Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Arts Section of the Classified Catalogue of Japanese and Chinese Books

We can get a detailed understanding of available books by examining the collection catalogues. The library published its first classified catalogue in 1918 and every few years thereafter brought out additional volumes to account for its expanding collection and make it more easily searchable for the library users. Click here to see the classified catalogue of books in the arts, industry, and home economics sections acquired between 1918 and 1927.

Now, let us look at the 800 Arts section of the catalogue. This rather mundane classification of books into subsections, designed to improve access to information, largely followed the categorization scheme developed for the Imperial Library in the Meiji period. It reflected hierarchies between the genres and mapped out the boundaries of painting very loosely along geographic (but not necessarily ethnic) lines.

The subject headings in the Arts section of the Japanese and Chinese language books (Wakan tosho) catalogue contains the following subheadings:

The 810 subsection for Calligraphy and Painting contains the following subheadings:

The library's categorization does not include a subheading named “tōyōga,” which was the word Guo Xuehu used to describe one kind of painting he was studying at the library. The word tōyōga has appeared in publications in Japan in the Meiji period to compare and distinguish East Asian painting from its Western counterpart, seiyōga (also known as yōga). In fact, the subheading 812/813 encompasses Japanese and Chinese painting and corresponds to tōyōga. Section 8137, a subsection of 813, includes Chinese painting, Southern School, Northern School, and Literati Painting. The few books on Korean painting in the catalogue can also be found under the 812/813 subject heading.

The term tōyōga evokes the spatial category of “the East.” Stefan Tanaka has argued that tōyō, understood as China's past, was Japan's version of the “Orient,” or the uncivilized Other. He demonstrated how historian Shiratori Kurakichi (1865-1942), by strategically stressing similarities and differences between Japan and tōyō, succeeded in constructing a history of Japan that situated it within the framework of world history and elevated it as a modernized country in contrast to China, “a troubled placed mired in its past” (Tanaka 1993, 4).

Similarly, artists and critics in Meiji and Taishō period Japan, faced with the cultural imperialism of oil painting made in the West and with western Orientalism, responded with their own discourse on Japanese and East Asian art. This discourse aimed to prove the value and modernity of East Asian art, with Japan's art at its center. Japan's own Orientalism elevated selected genres of pre-modern East Asian art, while at the same time paying little heed to contemporary artistic production in colonized areas such as Korea and Taiwan. The attitudes towards Chinese art were more complex. In the 1920s and 1930s, artists from Japan and China organized a series of exhibitions together (Wong 2006). At the same time, they also competed with each other to represent East Asia through exhibitions in Europe and the USA (Su 2021). (For more discussion of tōyōga and nihonga in relation to Guo Xuehu's paintings see here). The inclusion of Japanese and Chinese painting under the same subheading gestures to this competition.

It is important to clarify that the category of seiyōga encompassed both paintings produced by European artists as well as works in oil and watercolor by Japanese artists. Thus, the distinction between tōyōga/nihonga and seiyōga was one of medium and widely conceived artistic traditions or “schools” rather than a geographic designation or a label referring to the artist’s ethnicity or national origins. In a world where the access to art knowledge was growing globally and the differences in art education would shrink considerably in the decades to come (notice how Guo Xuehu points out the “dozens of thousands of people” as his potential art teachers in the library), policing regional differences became an increasingly complex undertaking.

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