In the early 20th century, China, under the influence of the West, also began undertaking ethnological surveys. Some popular illustrated magazines began printing pictures depicting the lives of minority groups and introducing their customs and festivals. After the War of Resistance against Japan started in 1937, China's West became the new center of government. Great advances were made in ethnological research on the people of this region, whose handiwork also became the focus of numerous museum exhibitions. Artists who had gone abroad to study oil painting followed the schools that employed them to China's West, where they had the opportunity to observe the lives of minorities on-site in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Tibet. As a result of their Western training, frontier life became suitable subject matter for them. Some artists' works, in their selection of scene, perspective and content, resembled the Western “Orientalist” works of the mid-19th century, though the artists themselves never admitted this in writing. European Orientalist works were in fact readily available for viewing and analysis while these artists studied in the West. Thus their depictions of minorities may be seen as an outgrowth of their studies in Europe.
Some thought-provoking questions about this phenomenon include: was these artists' understanding of the “Orientalist” strain of Western art limited to emulating its form? Or were they able to delve into its cultural significance but chose instead to execute works that may be described as a kind of formalistic substitution or cultural metonymy? When Chinese artists chose this subject matter, was it a pure expression of the “depiction from life” idea, an emulation of a Western style done in ignorance of its significance, or did they intend to convey both the background differences between Chinese and barbarian and a “Greater Chinese” consciousness?
In this essay I discuss the wartime works of Pang Xunqin and Wu Zuoren to elucidate various factors that affected how images of China's minorities were expressed and interpreted: esthetic considerations, the blending of Chinese and Western artistic traditions, political policies, and artists' relations with high officials. If we consider these artists' accomplishments with a view to understanding how they combined Western and Chinese techniques, we find that Wu Zuoren still used as his starting point the techniques of oil painting. Wu's works directly convey to the viewer a positive image of a beautiful frontier, which suddenly functioned as the “new center” and an important supply source for China during World War II. Through these paintings, a Chinese viewer would see not only what he or she would consider “exotic” but also a utopian realm unlike that of the rest of the war-torn country. No wonder people thought they represented the reappearance of beautiful landscapes, a redefinition of Chinese territory, an indicator of “the Sinicization of Western painting.” Pang Xunqin, on the other hand, was limited by the availability of materials and had to pick up once more the methods of traditional Chinese painting. However, his paintings, compared with Wu's, are subdued in tone, and the people he depicted seem to be uniformly emotionless—to the point that one official criticized the paintings as “injurious to the nation's prestige.” Ironically, Pang's works attracted Western buyers at the time.