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Pan Tianshou 潘天寿 (1897-1971)


Pan Tianshou 潘天寿 (1897-1971).   Born in Ninghai county, Zhejiang province.   Ink Painter of landscapes and bird-and-flower subjects. President of the National Art Academy from 1943-49 and 1959-66.



One of the most admired painters and art educators of the twentieth-century China, Pan argued for preserving Chinese painting and calligraphy as distinct categories within the curriculum of China’s art academies.   Early in his career he was mentored by the famous Shanghai-based painter Wu Changshuo.   In 1926, he published the first modern history of Chinese painting.   In 1928, he began a life-long association with the National Art Academy in Hangzhou as a faculty member and administrator.   He became president when the academy moved to Chongqing to escape the Japanese invasion during World War II.   After Communist rule was established, he was demoted and asked to completely change his painting style to conform to Socialist Realism. He spoke out against these policies in a published article, entitled “Who says Chinese painting must die out?” in 1957.


In the aftermath of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, traditional Chinese painting returned to favor and his presidency of the art academy was reinstated.   During the Great Leap Forward campaign, he resisted efforts to turn the art academy into a factory. During the early 1960s, he devoted himself to making grand-scale paintings of bird-and-flower and landscape subjects.


Pan TIanshou   (1897-1971),
teaching 1961




His career rose to new heights when Kang Sheng, Mao’s powerful security official and himself a connoisseur of traditional painting, handpicked Pan to exhibit his recent work in a one-man show. This widely-acclaimed  exhibition opened in Beijing and traveled to Hong Kong.   Pan’s celebrity became a curse once the pendulum swung back towards radicalism.   Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, claimed that Pan’s paintings were dark and sinister. She sought to impose a new requirement that Chinese ink painting must be painted almost entirely in red to symbolize enthusiasm for revolution.   Pan showed his profound opposition to this restrictive policy by painting a dramatic plum tree drenched in ink during the spring of 1966.   It was the last large painting that he ever created.   During the Cultural Revolution, activists marked out the painting with a big “X” and displayed it as evidence of Pan’s alleged counter-revolutionary intentions. He was demoted from president to trash-collector.


His health declined dramatically during the three years that he was incarcerated.   His hair turned completely white.   He wrote confession statements and kept a diary.   In 1969, a former student who was now allied with the radicals arranged for Pan to be humiliated on the grounds of his former school in his hometown.   At the age of 72, Pan was forced to parade through the streets on a cold January day wearing a placard labeling him a spy and a reactionary.   On the train ride back to Hangzhou, he picked up a cigarette wrapper from the floor.    He wrote three poems responding to the day’s indignities.   One of them included this line: “This cage does not feel narrow to me.   My mind is as wide as Heaven and Earth.”   Friends say that he never recovered from the emotional distress that he suffered that day.   He was released from prison in 1970 and died soon afterwards.