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Folk Art and Modern Culture in Republican China is a valuable and readable book. It is not only suitable for research scholars, but also for a general readership interested in discovering modern Chinese history and culture, folk art, and prints.
The book focuses on the role and position of Chinese folk art, especially woodcut prints, in relation to modern Chinese history and modern print development from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s. The book examines intellectuals' encounters with folk art rather than the experiences of folk artists themselves. Through clear historical narration and critical analysis of major historical events, figures, influential organizations, publications, collections, and artwork during the period, Lufkin addresses the ambivalence toward folk art in the discourse of modern culture. She explores how folk art was reworked by modern intellectuals who integrated it into modern art creations for the purpose of serving social, cultural, and political demands.
The author sets out the ambivalence toward folk art in the modern social environment of China to elaborately bridge the relationship of folk art and modern culture. In modern encounters, folk art was a source of both pride and shame and a reflection of both strength and weakness within the national culture (p. xiv). Folk art stood for traditional ideas, native aesthetics, and cultural identities; it connected with ordinary people's lives and had a broad social base. On the other hand, folk art was also seen as primitive and simple. The superstitious subjects and motifs in folk art were viewed as opposite to modern ideas and realism. Lufkin uses abundant historical resources to portray how modern Chinese intellectuals, critics, educators, and artists worked through their ambivalence in their debates, in the social actions of using and reforming folk art, and in the creation of modern prints. Examples include Lu Xun's view of prints; Xu Beihong's reflections on Niren Zhang's clay sculptures; and Mao Zedong's thoughts on the popularization of arts to serve the masses; as well as publications on the topic of folk art such as Liangyou, Yifeng, and Minsu shenghuo; and folk art events organized by modern art organizations like the Folk Picture Exhibition in 1937 and the New Year Picture and Print Exhibitions. From these historical accounts, the book explains why folk prints attracted the attention of modern Chinese elites and led modern artists to rework them. It explores how the uneasy celebrated-yet-marginalized position of folk art was integrated into the social landscape of modern culture history of China with new social subjects, content, styles, and techniques.
Lufkin shows how modern artists reflect the social circumstances of China during the 1930s [End Page 363] and 1940s. For instance, Door Gods, who traditionally protected Chinese homes from malevolent outsiders, were re-imagined and recreated in modern artists' anti-Japanese wartime prints as expressions of patriotic and resistance sentiments. The author comments that the "new wine" of the propaganda message appears to fit comfortably and appealingly into the "old bottles" (p. 136). The prints from Yan'an artists also illustrate this process of re-imagining. They blend the traditional imagery of prosperity and family harmony to produce the new style of the New Year Picture (xin shi "nian hua"). Li Qun's print Abundant Food and Clothing is an example. Lufkin shows that folk art tradition is integrated into modern artwork and social movements not as a kind of cultural fossil, but as a vital part of contemporary life. This interpretation is still applicable to today's cultural practices surrounding preservation and utilization of cultural heritage and folk tradition.
Through detailed comparative analysis of folk prints and new prints, Lufkin illustrates how the styles and techniques of folk prints influenced the work of modern printmakers. For example, the work of the Modern Prints Association shares some elements of style and technique with popular woodcut New Year Pictures in the use of color and line. The Yan'an school prints claim some of the qualities attributed to folk art: simplicity...