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A Left-Turn to Artistic Eccentricity: Gao Fenghan (1683–1749) and Disability Art in Eighteenth-century Yangzhou

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This dissertation investigates Gao Fenghan (1683–1749) and the development of his disability art and aesthetics in early modern China. Scholars have categorized Gao Fenghan (1683–1749) as one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, a group of artists who were active in southern China during the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and gained renown for rejecting the Beijing court’s orthodox painting style in favor of their own aesthetic choices. Among these artists, Gao earned fame because of his left-handed style, which he developed after the paralysis of his right hand. I argue that this disability enabled him to move beyond his early practice in the dominant literati style and generate his own artistic idiosyncrasy, which was popular in the Yangzhou art market that favored nontraditional art. Among Gao’s art, I particularly focus on his calligraphy because it especially reveals the development of how he made use of his disability in his art. I argue that his left-handed calligraphy adopted characteristics of archaic writing from ancient inscriptions on Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) steles from his native Shandong in northern China, which created the “raw, obstinate, rough, and awkward” aesthetic that he valued after his paralysis. Shandong, with its abundance of ancient steles, was a major source for epigraphic study that reached its maturity in northern China in the mid-eighteenth century. Previous scholarship on epigraphic study has focused on its role in the north but neglected its influence in the south, where eccentric artists like Gao drew upon Chinese cultural heritage while introducing stylistic innovations. Through examining Gao’s art and writings, this project demonstrates that he intended to create artworks that challenged traditional aesthetics, social values, and political structures. My project offers a new understanding of disability aesthetics rooted in Chinese culture, beyond the Eurocentrism of prior disability theory in art history. Through studying the development of Gao’s artistic style across media, geography, and abilities, I argue that Gao charted a path whereby artists with disabilities could express themselves and gain favor from arts patrons who increasingly appreciated artistic eccentricity.

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This item is under embargo until June 14, 2029.