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(Boston) — Boston University Professor Qianshen Bai has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write the first comprehensive, book-length account in any language of the political career, scholarship, and artistic life of 19th century Chinese “literartus” Wu Dacheng. Although Wu was a pre-eminent cultural and political figure in the waning days of imperial China, little has been written about the artist who led armies as a civilian official.
“I am very grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation and greatly honored by this award,” said Bai, one of 185 artists, scholars, and scientists chosen from more than 3,200 applicants for Guggenheim Fellowships in 2004. “Based on an investigation of the art and collections of Wu Dacheng and his friends, I will attempt to unfold and flesh out the relationships that prevailed between art and politics in nineteenth-century China.”
Wu (1835-1902) is a pivotal figure in Chinese art history as a bridge between the art of the literati era of scholar/officials and that of the Shanghai School of painting, which many scholars have used to study the transition to modernity in late imperial China. Although the literati class disappeared early in the 20th century, its artistic cultural legacy remains integral to Chinese national identity.
Focusing on Wu, Bai’s book will track the historical courses of the decline of literati art in the context of tumultuous domestic and international changes, and the new era of Chinese art that emerged in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bai will spend part of next year in Asia researching and writing.
Fittingly, Bai also has a background that mixes politics and art. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Peking University in 1982, teaching the history of political institutions in China, before heading to Rutgers University in 1986 to work on a Ph.D. in comparative politics. He planned to return to China to teach political science, but abruptly terminated that track in 1989 because of the Tiananmen Square event, returning to his earlier love of art — having studied Chinese art since his youth and won a national calligraphy competition while an undergraduate. A University Fellowship at Yale led him to an art history Ph.D. in 1996. He taught at Western Michigan University before joining the Boston University faculty in 1997 as an assistant professor of Asian art. Bai is the current director of undergraduate studies at the university’s Department of Art History.
Wu was an eminent scholar, collector, artist, patron, and senior government official, serving as governor of Guangdong and Hunan provinces. He led Chinese armies to defend China’s northern border during the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-95, but was stripped of official titles after China was defeated and Taiwan was ceded to Japan. He returned to his hometown of Suzhou where he established one of the earliest painting societies in modern China, conducted groundbreaking paleographical studies, created numerous important artworks of calligraphy and painting, and assembled a massive collection of art and antiquities.
Bai said the Guggenheim grant both makes his new book project possible and recognizes his extensive earlier works, which include Bai’s recent book, “Fu Shan’s World: The Transformation of Chinese Calligraphy in the Seventeenth Century,” and three art books published in Chinese. In addition, Bai organized groundbreaking U.S. exhibitions of Chinese art in 1990 and 1992 and has lectured widely in Asia and America.
Bai made an early name for himself in the art world while still studying political science as an undergraduate at Peking University. The publication in 1982 of his first article, “On the Aesthetic Character of Chinese Calligraphy,” sparked a trend by Chinese conceptual artists of creating non-character calligraphy, which looks like Chinese writing but cannot be read as linguistic entities.
“I wish that the product of my current research will meet the expectation of the Guggenheim Foundation and those who recommended me for this prestigious award,” said Bai, who has been studying the life and times of Wu Dacheng for more than a decade.
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation was established in 1925 by U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife as a memorial to a son who died in 1922. It offers fellowships to further development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions. Since 1925, it has granted more than $230 million in fellowships to more than 15,500 individuals.
Boston University is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States, with an enrollment of more than 29,000 students in its 17 schools and colleges. The university offers an exceptional grounding in the liberal arts, a broad range of programs in the arts, sciences, engineering, and professional areas, and state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research.