- Folk Art and Modern Culture in Republican China by Felicity Lufkin
What is “folk”? At face value, the term conveys tradition and authenticity but when examined, its modern origins seem as complex in China as they are in the West. In the book’s introduction, Felicity Lufkin explores the concept’s post-Industrial Revolution roots and moreover, its convolution as a classification of art. Rather than becoming clearer as the book progresses, “folk art” remains frustratingly elusive as a concept. But that is the point. As Hobsbawm and Ranger suggest, “tradition” is often a fictitious vessel for modern nationalism. The Chinese even had a metaphor for this process: “pouring new wine into old bottles.” Lufkin’s book does not examine folk art made by rural artisans for local consumption but rather traces a collective meditation on the concept of folk art by Chinese artists and intellectuals [End Page 173] throughout the Republican period. Lufkin appropriately uses the term “folkloric” to describe professionally produced prints that possess qualities of folk art but were meant for urban art circles.
The gravitational pull of China’s fabled history is a logical explanation for Republican intellectuals’ interest in Chinese folk culture, but Lufkin argues that minjian yishu (folk art) as a concept should also be recognized as a part of a global investment in folk art and culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even if Chinese artists rarely acknowledge kinship to similar movements elsewhere. The unresolved definition of the concept can be attributed to modern Chinese artists’ conflicted attitude about folk art. Unable to deny the visual appeal and popularity of forms like New Year pictures, artists also rejected their attendant religious content and association with cultural stagnation. However, as artists on all sides of Sino-Japanese War discovered, folk art motifs, styles, themes, and even processes of dissemination could be easily coopted for one’s political purposes.
The writings of cultural reformers, artists, and political figures portray folk art as the last vestige of native Chinese culture, untouched by urban elitism and foreign influence. Despite its association with superstition and inwardness, folk art, for its purity and endurance, was also seen as a source of rejuvenation for China’s national crisis. As Lufkin repeatedly shows, however, folk art was always mediated by professional intervention, never permitted to speak for itself in the hands of the local producers. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are glimpses into the reception of these folk-art experimentations. One viewer, for example, exposed the hypocrisy of the Communists producing prints of the Kitchen God when they concurrently repudiated the belief in folk deities.
A discussion of Xu Beihong’s enthusiasm for clay figures and wood carvings is the only coverage of sculptural folk art in the book. Otherwise, Lufkin focuses on pictorial arts, specifically woodcut prints. The reproducibility of woodcuts met the needs of professional artists and common people alike. Cheap, ubiquitous, and visually striking, woodcuts were the shared medium between the common New Year picture and European-style printmaking favored by leftist artists. This natural overlap enabled woodcuts to become the most successful model for modernizing folk art.
Comprised of two parts organized into seven chapters, Lufkin’s narrative advances through the 1930s to 1940s in a steady rhythm. The book is well-researched and evenly argued, mobilizing a number of Chinese sources that are translated for the first time. Part 1, “Folk Art and National Culture in the Nanjing Decade,” discusses the process by which folk art was brought into public discourse in the 1930s, specifically the modernization of folk art through its urbanization and exhibition. Chapter 1 credits the magazines Dalu, Yifeng, and Meishu shenghuo for establishing some of the earliest public discourses on [End Page 174] folk art. With a focus on a special issue of Yifeng devoted to the topic, Lufkin shows that discussions on the place of folk art in modern society was tied to the broader debate about the role of traditional culture...