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  • Habitat Dioramas: Liu Kuiling’s Animal Paintings in Republican-Era Tianjin
  • Lisa Claypool (bio)

The paintings that made Liu Kuiling 劉奎齡 (1885–1967) famous during his lifetime are full-size screens on which he meticulously rendered animals: a black bear ponderously shuffling around a tree; a pair of wolves standing alert, ears pricked high, in prairie grasses; two lynx crouching low on a cliff. Liu also painted polar bears, foxes, horses, camels, mountain lions, water buffalo, leopards, dogs, donkeys, boars, spotted deer, mountain goats, monkeys, rabbits, rats, rhinoceroses, tigers, house cats, birds, and squirrels. The animals portrayed in his paintings were domestic and wild, familiar and exotic. They lived in his courtyard garden and belonged within a zoological garden—the former a space of everyday life, the latter a scientific arena of “facts” about the natural world culled and categorized at that time mainly by Europeans, Japanese, and North Americans.

A number of scholars have attended to questions about Liu’s production and technique that speak to the role of the artist in negotiating fictive and nonfictive dimensions of animal life through brush and ink.1 They have noted that Liu’s ink menagerie was painted imaginatively with the sensuous colors and brush styles that he adapted from earlier generations of artists in his hometown, the treaty port of Tianjin (into which he synthesized Japanese and European painting techniques that he encountered there); at the same time, he obsessed over “truthful” details in his paintings, in one case taking five years to complete an immaculate painting of a peacock that began with a study of one of its feathers (Figs. 1, 2).

Yet the paintings raise another set of questions as well. Key to their visual and material impact is that they could be considered to be pieces of furniture, sold at a painting and calligraphy shop located in a Tianjin furniture market. The screens Liu painted altered the home through their placement and position and asked people who encountered them to look at that space through new eyes. Hence, the question might be asked: what did it mean to invite a black bear into your home? To echo art historian John Berger, why look at animals?2

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Fig. 1.

Liu Kuiling. Spring Colors of the Woods (Shanglin chunse), 1938. Hanging scroll, color and ink on silk; 120 × 52 cm. Courtesy of the Tianjin Museum.

In an essay so named, Berger writes about the incomprehension in the looks exchanged between animals and humans that has deepened as animals have become increasingly marginalized by economic and social technologies. The closer modern industrialized society gets animals in its sights, the more they disappear—a process [End Page 165] eloquently captured in the dead eyes of the animals exhaustively photographed in the Tianjin area by one of Liu’s contemporaries, the British naturalist Arthur de Carle Sowerby (Fig. 3). Sowerby and European zoologists in the Tianjin area were engaged in trophy hunting and possessing China’s natural world. Their construction of natural history—an order of things—through display and print publication was based in a purportedly universal science and abstract systems of knowledge; it possessed a distinctive visual dimension as well, constituting a regime of visuality through which the human gaze toward the animal was regulated, and likewise, the relationship—one of authority and power—between themselves and China made clear.3

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Fig. 2.

Liu Kuiling. Untitled (peacock feather). Ink and color on paper. From He Yanzhe, Liu Kuiling (Beijing: Hebei Jiaoyu chubanshe, 2003), 72.

This article proposes that the screens serve as medial objects within this “empire of scientific visuality.” They can be positioned between the scientific gaze and long-lived elite ways of looking at animals in China, mediating cultural tensions of seeing, studying, and displaying animals by functioning as “habitat dioramas” in the home. Central to the analysis of the kinds of seeing that the screens encouraged and commanded is the notion that, as art historian Alex Potts put it of the politics of picturing animals in Europe and North America during the first part of the twentieth century, “[i]f one thing consistently characterizes ideas...


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pp. 165-190
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