Influence of Global Aesthetics on Chinese Aesthetics: The Adaptation of Moxie and the Case of Dafen Cun
Eva Kit Wah Man
Abstract This article examines the practice of moxie or imitation in art in Chinese
aesthetics, compares it with the Platonic notion of mimesis, and explicates its original meaning. I then trace its development from traditional painting
to the late Qing export paintings in which traditional Chinese aesthetics was
combined with Western perspectives to satisfy Western tastes. The discussion extends to the contemporary
development of moxie in China by
considering the case of Dafen Cun, an art village in Shenzhen that is famous
for its copycat art practices. It
explores how Dafen Cun has become a major exporter of copies of Western and
Chinese paintings and how its artists achieve techniques comparable to the
traditional methods of moxie while
losing its original spirit. The final
section reviews how global consumerism has exerted influences on moxie, which can only be justifiably
approached in respective cultural and historical contexts.
Keywords artistic self-nurturance, copying, export
paintings, global aesthetics, global manufacturing, linmo, mimesis, moxie
The notion of moxie (模寫) in traditional Chinese aesthetics
The significance of moxie in Chinese aesthetics can be traced back to Xie He’s “Six
Principles of Painting” articulated in the fifth century. The last of these principles is “to convey and
change by patterned representation,” which translated in simpler terms means
“to transmit by copying (moxie)” and,
in simpler terms yet, to “the copying of models.”
Even earlier than Xie, the celebrated fourth
century painter Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-406) used the word mo (摹) to mean tracing. Later, Zhang Yanyuan (c. 815-877), the late
Tang Dynasty art historian, scholar, and calligrapher, used the term ‘moxie’ to describe the process of
Whether copying as Xie saw it
incorporates Plato’s notion of simple imitation or the notion of mimesis in the
Aristotelian sense is open to debate, but it is generally agreed that in proposing
this last principle of painting, Xie was calling for vitality, a harmonious
manner, liveliness, technical proficiency, an aptitude for brushwork, form
likeness, coloration, and composition based on his assessments of early
painters’ works. When the principles are
read together, it becomes evident that Xie did not mean that artists should
merely reproduce the paintings of others.
The concept of moxie laid the foundation for the imitation of the style and works
of the old masters as a way to preserve the past and provide artistic
Different from the simple act of
copying, the process of moxie in
Chinese aesthetics was a necessary step in painting, particularly when a detailed
or complex work was involved. A draft
was required before formal transfer to the final work or medium. The completed final draft of a painting was
known as a “painting pattern” or simply as a “pattern.”
The history of painting records that
several methods were used to make this draft. One was direct tracing, that is, placing the
blank paper or silk for the painting over the pattern. The translucency of the
paper or silk made it possible to then trace the pattern. Another method was for the painter to hang the
pattern over a window and use the backlight for tracing or to use a table with
a translucent top and a lamp underneath. Gu Kaizhi described it in this way:
All those who are about to
make copies should first seek those essentials, after which they may proceed to
their business…When a copy is made on silk from silk, one should be placed over
the other exactly, taking care as to their natural straightness, then pressed
down without disturbing their alignment.
There were also numerous ways to adapt a
pattern, including the powder method. This involved applying a colored powder to the
back of the pattern, which was then placed on top of the painting. A pointed object made of bamboo or wood could
then be used to transfer the pattern onto the paper or silk. Another method was to pierce the final draft
with a fine needle, with the holes placed along the lines of the pattern, and
to then tap them with a powder bag. The
powder would pass through the holes and stick to the paper or silk underneath. The dots of powder were then linked together
to form lines, transferring the pattern for the formal painting. The patterns used for tracing were convenient
to preserve, and could be enlarged proportionally to a desired size. Records can be found of professionals known as tracing masters in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), who made copies of ancient
paintings and calligraphy.
Tracing was very common in traditional
Chinese art and craftsmanship, and it was practiced for a variety of reasons. One was to create a reproduction of the
original for personal use. Another was
to make a profit, with some individuals attempting to imitate the work of
famous masters with the intention to deceive.
Sometimes no deception or profit was involved. As a primary school student, for example, I
was asked to trace the calligraphy of Master Wang Xizi, placing copies of his
work underneath thin grass paper and tracing them on the paper. My copies were assessed on the basis of their
neatness and resemblance to the original. One of the more valuable reasons for imitating
or tracing the works of a master as a method of study was that it was a process
of transmitting, which was believed to be a very personal experience that
could enhance and transform one’s own artistic performance. Whatever the purpose, some learners were very
faithful in their imitation, whereas others added their own interpretations.
Is tracing or copying a practice that falls
under Plato’s imitation theory? In his
detailed discussion of the topic, Wang Keping posits that the Platonic notion
of imitation, for which he uses the term 'mimesis,' applies to painting above
all and so too does the Chinese notion of moxie;
both are used to indicate the technique of imitation. In
Wang’s analysis, Platonic mimesis adopts the idea of approximation and, like moxie, does not suggest a true copy. Though Plato regarded an image as an image and
art as an imitation of an imitation (of the truth), he did not require art to
possess the same qualities as the original. Three levels of reality are suggested in
Plato, the highest level being the original, reality, or metaphysical; the
second being the manifestation of the original in the world; and the third the representation
of the second level. Wang correctly
points out that these three levels of reality are in league with one another
(even though they are hierarchical in
being value judgments), and that artistic mimesis at its best exhibits
He concludes that Plato’s notion of
imitation or mimesis is never more than suggestion or evocation, and that art
simply bears a likeness or resemblance to the original. The meaning of art, for Plato, was to draw the
beholder’s attention and encourage him to search through appearance, or
artistic representation to find reality itself.
traditional Chinese aesthetics refers to linmo
(臨摹), which means imitating or copying the works of
well-known painters to learn from them. Those
who practice are akin to apprentices and they practice it to acquire basic
artistic skills, such as brushwork, composition, and the use of ink, strokes,
lines, color, shades, and blanks. The deeper meaning of linmo is to apprehend the significant forms of others to further
one’s own artistic development before it extends to xiezhao (寫照). Xiezhao (寫照) includes xiesheng (寫生)
and xiezhen (寫真), which mean to
engage the maturing painter in the direct portrayal of natural objects,
treating nature as the teacher.
Wang puts it beautifully in stating that
the deeper practice of xiezhao
involves finding the delicate features of physical objects, “exemplifying an
artistic sense of maturity and the aesthetic flavor of individuality.”
Yet it is said that linmo and xiezhao are
insufficient; the desired end is to produce xinhua (心畫), which are mind-inspired
paintings that may involve an affinity with nature and appropriate abstraction
and artistic inspiration to reach the state of nature.
This takes us into the metaphysical realm.
Wang summarizes the traditional Chinese
aesthetical discourse on the meanings of linmo,
and also categorizes them into three levels: first, learning from earlier masters by
tracing their masterpieces; second, learning from nature by drawing directly
from the natural landscape and living beings; third, learning from the spirit
of Heaven and Earth and creating mind-inspired paintings (xinhua) as a consequence. This
A painter learns eventually
from Heaven and Earth (yi tiandi wei shi),
intermediately from the natural landscape (yi
shanchuan wei shi), and initially from the old masters (yi guren wei shi).
In other words, tracing or linmo should only be a first step in the
exercise of artistic skills and composition, serving to develop a painter’s
aesthetic sensibility. A painter is
expected to be independent and free from the work he imitates. The aim is to develop his own artistic
excellency through the initial stage of linmo.
Traditional comments on linmo suggest that a true artist should demonstrate only a moderate
or adequate degree of likeness, not an excess.
to xiezhao constitutes the developmental
path of moxie, and the two are
interrelated points of departure from Plato’s notion of simple imitation in
art. As Wang puts it, moxie carries the sense of a gradation
of practices and meanings. Linmo refers to imitating the works of
the old masters to nurture painting skills, whereas xiezhao refers to portraying natural landscapes to improve artistic
expertise. Both are largely skill-oriented. Thus, the meanings of moxie range from imitation, representation, reproduction,
make-believe, and image-making to artistic creation.
The two traditional practices of linmo and xiezhao result, respectively, in linmohua (reduplicated paintings) and muhua (eye-perceived paintings), neither of which I pursue further
here. Wang has already presented a
detailed discussion and this paper centers on a case study of the later
development of reduplicated paintings in China under the influence of global
Echoes of these ideas can be found in the
enlightening remarks on painting made by the great painter Shih Tao (c.
1642-1707), who once described “the purity and uniqueness” of his brushwork as
individual, different, or even “unbalanced.” Shih’s well-known statement puts it best:
I am myself because ‘I’
naturally exist. The whiskers and
eyebrows of the ancients cannot grow on my face, nor can my body contain their
entrails. I express my own entrails and
display my own whiskers and eyebrows. Even
when there may be some point of contact with some master, it is he who comes
close to me, not I who am trying to become like him. Nature has endowed me thus. As for antiquity, how could I have learned
from it without transforming it?
The last reference I draw from to confirm
this attitude is a departure from the previous ones. It is the meaning of moxie echoed in the writings of the early literary critic Liu Xie
(c. 465-522), who recommended reading and imitating the literary conventions of
master writers and poets. By emulating
their style, he believed, authors could produce their own innovative and
exhilarating work. He said:
When a writer casts and
molds his work after the patterns of the classics, soars and alights in the
manner in which philosophers and historians have soared and alighted, and is
equipped with a profound knowledge of the ever-changing emotions and the
ability to display with a delicate touch styles suitable to them, he will be
able to conceive new ideas (sin yi)
and carve extraordinary expressions.
The development of moxie in late Qing
The traditional practice of moxie underwent tremendous changes in
Chinese export painting in the late Qing period. This term refers to a particular genre of
painting that was produced in large quantities in Guangzhou in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, when foreign trade flourished and foreign merchants
from all over the world converged on the city. The development of Chinese export painting
took place in the social and cultural context of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, when Guangzhou became the base for the production and distribution
of art works intended to be sold overseas. It is recorded that European and American
businessmen who did business in China were active primarily in the area of the
Guangzhou Shisanhang (the 13 markets
of Canton, as the city was then known), where the export art market also
thrived. In the mid-nineteenth century,
Tongwen and Jingyuan Streets in Guangzhou Shisanhang (十三行) were the two prime destinations for foreign visitors. The
shops there sold decorative calligraphy, art work, ceramics, and antiques. According to the travel guides of the day
written by Westerners, if a person wanted to do business in Guangzhou, he
needed to find a business associate of good repute (such as the Qing Dynasty
tycoon Houqua) and also a skillful portrait painter, such as Lamqua, to paint
his portrait. American missionary Samuel Wells Williams recorded seeing copied
paintings all over Guangzhou and the surrounding region:
There are many shops in Canton, Whampoa, and
Hong Kong, where maps and charts are copied, and a few where portraits are made.
Lamqua, who received instruction in
perspective from Mr. Chinnery, is the best known artist among the natives. Portraits, landscapes, and scenes are copied
in oil, in large quantities, priced from $3 to $100 a piece; pictures and
engravings are accurately copied, and some of the views and Chinese landscapes
are tolerably drawn.
Williams mentioned in his notes that the
painter Lamqua (林呱Kwan Kiu Cheong) was from
Nanhai in Guangdong Province. His
brother Tingqua (庭呱Kwan Luen Cheong) was also a
professional painter, specializing in gouache paintings. The two set up their studios in Tongwen
Street, and gained great acclaim among foreign customers, who were eager to
have them paint their portraits.
[See Figure 1.]
However, when Shanghai, Fuzhou, Xiamen, and
Ningbo officially opened their doors to the export artists, Guangzhou’s
privileges in this market disappeared almost immediately. The resulting exit of foreign businessmen
meant that the city’s painters lost their main source of income. The development of export paintings entered a
period of stagnancy and individual painters rarely had a personal signature. Painters as skilled as Lamqua became rare. At the same time, photography was becoming
increasingly popular, which prompted many art shops to switch to the business
of replicating enlarged portrait photos rather than painting portraits from
life. A natural result was fewer and
fewer artists with distinctive individual styles.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the
replicating phenomenon came under the influence of and subject to the
preferences of Western customers. Trade
between China and England increased from the middle of the eighteenth century
onwards, and Guangzhou (Canton) was initially the only port open to the West. Western traders commissioned albums of people
and scenes of daily life, attempting to capture every aspect of Chinese life
from birth to death to satisfy Western curiosity about the country. These albums were produced primarily for
export. Before photography arrived in
the 1840s, paintings were the only way that Western traders could show life in
China to their families and friends back home.
Fifteen categories of export paintings were classified in the Qing
period: (1) Canton harbor and the city
of Canton; (2) the costumes of emperors, empresses, officials, and commoners;
(3) street and marketplace occupations in Canton; (4) handicraft workshops in
Foshan; (5) Guangdong government offices, furnishings, and official
processional equipment; (6) punishments; (7) gardens and mansions; (8) religious
buildings and sacrificial arrangements; (9) the urging of people to stop
smoking opium; (10) indoor furnishings, plants, and birds; (11) the Ocean
Banner Temple; (12) scenes from dramas; (13) boats, ships, and river scenes in
Guangdong Province; (14) Beijing life and customs; and (15) Beijing shop signs. [See Figure 2.]
These paintings, usually produced in gouache
on pith paper, were executed in Chinese studios by a number of painters, each
specializing in one aspect, such as heads, clothing, trees, and so on. Tinqua
(c. 1809-1870) was
the best-known artist working
in Guangzhou in the nineteenth century. He and Youqua (fl. 1840-1870) were highly
prized for their exquisite detail, bright flat colors, and Western perspective.
Their styles had a charming naïveté and
their art practices were influenced by Western painters living on the south
coast of China in the first half of the nineteenth century, among them Chinnery, Thomas and William Daniell, Auguste
Bourget, William Prinsep, Thomas Watson, and Charles Wirgman. Chinnery’s sketches and oil paintings of Macau
and portraits of sea captains, important merchants, traders, and their families
give us a vivid picture of life in the area in the nineteenth century. The Chinese painters of the day followed
Western styles, adopted Western perspectives, and copied Western work, but they
also incorporated their own artistic choices and Chinese traditions where
appropriate.[See Figure 3.]
It is noteworthy that most Chinese export
paintings were executed in Western media and employed Western techniques. The effects of these Western aesthetic
qualities are demonstrated in many exemplary works, some of which are shown in Artistic Inclusion of the East and West:
Apprentice to Master, an exhibition presented by the Hong Kong Museum of
Art in 2011.
For example, paintings depicting the Tingqua’s
studio show painters from southern China sitting upright, each holding up a picture and trying
to imitate it with his paint brushes. Some
of them hold up a photograph or printed
copy of a Western masterpiece with one hand while using the other to trace the painting onto a piece of paper
for later transfer to canvas. Although
it is interesting to place the modern development of export painting within the
tradition of imitation among Chinese painters, there were many distinctions
between the artists who produced these works and their Western counterparts. An obvious distinction is how the two dealt
with space and lighting, which was well illustrated in the aforementioned
The paintings on exhibit showed that Western
painters emphasized outdoor sketching, whereas the export art painters, who
worked primarily in studios, are not recorded as having engaged in this
activity. Although Chinese and Western
painters both used canvas with a base of paint and plaster, the former
preferred to use water-based pigments with a thin coating. They also liked to use four small corks or
pieces of bamboo to fix the corners of their frames. Chinese
Painters Imitating, a painting from around 1800, illustrates the Chinese
style. In front of the artist is a
portrait of a half-nude Western female figure; he holds his paint brush as if
it is a Chinese writing brush, but he works with his eyes and hands.
on the Henan Canal was compared to Tingqua’s Temple in Henan, Guangzhou in the Hong Kong exhibition.
[See Figures 4 and 5.] Borget worked from a sketch in this painting,
whereas Tinqua rendered in great detail many aspects of the same landscape,
such as the dilapidated temple gates and the rocky shoreline, but retouched the
trees and water stream and made the dragon sculptures on the roof of the temple
more life-like. Of course, these
elements are indicative of the regular style and methods of a Chinese painter. There were a number of reasons for such
amendments, among them national pride and artistic principles as the painter
understood them and was bound to follow them.
The piece I enjoyed most was Receiving Guest by an unnamed export
painter. This painting was used for
comparison with Borget’s use of perspective.
[See Figure 6.] The painting invites viewers to explore a huge
garden as if from above. Although the
painter was indeed imitating, he was apparently sufficiently free to adopt the
overhead perspective in his work.
The late development of moxie in
Dafen Cun (大芬村)
The foregoing discussion makes it clear that
global consumerism exerted further influence on traditional Chinese aesthetics,
including moxie. We now turn to the most recent development of moxie in present-day China by
considering the case of Dafen Cun, or Dafen Village, an art village in
Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, which is famous for its copycat practices. This village is home to numerous art workers
who produce hundreds of cheap handmade copies of popular Western and Chinese
paintings with the aid of computer-generated images. They are created purely for consumption
purposes, like the commercial export paintings of the late nineteenth century. The difference is that the export paintings in
the late Qing Dynasty presented Chinese subjects to meet the interests of
Western customers, while Dafen Cun copies Western work of popular interest for
both Chinese and international customers. [See Figure 7.]
Fig. 7. Dafen Cun today. (Photo by author.)
Dafen Cun has become the largest producer of
imitation oil paintings in the world, a place where one can pick up an
imitation of Monet, Manet, or Matisse for less than US$20. Foreign visitors to Dafen usually justify
their consumption of such copied work as an affordable way to put good art up
in their homes. Officials
commend Dafen as a model of business
enterprise for the rest of the China to follow
because it receives very little governmental intervention or support.
Dafen began and has flourished as a
grassroots movement. Even its name,
which translates literally as “Da Vinci,” is a copy. The Dafen story reportedly began in 1988, when
Hong Kong painter and businessman Huang Jiang (Wong Kong), who specialized in
artistic reproductions, decided that the costs were too high in Hong Kong and
settled in the Dafen area. He was quickly
joined by dozens of talented artists from all over China who began to sell
copies around the world, thus inventing “the mass production of copies of art”
and giving birth to the Dafen Cun phenomenon.
Dafen was originally a Hakka village
with narrow streets and an area of 4 square kilometers. Today it is home to more than 600 galleries
and studios in which more than 5,000
painters and craftsmen live and operate. Some of them are real artists but more
of them are amateurs acting as copy technicians.
When I visited Dafen in April 2012, many
shops featured recruitment advertisements for inexperienced “technicians.”
Over the years, the paintings, calligraphy,
and sculptures created in Dafen Cun have come to be recognized as a kind of
brand both in China and abroad. The
production is cheap and efficient, and numerous retailers of art materials and
frames have joined the painters, studios, and galleries. Together they provide good prices and speedy service. In addition to individual customers, Dafen Cun
attracts buyers who represent property developers, hotels, and restaurants. These enterprises have increased the demand
for decorations because of the rapid economic growth of Shenzhen, China’s first
Special Economic Zone. There is also a
major export market for copies of Western and Chinese paintings and an internal
market comprising rich businessmen who want copies of traditional Chinese
artwork and masterpieces.
[See Figure 8.]
The character of Dafen has changed
considerably since the economic crisis of 2008, which dramatically reduced the
volume of exports. From being a place
dedicated to the mass copying of paintings, it has been transformed into a
mixture of art galleries, studios, bars, and tea houses with regular
exhibitions and art presentations. It
has also become one of Shenzhen’s main tourist attractions. The city government proudly announced these
figures in 2009: 5000 painters were
working in Dafen art village, producing one third of the world’s commercial oil
paintings. The announcement did not
differentiate between genuine work and copied work. The city government also touted the village’s 800
galleries. One foreign tourist visiting Dafen Cun gave
this lively account:
We went out of the village
proper, and entered a street, then climbed the stairs of one of the old, shabby
buildings. On the third floor there was
a small apartment where colors and dry and fresh paintings seemed, literally,
everywhere. Smell of turpentine and oil. There was everything: Canaletto, Picasso, Monet, Klimt, Van Gogh ….
The quality was not bad, and several works were far from contemptible .… 10
euros for a good reproduction of at least four feet [by] eight. Upstairs they sat me down in front of a
computer and served me a glass of oolong tea.
One of the sales staff was nice enough to
share photographs of some of the artworks they had recently produced. Would I be interested in a Gauguin, or
perhaps a Warhol print? Indeed both the
quality and volume of art on display were impressive. The catalogs captured hundreds if not
thousands of diverse styles and subjects using different styles and in various
media… All of the works were copies, but they could create a painting out of a
favorite photograph for a price of 80 dollars.
There is a market for original art in Dafen,
but most of the village’s business is
geared to foreign buyers and art dealers asking for imitation art and Chinese
customers asking for duplications in the traditional Chinese style.
How do the art workers of Dafen imitate? When I visited the village I witnessed scenes
very similar to those of the studios of Lamqua and Tinqua in the late
nineteenth century, the only difference being that the models for imitation are
now mostly computer-generated photographs and images. Although customers sometimes provide photos,
copies of originals are usually acquired from websites, particularly the
paintings of famous masters. The
painters of Dafen Cun stand or sit for many hours working diligently with their
hands and eyes, while the images they are copying are stuck on a wooden board
or held in their hands. The painters are
trained to copy by hand. Although
tracing may sometimes still be involved and accomplished in ways both similar
to and different from the traditional methods of linmo, artistic aspirations are not involved. [See Figure 9.]
These art workers do not imitate for their
own artistic development, nor do they make attempts at appropriation or the
demonstration of national pride, as did the Chinese painters of export art in
the nineteenth century. These earlier
painters incorporated Chinese aesthetic ideals and effects into Western styles,
compromising Chinese styles at the request of Western customers. At Dafen Cun, I watched a painter mark out an
area of canvas for coloring, from time to time checking the photograph he kept
at hand. He did this exactingly and
faithfully, aiming at verisimilitude but with no artistic spark in his eye. No elevation of the country’s artistic level
can be read into this act of imitation. [See Figure 10.]
Fig. 9. A Dafen Painter at work. (Source:
photo taken by author)
Fig. 10. Dafen Painters at work. (Source:
photo taken by author)
Visitors’ responses to Dafen Cun can be
critical, as this fairly typical judgment shows:
Creators of original
artworks, artisans of both traditional and contemporary visual art forms [who
have] dedicated their lives to the pursuit of original artistic expression,
[refuse] to succumb to the mass manufacturing revolution in Dafen that has
typified China’s resurgence in the global economy.
Influence of global aesthetics on Chinese aesthetics: adaptation of moxie
Paul Crowther argues that in an era of
accelerating global consumerism, techniques arise that favor the mass
reproduction of images. These
developments have suppressed the normative dimension of aesthetics by a
consumerist sensibility, tending toward cultural mediocrity.
This sensibility seems to have infused
Dafen Cun from the very beginning. As
Crowther suggests, in the process of selling copied art and effectively
implementing large-scale marketing strategies, Dafen Cun has overlooked key
questions of ontology, aesthetic experience, and cultural excellence, at least
where moxie is concerned.
The key questions with which Crowther
concerns himself are articulated in his discussion of mimesis. He states that the sensory or imaginative
vividness of mimesis represents its objects as if they were immediately
present, and thus there is no need to bring in an aesthetic. However, he stresses that the work qua
representation must also be understood as having some differences from that
which it represents. This is reminiscent
of the discourses on moxie in Chinese
aesthetics. These discourses refer to the different levels of understanding,
including ontological and metaphysical realizations, that are involved in
cognitive proximity to and distance from the represented object.
Crowther believes that there is a formative
power at work in and through the sensible or imaginative particularity of the
It is here that we are reminded of the
three levels of learning in moxie,
i.e., learning from the great masters about artistic choice and skills;
learning from nature by drawing directly from the natural landscape and living
beings; and learning from the spirit of Heaven and Earth and creating
mind-inspired paintings as a consequence. These levels of learning correspond to
Crowther’s cultural excellence, aesthetic experience, and ontology, and
constitute the intrinsically valuable experiences he mentions. The expectation in mimesis, and in moxie, is that the mimetic power of
aesthetic embodiment manifests itself in ontological experience and cultural
excellence. In Crowther’s words, belief
in the ritual potency (of moxie) is
enabled by its aesthetic power.
Hence, even if the copying techniques in
places such as Dafen Cun are highly sophisticated, the result is little more
than forms of resemblance.
What went wrong in
the development of moxie under the
influence of globalization? It is
generally understood that the rise of capitalism and marketing has been
accompanied by the addition of aesthetic qualities to products of technology so
as to attract customers and for reasons of surplus.
Aesthetic appeals are coupled with
cults, religion, politics, and now economics to legitimate the consumption, and
these appeals are often confused with art, which is reduced to aesthetic
As Aleksandar Cuckovic put it so well, the
way in which art was replaced allowed the free dissemination of
artifacts with all kinds of dubious aesthetic values. He says this creation often led to the
mass-production of kitsch as the final result.
Art is mixed with the ready-made and
aesthetic experience with daily experience. People’s aesthetic appetite is dulled and true
art is replaced by, for example, the technology-aided copying methods employed
in Dafen Cun. The mass production of
kitsch here is imitative.
Copied art produces a feeling of
distance from the original work and the real aesthetic experience that it
created, and the aesthetic content present in these imitated works of art does
not correspond to their true aesthetic value, as Cuckovic correctly suggests. [See Figure 11.]
Fig. 11. Work by
Dafen painters. (photo taken by author)
Gregory Currie draws
a distinction between forgery and fakery. The former consists of free invention whereas
the latter is based on replication, as in the case of Dafen Cun.
The term ‘fake art’ has negative
connotations, carrying the implication of deception. The artists of Dafen Cun produce more fake art
than forged art, not because they are unable to freely invent but because of
customer demand and the dictates of the market. The Shenzhen government is proud of the work
that the art village produces, though not because it constitutes fakery or is
meant to deceive. Rather, the government
praises the work because the act of copying has a long tradition in China and
is regarded as a road to real artistry in Chinese aesthetics. The genuine meanings of moxie are neglected, as is the realization that the road from
imitation and copying to real artistry is now blocked or diverted for other
reasons or purposes. The Shenzhen
government leaves aside the question of international copyright or “certified
copy” (which a future, extended version of this article will explore). It sponsors the Dafen artists to demonstrate
their copying skills internationally and as it did during the World Expo 2010
in Shanghai. These artists are also
representatives of public art education in the city. [See Figure 12.]
Fig. 12. Official
photo of Dafen painters in training course.
at the World Expo are in praise of Dafen Cun and refer to it in the context
of China’s economic positioning:
agglomeration was the perfect combination of the urban village being open to
ideas as well as the urgent space demands required by [the] vast industrial
expansion during China’s rapid urbanization.
This reminds us of
Cuckovic’s point that the mechanism and surpluses of capitalism are invested in
further production, leading to the development of the economies of scale and
the spreading of distribution, with global communications infrastructure to
The city attributes the artistic
achievements of Dafen Cun not to the artists who work there but to government
support, which is regarded as key to the village’s rapid integration into the
urban fabric of the surrounding city.
It is obvious that Shenzhen has expanded
Dafen’s “industrial ecology” and values its contribution to producing an
innovative urban culture. This art
village is read as “a promising sustainable urban development for China’s rapid
urbanization.” The Dafen promotional
brochure makes explicit Dafen’s role in the globalization of art. Dafen’s oil paintings, like other
mass-produced commodities, can be shipped to places around the world in
containers. It is because of this capability that Dafen was instantly
transformed from an obscure Hakka village to a crucial production link in the
chain of global manufacturing.
This development, at
least, is one that the country can strongly endorse. Meanwhile, some classically trained artists
in China today continue to learn by copying the work of the masters with the
aims of artistic self-nurturance and development. This runs
parallel to the copycat craze of art villages like Dafen Cun. Wang Keping’s expanded reading seems
particularly apt in the three developmental phases of moxie of Chinese art including the practice in Dafen Cun:
[The] Chinese notion of moxie and the Platonic notion of mimesis are culturally specific
rather than universal, disregarding their seemingly shared aspects in imitation
or duplication at the elementary levels … They could be justifiably approached
and understood only when they are placed in their respective cultural contexts.
Professor Eva Kit Wah Man received her Ph.D from Chinese University of Hong Kong in Chinese studies. She is currently the Head and Professor of the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing of Hong Kong Baptist University. She has published numerous articles in refereed journals, creative prose writings and academic books in philosophy and aesthetics.
Published on November 7, 2013.
 Susan Bush and
Hsio-yen Shih (compilers and editors), Early
Chinese Texts on Painting. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985),
 Katharine Burnett,
“Through Masters’ Eyes: Copying and Originality in Contemporary Chinese
Landscape Painting,” in Shanshui in
Twentieth Century China, ed. Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing
House (Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House, 2006), pp.
317-334; ref. on p. 318.
 Keping Wang,
“The Platonic Mimesis and the Chinese Moxie,” Diversity and Universality in
Aesthetics: International Yearbook of Aesthetics, 14 (2010), (Beijing:
Institute of Philosophy, CASS, 2010), 213-232; ref. on 213.
 Qichang Dong, “Hua
chan shi sui bi (Essays on the Painting of Zen)” in Zhong guo meixueshi ziliao xuebian (Selected Sources of the History of Chinese Aesthetics) vol. 2., ed.
Peking University Department of Philosophy, (Bejing: The Commercial Press,
1981), ref. on 147.
 Wang, after
reading the notes of famous painters Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, came up with
this conclusive suggestion. See Wang, p. 227, note 34.
 Katharine Burnett,
“Through Masters’ Eyes: Copying and Originality in Contemporary Chinese
Landscape Painting,” in Shanshui in
Twentieth Century China, ed. Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing
House (Shanghai: Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Publishing House, 2006), pp.
317-334; ref. on pp. 322-323.
Tao, “Enlightening Remarks on Painting” (Pacific Asia Museum Monographs, no.1),
trans. Richard E. Strassberg (Pasadena, CA: Pacific Asia Museum, 1989), p. 65.
 Liu Xie, “Wenxin
diaolung” (“Wind and Bone”), in The
Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons: A Study of Thought and Pattern in
Chinese Literature, trans. Vincent Yu-chung Shih (Taipei: Chung Hwa Book
Co., Ltd., 1970), p. 230.
 See Samuel Wells
Williams, The Chinese Commercial Guide
(Hong Kong: A Shortrede & Co., 1863).
George Chinnery lived in Macau from 1825 until his death in 1852. Thomas and William Daniell were also
well-regarded Western artists. They
visited Guangzhou in 1785. A number of
other painters who worked in oils or watercolors worked alongside Chinnery. They include Auguste Bourget, a well-known
French artist who lived in China and Macau from 1838 until the 1840s; William
Prinsep, who had studied drawing under Chinnery in Calcutta; Thomas Boswell
Watson, who was Chinnery’s doctor; and Charles Wirgman, who was the official
illustrator and reporter for The Illustrated London News and was based in Hong
Kong for four years from 1859, making several forays into China. Ibid.
Kong Museum of Art, “Artistic Inclusion of the East and West: Apprentice to
Master” (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2011).
 An example is the
comparison made between the painting Temple
on the Henan Canal, Guangzhou drawn by Borget and the painting of the same
title attributed to Tingqua. Ibid., p. 27.
 See the portrait
entitled, Chinese Artist Copying, Ibid., p. 22.
9. A Dafen painter at
work (photo taken by author).
10. Dafen painters at
work (photo taken by author).
11. Work by Dafen
Painters (photo taken by author).
12. Official photo of Dafen painters in
training course, from Shenzhen City Planning and National Resources Committee,
Dafen in Shenzhen, The Regeneration of an Urban Village (World Expo 2010)
(Shenzhen: Urbanus, 2010), p.16.