2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Reason for the Nude: Questions Concerning Nude Figure Drawing in China at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

Fang-cheng Wu

Graduate Institute of Art Studies, National Central University

When Western painting was introduced to China, representation of the human body was perhaps the area most capable of provoking tensions between the individual and the collective. Such tensions had two sources. The first was the tension between the nude and the naked within Western painting itself. To prevent visual representation of the human body from becoming merely erotic, this representation had to follow certain pictorial conventions that had been collectively constructed. The fact that representation of the human body lay at the heart of Western painting did not necessarily entail it becoming the heart of Chinese Western-style painting. Thus, once Western-style representation of the human body reached China, a second tension was created through the change of cultural context.

China’s contacts with the modern West occurred rather early, and the process of accepting Western painting was gradual.  The problem of wholesale transplantation did not arise, since this process was also selective. Because Chinese painting did not have a tradition of representing nude figures, the transmission of Western figure painting into China was unusually difficult. In the first years of the twentieth century, the allure of Western-style figure painting first entered the realm of commercial art along with photography. Since it occupied an area connected with material desire, rationales had to be found for its existence in order to prevent it from being suppressed by moralists. These rationales were attached to the concept of progress, at a time when society was obsessed with catching up with the West, and the representation of the nude was fashioned as a marker of civilization. China’s earliest art academies could no longer avoid the issue of representing the nude in art education.

While the struggle continued over the legality of nude figure painting, attention began to focus on the methods used by art academies in China to teach Western painting. On the one hand, the schools claimed that the representational methods they taught represented the orthodoxy of the West, while on the other hand they used this to distinguish themselves from purveyors of commercial art, which made it easier to push the latter out of the sphere of competition. Meanwhile, Chinese art academies organized associations that maintained close ties with the officialdom and made use of their semi-official status to put the stamp of “academic” authority and “public opinion” on their discourse concerning the nude. They also utilized art periodicals, essays, and public exhibitions to strengthen the effectiveness of their discourse. As a practical matter, the art academies’ reconstruction of the “sketching from life” concept was not easy, because the academic nude was something for which China still lacked a foundational graphic system. Therefore, early academic nude drawings still bore a pronounced “copied” quality and were probably derived from printed illustrations of Western academic drawings.

These methods could not, over the long term, exclude commercial art. When students left the art academies and tried to make a living in commercial art, the situation became more complex. When the only difference between fine art and non-fine art is the subject matter, and when practitioners of fine art do not have absolute authority to exclude other sources of reference, the borderline between fine art and applied art becomes blurred again. Through repeated border-crossing among painters, Chinese Western-style painting gradually drew closer to the West, and nudes were always the best tool for painters to test these boundaries.


Key words: the nude and the naked, pictorial conventions, commercial art, photography, art academies, public opinion, sketching from life, border-crossing