Ren Yi: The Decline of Literary Symbolism and the Rise of Aesthetics in Pre-Modern China

Chinese historiography recounts Ren Y i (Ren Bonian) as a talented child. They say that when he was asked to name a stranger he just had met briefly, he could not remember the name but could produce a portrait of such striking resemblance, there would be no doubt of the man’s identity (Yu-chih Lai, 554). Figure painting is what defined Ren Yi, yet his precociousness in art was not only limited to one form.

Born in 1840, in Zhejiang, Ren Yi grew up by modest means, like many artists of distinction his own destitution served for his precocious artistic development. As a young man his move to Shanghai prompted his interest in the new, and the shedding of the old- as was the custom of the Shanghai School of Art (Clunas, 202).

It should be of no immediate surprise that Ren Yi’s work was an obvious escape from the literary analogies of the Literati Style to the aesthetic beauty of the Shanghai School of Art (Yu-chih Lai, 552). After all, he is considered as one of the vanguard artists to have promoted the transition from Chinese traditionalism to pre-modern tendencies- in other words, an emphasis on painting rather than calligraphy.

The fusion of traditional and modern, old and new, even Eastern and Western methods might have been characteristic of Ren Yi’s time, but what made his work particularly unique was the precision to which he aspired. The sheer detail of “Playing The Flute” is in itself an exemplification of his skill not only for implacable detail but stunning use of colour. Yet, one may wonder what is the importance of this artist in the larger context of Chinese Art History?

Ren Yi’s work and as an artist resembled China’s transformation later on in the post 1912 modern period- rather the synthesis between tradition and contemporary that came to characterize China’s quest for Modernity (Sullivan-Murphy, 12). Yet, he was as an artist exhibiting this in his work years before the turn of the century. Would it be safe to assume that his, and many other artist’s work in the Shanghai School were foreshadowing China’s artistic framework before the rise of Social Realism?

Whatever the case may be, Ren Yi played an important role in setting up, at least in foundation, the synthesis- even, I dare say, acculturation of art in China. It is perhaps his example that shows that by studying pre-modern Chinese art, we can gain a better understanding of Modernity, Modernism and the quest for Modernization sought after by later Chinese artists.

Works Cited

Craig Clunas. Art in China. (Oxford University Press:1997). pg 202-204.

Michael Sullivan, Franklin D Murphy. Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China. (University of

California Press: 1966). pg 12-15. 

Yu-chih Lai. “Remapping Borders: Ren Bonian’s Frontier Paintings and Urban Life in 1880’s

Shangai” in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 86, no. 3, (Sep. 2004). pp 550-572.


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