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Asian studies week challenges Chinese art stereotypes

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JL1Dr. Burnett’s presentation not only exposed students to the Chinese culture and arts, but it also challenged their modes of thinking of those very works. (Dr. Katharine Burnett)For most college students, the concept of Chinese art is anything stamped with the words “made in China.” China is thought of as a distant overseas land, which magically sprouts bootleg DVDs and knockoff designer sunglasses and handbags.
In her efforts to change Western misconceptions about Chinese art, and Chinese culture in general,  Dr. Katharine P. Burnett visited USA on February 26 to deliver a talk entitled “Speculations on Why Originality Can’t Be a Traditional Chinese Value (When It Is).” Her lecture was a part of the ongoing events at USA to celebrate Asian Studies Week.
Dr. Burnett, who is a professor of Chinese Art History at the University of California, Davis, delivered an enlightening speech. Her focus is primarily upon art criticism and theory during the seventeenth century, an era in time when China reinvented itself dynamically on many levels, but one cannot fairly critique Chinese art from any period without first understanding how Western views affect our understanding of the culture.
Many Westerners tend to dismiss Chinese art, in general, as lacking originality, because the same themes and subjects tend to appear often in Chinese art. While there is a tradition of copying in Chinese art history, Chinese culture defines “copying” differently than the Western world. Copying was merely used as a technique for learning how to paint, but it is the “qi” of a painting (the difference or an artist’s own interpretation of the subject matter) that makes each piece unique.
Sophomore visual arts major Samantha Harris finds Chinese art a difficult subject to understand.
“I can appreciate each work of art for its beauty and technique, but it’s hard to find “originality” in each piece when you see the same subjects, places, and people pop up over and over again.”
According to Dr. Burnett, this attitude is not uncommon.
“In the early 1920s, we see the establishment of the Communist Party of China. The May Fourth Ideology, which promotes collectivist thinking, assigned a set of values that the Chinese people were supposed to follow. Communism denounced originality,” she said. “As a result, Chinese art, as a whole, began to be viewed as feminine, passive and conforming. These stereotypes remain firmly in place today.”
There is no doubt that Chinese art, just like the culture, is nuanced, layered and multi-faceted. As Westerners, we hold many misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese culture, and often, we do not realize we do so until the subject, like Chinese art, is addressed directly. Education is going to provide the path to enlightenment.
Students who wish to learn more about Asian culture or the Asian Studies Program at South should contact the International Studies Department.

Written by Aldyn Miller | Contributing Writer

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