August 12, 2013, by Tony Hong

How can the art and architecture in China be comparable to that in the West?

By Louise Jones,

Studying Art History at the University of Nottingham UK.

Before my trip to Ningbo I had some knowledge on the art practices in China and had many expectations of what I believed China would look like; high sky scraper buildings with the architecture being a mix of modern designs in the cities and more authentic classical houses and gardens in the rural areas. My experience at the Ningbo summer school has changed my perception of what I believed China had to offer and my trips to Shanghai, Yu Garden and the Ningbo museum has really made me focus on how different the art and architecture is in China in comparison to that in the West. My blog is going to focus on this.

The Practice of art
The degree I’m studying, Art History, actually introduced me to the practice of Chinese art in my first semester before I arrived at the summer school. I therefore had some understanding about the importance of the art of calligraphy in Chinese culture and how the subject of nature was fundamental within Chinese practice.

During my stay in Ningbo I was able to experience first-hand the art of calligraphy and even try it for myself! I have learnt how calligraphy is an act of tradition with the written messages holding spiritual importance. This can be comparable to that of the art in the West where customs are very much seen to be an element of the past; the Modernist movement in the 20th Century believed tradition in art was outdated and so artists such as Jackson Pollock challenged the strict views held on art and created something entirely new. Calligraphy was also a classical artistic pursuit enjoyed in private and its aim was not to seek glory from the art but to use traditional forms for personal pleasure. Art in the West is very different as the individual genius serves to make profit in the art world and art is produced for the masses, not for private contemplation. Learning the art of calligraphy in modern day China in 2013 suggests how different Chinese art is to the West and how tradition is an aspect that isn’t altering, even in modern day China.

I was therefore shocked to discover a display of modern contemporary sculptures during my visit to Ningbo museum and I believed this could possibly show how China is establishing new identities within their art. I did question my interpretation however as the fact that the sculptures were placed on the lowest floor in a separate building out of view and calligraphy was displayed in the main building, really gave me the indication that anything outside the standard practice of traditional art practices isn’t appreciated as much.

I then had the chance to visit the World Exposition centre 2010 during my visit to Shanghai which reaches over 7 million visitors a day! One section in the gallery which really stood out to me focused on Chinese artists who imitated the work of artists from the West; some included a replica of Van Gogh’s sunflower and Titian’s woman with a mirror. Does this therefore show how the tradition of Chinese art is changing to fit with the West or are they now looking at the West as a possible model for their work? Also, the use of art as a tool for propaganda was striking. The large room on the ground floor of the gallery contained sculptures and paintings which glorified the Chinese in battle and commemorated the greatest leaders of China in sculptures. From my experience of visiting gallery’s in the West, this large amount of propaganda displayed was something never experienced before as art is often displayed in neutral terms.

Architecture in China
During my two week trip I also had the chance to explore both the old and industrialised parts of China. My visit to Yu Garden with the architecture being over 400 years old was in great comparison to the new architecture displayed in the middle of Shanghai; the buildings surrounding the Bund and those within the French Concession area were displaying the new industrialised China striving towards economic growth. When seeing the large sky scraper buildings around the Bund from the top of the Oriental Pearl tower I couldn’t help but compare it to the buildings in London, those notably in Canary Wharf; the buildings in London surround the river and are used for financial purposes, much like those that surround the Bund. Furthermore, the old style temples which are hidden amongst the streets in Ningbo are surrounded by global brands, such as McDonalds, which shows how the old architecture in China has been incorporated into the fast growing market, with China seeing the need to establish itself within the international community. This is definitely something seen far less in the West.

What have I discovered?
Being able to visit both the old parts of China and the new industrialised cities has allowed me to gain a holistic view of the Chinese culture and to see how architecture is fundamental in terms of establishing authority and maintaining traditional practices. The art galleries and museums visited were also effective in their ability to capture the Chinese heritage of the past and to highlight how tradition is so wholly important, even now, within the Chinese culture.

I loved my time in Ningbo and Shanghai and I’ll definitely be taking up calligraphy when I get home!

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