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The New Look of Mountains and Rivers: Landscape and the Imagining of Socialist China during The Seventeen Years Period (1949-1966)


As the most dominant subject matter in the history of Chinese art, landscape representation has undergone many alternations in its form, theme, function, and context of application since its emergence as an independent artistic genre in the tenth century. For a long time, this subject of art has favored the portrayal of mountains and rivers as the key visual motifs for self-cultivation or meditation. However, during the nation-building era of the People's Republic of China in the 1950s and the early 1960s, landscape depictions began to characterize a new visual and spatial-temporal order, earning what official art critics of the time called "the New Landscape." Prior scholarship tends to consider such representations as the by-products of contemporary cultural policies, resulting in very little research that critically investigates the visuality of those images and their functions as an instrument for shaping viewers' conceptions and interpretations of the public image of their nation-state.

This dissertation examines the function of the New Landscape as a site for political imagining during the art historically overlooked period known as "The Seventeen Years" (1949-1966) of the People's Republic of China. Unlike most scholarship which primarily examines the era's depiction of landscape within the medium of Chinese ink painting, I investigate it across different visual media and textual sources, under the critically understudied angle of imagining. This work examines the New Landscape by major art producers—including, but not limited to, painters from the Jiangsu Traditional Chinese Painting Institution in Nanjing, woodcut artists from the nation's collective farm in Beidahuang, and filmmakers of the Changchun Film Studio in Changchun. By critically investigating how the visual construction of their landscape arts connected to the political interpretation of the spatiality and temporality of the state's history surrounding the portrayed site, my research argues that the New Landscape served to reconfigure viewers' conceptions of the revolutionary past, socialist present, and communist future of the Chinese state. Thereby, the New Landscape served as a public art for managing the vision and the political envisioning of the viewers during the arduous process of Chinese socialist nation-building. This research intervenes in Chinese art history through its strong emphasis on the connections between landscape representation and political imagining, illuminating how the depiction of space in art could trigger affective responses in the viewer in the context of nation-building.

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