universities, or openly shamed and dismissed from their “tenured” (bianzhi nei 編制內) positions, Zhang Xiaoling’s move is courageous and admirable.
Michelle C. Wang and Zhang Xiaoling are but two art historians whose agency is evident and whose voice is heard by the author of this essay. Mooching around in the mist of misinformation, art history is not at all useless for the public. To the very contrary, art history of China can be socially constructive and politically critical, so much that one should label the textbooks “sharp, handle with care and courage.” Let there be remarks in the history of art history that, in times of crisis, the art historian strikes back.
Breedlove, Byron, and Isaac Chun-Hai Fung (2020), “Auspicious symbols of rank and status,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 26 (5): 1056–1057. Accessed at: https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2605.ac2605.
Farago, Jason (2020), “Now virtual and in video, museum websites shake off the dust,” The New York Times, April 23, 2020. Accessed at: https://nyti.ms/2VxU8SL.
Qin Jianxing and Ding Gang (2020), “‘Jiankang de shehui buying zhiyou yizhong shengyin’: xinguan feiyan ‘chuishao ren’ Li Wenliang qushi” (A “healthy” society should not have merely one voice: Li Wenliang, the whistle-blower of the novel coronavirus pneumonia, passed away), Caixin, February 7, 2020. Accessed at: https://china.caixin.com/2020-02-07/101512460.html.
Qu Wanli, annot. (1977), Shangshu jin zhu jin yi (Modern Annotation and Translation of the Book of Documents), 7th ed., Taipei: Shangwu yinshu guan.
Sarajo (2020), “About Sarajo.” Accessed at: https://www.sarajo.com/about_us/.
Wang Gen (2020), “Shi shei geini jianta yishu de quanli” (Who gave you the power to trample on art), People’s Daily, February 12, 2020.
Wang Hanwu and Wu Mingtang (2008), “Zhongguo diyige zhixiashi faxiangdi: ‘Jingzhaoqu’ Wuhan” (The birthplace of the first Chinese municipality directly under the central government: “Jingzhao district,” Wuhan), Zhongguo difangzhi 7: 50–53.
Wang, Michelle C. (2020) “The CDC’s misappropriation of a Chinese textile, and why it matters”, Hyperallergic, May 11, 2020. Accessed at: https://hyperallergic.com/562771/emerging-infectious-diseases/.
Zhang Xiaoling (2020), “‘Kangyi’ meishu chuangzuo de zui yu fa” (Crime and punishment of artistic creation in the fight against the pandemic), Art News of China, February 25, 2020. Accessed at: http://www.zgmsbweb.com/Home/index/detail/relaId/23818.
-  According to the local gazetteer office, Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang, the three pre-existing commercial centres (zhen 鎮) that constitute Wuhan, merged for the first time under the same municipality on April 18, 1927 (Wang and Wu, 2008: 51–52).
-  Zhang is professor and dean at East China Normal University, editor-in-chief of the Art News of China (Zhongguo meishu bao 中国美术报), and former vice-director of the China National Academy of Painting.