China’s first contact with the Bauhaus —
Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949)
The history of the Chinese acceptance of Bauhaus design precepts can be divided into an official and a folk way. Following the Westernization Movement at the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese government established the Jiangnan Manufacturing Bureau, the first national industrial institution in China, and began to introduce education in engineering design. However, other courses offerings, such as design, art and crafts, were still considered as supplementary coursework, not as educational content of any significance. During this time, the Tushanwan Orphanage, established in 1864, actually served as the earliest trial site for an internationalized art and craft education in modern China.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Cai Yuanpei’s concept had influenced the elite and the mass. Generally considered the father of twentieth century Chinese modern education, Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940) studied abroad in Leipzig and between 1907–1911 resided as a visiting scholar in Germany. There he was deeply affected by the ideas taught at the Humboldt-Universität Berlin1. During his tenure in Germany Yuanpei translated Friedrich Paulsen’s A System of Ethics and wrote the book The history of ethics in China. Upon his return, Yuanpei was appointed to be the head of the Education Ministry of the Chinese Republic, carrying out an experiment in “saving the nation through aesthetic education.” Professor Hang Jian once evaluated Cai Yuanpei’s contributions as follows:
“Cai Yuanpei’s concept of ‘aesthetic education’ is in fact today’s ‘design’ – made possible through the establishment of ‘materialism’ and ‘spiritual sensitivity’ since ‘beautiful objects’ are like the spring, wind and rain able to influence and vitalize their viewers in a silent but powerful way. This kind of education was especially important for Chinese people, who did not prescribe to any one religious preference.”2
Cai Yuanpei once cited the ideas of William Morris to expound on the relationship between art and society, as he believed that Morris’ call for eliminating the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft,’ and for the ‘artification’ of labor, came closer to the state at which art and society should be, a belief echoed by the leader of the Chinese reformist faction, Liang Qichao, who proclaimed in a speech at Peking University in 1922: “I believe that only through promoting aesthetic education can people begin to broaden their horizons, and free themselves from the constraints of their surroundings.”3 Thus it is evident that by the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals had already realized the possibility of propelling social reform through aesthetic education, in a manner not dissimilar to the ideas about art then in circulation within Germany.
It was through this experiment of “saving the nation with aesthetic education” that art and design education really began in China. Under Cai Yuanpei’s outspoken advocacy and support, China’s two earliest national art colleges – the National School of Fine Arts of Beiping (now the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing) and the Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou) – were founded. The purpose of such schools was “firstly, to promote aesthetic education within the educational realm; secondly, to provide teachers for middle and primary schools; thirdly, to improve the quality of manufactured products.” The National Hangzhou School of Art, formerly the National Academy of Art, was established under the direction of Yuanpei in 1928, who was still serving as Minister of Education at the time. The school, located in Luoyuan, Hangzhou, is the predecessor to the present-day China Academy of Art, and in its earliest phase included departments in pattern design, traditional Chinese painting, Western painting and sculpture. The department of pattern design was an early attempt at teaching design in China. By the period of the Republic of China (established in 1912), modern design education in China had already long been introduced at the National School of Fine Arts.