A history of the present : an ethnographic study of contemporary Chinese art

當前的歷史 : 中國當代藝術的民族志研究

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Hok Bun Isaac LEUNG

Related Research Unit(s)


Awarding Institution
Award date15 Jul 2014


Discussions within and outside China regarding the history of contemporary Chinese art have intensified ever since the mid-2000s, when several exhibitions around the world adopted a historical survey approach. Art historians have generally posited that the chaos and destruction caused by the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) constituted a temporal rupture, setting previous movements apart from the rise of China's 1985 New Wave Movement, which is often regarded as a new phase in Chinese art history. Rather than use a conventional art-history approach, which would rest on periodisation and stylistic analysis, this dissertation presents a new historiographic strategy emphasizing the philosophical significance of spatial realism and drawing on Martin Heidegger's concept of topology and Michel Foucault's concept of archaeology. This dissertation first traces the establishment of distinct imperial institutions of art and the artistic market activities of the minjian across different dynasties, and reviews the birth of museums in Republican and Dengist China. I vividly describe the spatial history of traditional Chinese art, drawing from Chinese and English historical sources, government publications, personal letters, and diaries. I argue here that a unique form of "selfhood" characterized China during imperial times and that its main aspects concerned personal ethics, personality, and the ability to cultivate the self. In short, the first section interprets potential ruptures and continuities in Chinese art history. Second, I present a three-year ethnographic study of the current art world in China. Through first-person descriptions of the most significant art establishments in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Jiangsu, I illustrate here the bureaucratic and financial mechanisms of Chinese's current culture industry, and explore art locations' ongoing key roles in supporting the government and the wider power structures in contemporary China. By situating individual practices in larger systems, I clarify the interconnectedness of China's national and international development.

    Research areas

  • Art and society, History, 20th century, China, Art, Social aspects, Museums