Interactions between Western and Chinese Aesthetics
Modern Chinese aesthetics came into being in the process of exchange and collision between Western and Chinese cultures. It has made progress along with a continuous interaction and communication between Western and Chinese aesthetics, and acquired a unique form and style in placing Western ideas in close contact with Chinese heritage. In view of its method and content, the defining characteristic of Chinese aesthetic is the integration and assimilation of the historical into the modern in terms of East-West cultural transformation. Historically speaking, there have emerged five main paradigms regarding
Modern Chinese aesthetics in its development from infancy to maturity over a span of a hundred years. Each of the paradigms has its own focus of interest and stands as a pre-condition to and exerts influence upon the others. When all of them grow to a greater extent, they work out a linear sketch of different stages of the progression of Modern Chinese aesthetics and its path of academic thinking. In sum, the five include the model of fragmentary elaboration based on translation and introduction, the model of systematic disciplinary construction based on transplantation, the model of theoretical incorporation through creative reformation based on the East-West communication, the model of cross-disciplinary and comprehensive art education based on the efficiency of applied sciences, and the model of cross-cultural considerations based on the inquiry into distinct cultural origins. It should be noted that although Modern Chinese aesthetics began with
translation, introduction, and transplantation of Western aesthetics, it was not an instance of simple imitation or mechanical reproduction. Rather, its selection of subjects that were the most suitable for maximal elaboration and reconstruction eventually created favourable conditions for communication between Western and Chinese aesthetics and theoretical incorporation. These initial efforts owed much to the deep-rooted and far-reaching humane tradition in China. For the same reason, the very beginning of the introduction of ‘Western Sciences’ (西学) once encountered strong resistance from native culture. To a great extent, the obstinate forces came in protest
from cultural conservatism. However, in the process of passive correction, those extreme and biased cultural ideas were rectified accordingly. For instance, facing the opposition and contention between ‘Old Learning’ (Chinese) and ‘New Learning’ (Western), Wang Guowei (王国维) enthusiastically championed a truth-seeking and prejudice-free academic environment. As is noticed in the preface he wrote in 1911 for the Journal of Chinese Studies, he called for ‘a wider cultural vision against the distinction between Old and New Learning and between Western and Chinese learning’.1 With regard to the widely held conception of cultural eclecticism, many scholars voiced their criticism. Zong Baihua (宗白华), for example, contributed to the Current Issues an article on Chinese Scholars – Communication – Mediation (1919).2 Thereby he expressed his objection against the practice of looking for ‘similarities’ between Chinese culture and other cultures for the sake of mutual understanding or mediation. He encouraged Chinese scholars to break with the idea of communication and eclecticism in their study of Western and Chinese theories and pursue truth only for truth’s sake. With regard to ‘Complete Westernization’ as a trend of thought and the permeation of heterogeneous cultures, ten professors in Shanghai jointly published Manifesto of the Construction of Chinese Native Culture in 1935, openly holding high the ‘banner of native culture’.3 With respect to the cultural consciousness at two opposite extremes, Zhang Dainian (张袋年) and other scholars came up with a more constructive proposition of ‘Synthetic creation’. This proposal emphasized that, in dealing with cultural issues, equal attention should be paid to what is the best both in Western culture and its Chinese counterpart. Meanwhile, the distinguished Chinese cultural legacy should be cherished and carried forward. In assimilating the valuable accomplishments in Western culture, a new culture would be brought into being in the long run. What was needed in China then was creative synthesis rather than mediocre mediation. The agenda of so-called ‘creative synthesis’ asked for endeavours to fulfil a manifold mission, say, to oppose the biased practice of cultural conservatives, cultural radicals and cultural eclecticism, eradicate the obsolete and outworn conceptions in native culture, absorb new spirit in foreign cultures, promote progress in revitalizing traditional culture, speed up the input and digestion of the cream of foreign cultures, and finally bring into being a new form of Chinese culture that should be propitious to metabolism and renaissance. Later on, Zhang Dainian also introduced ‘cultural creationism’ and uplifted the realistic significance of ‘synthetic creation’ to the level of facilitating as well as actualizing the rebirth of Chinese culture and national rejuvenation. Similar conception of culture and the consciousness of innovation and modernization greatly encouraged and inspired those Chinese scholars, who attended to the construction of Chinese culture and consciously took up the responsibility for the future of the nation and its people. The influence reached so far as to the field of aesthetic culture and modified to various degrees the developing paradigms of Modern Chinese aesthetics.