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As a direct consequence of the Opium War (1840-42), the treaty port of Shanghai emerged as one of the most cosmopolitan and commercially vibrant cities in nineteenth-century China. (1) English traders arrived first and were soon joined by an ever-increasing number of Western traders and missionaries, many of them French and American. Extensive concession areas located in the north of the old Chinese walled city were made available for British, French, and other foreign settlements. From the 1850s on, each new social disturbance in the interior sent tens of thousands of Chinese refugees, including numerous wealthy landowners from the Jiangnan area, to Shanghai, seeking protection under the English and French flags. With this trend, professional artists immigrated to the city in search of patrons, and their presence added to a burgeoning art scene and the development of an eclectic urban aesthetic that came to be known as the Shanghai school of painting (haipai). Ren Bonian (courtesy name Ren Yi, 1840-1896), among the most celebrated of the Shanghai school painters, arrived in the enclave in 1868 from his native Shanyin (present-day Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province) and rapidly emerged as one of the city's most prolific and popular artists. (2)
In Ren Bonian's paintings of the 1880s, there appear repeated depictions of traditional themes relating to China's northern frontier. (3) These works, which will be referred to here as Ren's northern frontier paintings, share many characteristic motifs, including solitary figures, many garbed in northern "barbarian" costumes (hufu); lonely flying geese; desolate settings; and harsh weather. Such motifs were derived from, and constructed through, an ancient tradition of so-called frontier literature (biansai wenxue). (4) By Ren Bonian's time, paintings employing these motifs had been long engrained in the Chinese pictorial tradition and enjoyed an enduring popularity. In nineteenth-century Shanghai such themes, in fact, surface not only in Ren's work but occasionally in paintings by other Shanghai school artists, including Fei Danxu (1801-1850), Qian Huian (1833-1911), Ni Tian (1855-1919), and Wang Yiting (1867-1938). It might be questioned whether it is valid to focus on these northern frontier themes in Ren Bonian's work of the 1880s as a choice of the artist. Their unusually high frequency in his work, however, argues for the phenomenon's significance. Moreover, given that Ren was a professional, as opposed to an amateur, painter, it argues also for their popularity among his Shanghainese patrons. (5)
Among Ren's works that can be categorized as northern frontier paintings, three themes and titles predominate: Su Wu Tending Sheep (Su Wu muyang), Looking toward the Deserted Frontier (Guanhe yiwang xiaosuo), and Three Chivalrous Warriors in Wind and Dust (Fengchen sanxia). To my knowledge, there survive about seven examples of Su Wu Tending Sheep, seven of Looking toward the Deserted Fronlier, and ten of Three Chivalrous Warriors in Wind and Dust. Among these, only one of the Su Wu Tending Sheep and three of the Three Chivalrous Warriors in Wind and Dust date to before the 1880s. Significantly, the emergence of this cluster of similarly themed works coincides with the ever-increasing tensions in China's foreign relations during the 1880s, which greatly affected many aspects of Shanghai life at that time.
The observation of an intensified interest in representing an imagined space, "the northern frontier," paralleled by the new circumstances of the physical referent, "Shanghai in the 1880s," triggers a series of questions regarding their connections: Why, at this moment in time, in this warm, bustling, southern city, did subjects drawn from the cold, desolate, northern frontier become so prominent in Ren's works? Who constituted the audience for these paintings? How did they perceive these paintings and how did they perceive the time (1880s) and the space (Shanghai) in which they lived? Does the above-mentioned parallel between the imagined space and the physical referent imply any specific connections between these two? If so, what is the nature of the linkage and how was it forged?
Within the historical and cultural context of the late nineteenth century, and the 1880s in particular, this paper will argue, these traditional frontier themes served to express a complex set of reactions on the part of Shanghainese--at least, the Shanghainese who supported Ren's paintings--living in a society characterized by an unprecedentedly intricate mixture of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, (6) and the Chinese and the foreign. More broadly, such pictorial themes functioned as cultural metaphors in support of a nationalistic and cultural boundary. At the same time, Ren's works display inconsistencies and conflicts between the content and the style in which the narratives are conveyed, as well as significant departures from traditional iconographies. Taken together, such inconsistencies point to an ironic subtext--one that can be read as a disapproving commentary on Shanghai society's obsession with material luxury, although it is sketched in the most eye-catching and exotic forms. Such a paradoxical relation between the subject and its presentation reflects a collective ambivalence consisting, on the one hand, of the pursuit of pleasure without regard to any boundaries and, on the other, of a contradictory, nationalistic sentiment distinguished by its assertion of boundaries. This paradox was propelled and even aggravated by the ongoing tensions in China's foreign relations in the 1880s within a city whose economy was built on a robust international trade. Late-nineteenth-century Shanghai can thus be characterized as an era of announcing and denouncing boundaries, continuously and simultaneously.
More precisely, the many setbacks of both a diplomatic and military nature suffered by China in the period immediately following the optimistic reformist Tongzhi Restoration of the early 1870s--including border disputes with Russia, defeat in the Sino-French War, and spiraling tensions with Japan over control of the Korean peninsula--resulted in an infiltration of its cultural, economic, and territorial borders unprecedented in Chinese history. In addition, the circulation of modern print media such as newspapers and magazines in urban centers like Shanghai not only made events occurring on the nation's borders--once so distant--more vivid and visible than ever but also gave an immediacy to inhabitants' sense of the threat of war and the nation's imperilment. In Shanghai of the 1880s, the Sino-French War, for example, was experienced not as a distant affair but as a daily disruption, given the fact that many Chinese lived in the French concession, and even those living in the Chinese sections of the city frequently visited its shops and pleasure quarters. Moreover, in the 1880s, almost forty years after the establishment of the first foreign settlement in Shanghai, the pace and nature of the economic growth experienced over those years had served to aggravate the contrasts between the old Chinese city and the modern foreign concessions--not merely contrasts between Eastern and Western, or modern and traditional, but also between squalid and trim, poor and rich. City life now accommodated two worlds perceived as extremely different yet located side by side, with the boundaries constantly reinforced by the physical wall dividing the southern and northern parts of the city and the ongoing wars taking place beyond its borders. I will argue that Ren Bonian, along with many of his fellow Shanghainese, apparently enjoyed the exotic, modern, and simply more affluent material life in the foreign enclaves. At the same time, they felt lost and alienated living in a world where boundaries were becoming ever more fluid.
This ambivalence, I believe, is mirrored in the northern frontier themes in the works of artists of the Shanghai school, and of Ren Bonian in particular, and accounts for their popularity. Taking as our focus Ren's Su Wu Tending Sheep of 1880 and examining both its affiliation with and its departure from tradition at this particular juncture of time (1880s) and place (Shanghai), we will open a window allowing us to read its multisignification. In short, I would like to show that, on one level, Su Wu Tending Sheep is a narrative of the northern frontier, the physical boundary point at which international contacts occur and are addressed. On another level, it is a story with a strong nationalistic moral, serving as both repository and palliative for the Shanghainese's anxieties and fears about the fate of China and its culture. It is also a traditional locus of exile, offering a rich lexicon for feelings of displacement, alienation, nostalgia, and homelessness. Above all, perhaps, it is about a "foreign land," which offers a legitimate ground for taking pleasure in exoticism.
Ren Bonian and Shanghai in the 1880s
Ren Bonian was born into a minor merchant's family in Shanyin, or present-day Shaoxing, about one hundred miles south of Shanghai. His father, who died in 1861 during the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), had conducted a small grain-dealing business and worked on the side as a portrait painter. Unfortunately, much of the available biographical information concerning Ren Bonian is primarily anecdotal in nature, residing in a tangled skein of facts and inventions from early-twentieth-century sources. Of the numerous anecdotes, one related by the influential painter and art educator Xu Beihong (1894/95-1953) is among the most popularly known and circulated. (7) Xu heard this story from Ren's disciple Wang Yiting (1867-1938), the renowned entrepreneur, philanthropist, and painter. According to Xu's version, Ren Bonian first went to Shanghai after the death of his father in 1861. In order to make a living, he sold forgeries of works by the already famous painter Ren Xiong (1823-1857), who shared the same family name but was not a relation. One day, Ren Xiong happened to pass by Ren Bonian's street stall and espied a folding fan signed with his own name. He soon realized that it was a clever forgery, and out of curiosity promptly asked, "Who painted this?" "Ren Weichang (Ren Xiong)," replied Ren Bonian. "Who is Ren Weichang?" proceeded Ren Xiong. "He is my father's brother," readily answered Ren Bonian. "Do you know him personally?" persisted Ren Xiong. Ren Bonian became visibly annoyed by this strange customer, and Ren Xiong finally revealed his identity. Impressed by Ren Bonian's painting talent, Ren Xiong did not chastise the young artist for forging his work but instead arranged for him to study painting in Suzhou with Ren Xun (1835-1893), Ren Xiong's younger brother.
Most scholars voice reservations about the credibility of this story, due to the fact that Ren Xiong died in 1857, which is earlier than the advent of the Taiping Rebellion in the regions around Ren Bonian's hometown in 1861, the same year in which his father was killed. Thus, if Ren went to Shanghai after the death of his father, he surely would not have had a chance to encounter Ren Xiong there. Nevertheless, Ren Bonian's works themselves make it clear that he learned a great deal from Ren Xiong. Moreover, one of Ren Bonian's earliest works, Farewell at Dongjin, dated February 1868, depicts Ren Bonian and Ren Xun parting from friends by the river shore. The inscription reads: "[I] have sojourned in Ningbo for four years and am going to wrap my brush and follow my uncle Fuchang (Ren Xun) to Jinchang (Suzhou) ...." It thus appears entirely credible that he studied with Ren Xiong's brother, Ren Xun.
It was in fact in the winter of that same year, 1868, that Ren Bonian left Suzhou and moved to Shanghai. Although working primarily as a flower-and-bird painter at the beginning of his career, in an apparent attempt to make himself accepted and to forge connections Ren also painted many portraits of important figures in Shanghai art circles, including the painters Hu Gongshou (1823-1886) and Zhang Xiong (1803-1886). (8) In these works, Ren employed portrait-painting techniques probably learned from his father, adding to these Western shading techniques inspired by the wide variety of Western visual materials present in the dazzlingly international environment of Shanghai. As a result of this confluence of factors, by the 1880s Ren had become one of the most popular and distinctive painters in Shanghai, especially recognized for his figure paintings, ranging from portraits and depictions of historical tales to sketches of Shanghai street life. His gift for rendering physical likeness, combined with his keen observation of the outside world, endowed his figure paintings--both those based on fictional themes and portraits--with a striking sense of vividness and contemporaneousness. These characteristics are what make Ren's work a perfect text for reading the contemporary mentality of Shanghainese and the social ambience of their particular urban environment.
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In the 1880s, almost forty years after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing opened Shanghai, along with four other ports, to foreign powers, (9) Shanghai had become the most cosmopolitan city on Chinese soil. Indeed, by the 1870s, at least twenty foreign countries had been granted the right to maintain a presence in Shanghai. One finds in Ge Yuanxu's Miscellaneous Notes on Sojourning in Shanghai (Huyou zaji), a popular travelers' guide first published in 1876, for example, illustrations of fourteen national flags of countries active in Shanghai around this time. (10) Most notably, Shanghai accommodated one of the first and most important Western settlements in China. Including merchants, migrants, and foreign visitors drawn from every part of the globe, (11) Shanghai was among the most exciting and complex cities in the land. The prosperity arising from the city's engagement in the booming international trade created a new urban group with hegemony--the powerful gentry merchant class. (12) For this group in particular, the quest for novel entertainments and visual wonders--especially those of an exotic nature--had become an integral part of city life.
Viewing Ren Bonian's northern frontier paintings in light of the context of this multicultural environment, one is struck by how traditional the subject matter appears--that is, completely drawn from repeatedly told historical stories. Ren's choice of such themes will seem all the more unusual if we agree, as do most scholars, that his paintings were enthusiastically supported by the new merchant class (13)--people who fervently engaged in international trade, who went to see exhibitions of Western oil paintings, (14) who read a daily newspaper, (15) and who in some cases even learned to speak English. (16) Given the "modernity" of this group, (17) the question naturally arises: How are we to interpret the connections? Specifically, how do we explain the apparently eager consumption of this traditional historical subject matter coexisting with Shanghai's drastic socioeconomic changes?
The very popularity of Ren's northern frontier paintings provides a perfect paradigm for understanding Shanghai as a "contact zone." (18) By this phrase, I mean an environment in which inhabitants had the opportunity to fashion and refashion their identities, along with the choice of whether to transgress or abide by cultural boundaries. To put it another way, an analysis of why these traditional themes were so popular in a society overwhelmed by the pursuits of the exotic and the modern opens a window for an examination of how Shanghai residents conceived their city: as characterized, specifically, by its multicultural presence or, in their own words, "huayang zachu" (the cohabitation of Chinese and foreigner). (19) Further, it would also shed light on how the Shanghai residents lived in relation to their day-to-day encounters with the intercultural frontier, both physical and imaginary. One work in particular, Su Wu Tending Sheep of 1880 (Fig. 1)--with its highly evocative quality and remarkable deviation from traditional iconography--stands out as a perfect signifier of this process of rewriting and reinventing tradition in voicing the new needs of a new era.
Su Wu Tending Sheep
The hanging scroll Su Wu Tending Sheep dated the first day of the twelfth month of the genchen year (December 31, 1880) depicts the historical figure Su Wu (d. 60 B.C.E.), a statesman of the Han period, who was appointed by Emperor Wu (r. 140-87 B.C.E.) to serve as the Han's envoy on a peaceful diplomatic mission to the northern Xiongnu tribe. The mission failed, and the Xiongnu demanded that Su Wu surrender, which entailed that he renounce his loyalty to the Han. His refusal sealed his fate. He was banished to desolate Lake Baikal in Siberia to tend sheep for nineteen years. The Han historian Ban Gu describes Su Wu's loyalty and hardship in the Book of Han (Han shu), stating, "[Su Wu] held his envoy's staff as he tended the sheep, day and night, until all the tassels fell off," and, when Su finally returned to Han after the nineteen years' detention, "his hair and mustache were all white." (20) This description of a weary old man holding a battered and tassel-less envoy's staff became emblematic of Su Wu's image.
In Ren's painting, clinging to his envoy's staff--here, still hung with multicolored tassels--Su Wu rises monumentally from the bottom of the picture. While he is painted from the back, his head is turned toward the viewer. The unusually swollen or even somewhat distorted bulk of his right shoulder, which obscures the lower part of his cheek, subtly indicates the perspective, moving upward from the lower-left corner of the picture. This perspective, combined with Su's downcast eyes, broadened shoulders, elongated face with strong nose, and sweeping robe rendered in strong, angular strokes, makes the figure …