CAFA REVIEWS ZHENG JIN - Who was Zheng Jin? —The Predecessor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Improvements of the Chinese Art Education System

As the first event of the Centennial Celebration of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the CAFA History Hall, which was restored as the main entrance of the National Beijing Art School, was officially opened on April 1, 2018. As a finale for the celebration, “Zheng Jin and Modern Chinese Art Education” is exhibited at the CAFA Art Museum. The exhibition is presented with two clues: documentary and works for discussion on Zheng Jin’s oeuvre. The internal line of the three sections of “Who was Zheng Jin”, “Civilian Education” and “Residence in Macao” are Zheng Jin’s life trajectory. From the establishment and development of the Beijing Art School, and after that he carried out civilian art education in Ding County, Hebei Province, and later he lived in Macao and was devoted to painting; the external line concentrated on the 26 classic works by Zheng Jin, including the “Fox” and “Magnolia and Peacock” since the 1920s to the last piece in his life which was entitled “Luo Shen (Goddess of the River Luo).” The gallery on the fourth floor of the CAFA Art Museum has limited space, but it reflects the ordinary as well as the glorious life of the artist Zheng Jin.

A hundred years ago, Zheng Jin, the first Principal of the Beijing Art School, the predecessor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was ordered by the Ministry of Education to prepare the school at the former site of the Model Primary School in Nangouyan, Jingjidao, Beijing and he laid the foundations for the first cradle of modern art education in China. In the history of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Zheng Jin was absolutely the first Principal. In nearly seven years he worked as the headmaster, from the middle-level art education, the establishment of the higher education department, to a special system, during the process the prototype of modern art education in China was constructed. Meanwhile, Zheng Jin’s art inherited the court style of the Song Dynasty and the Japanese painting style, and with his unique characteristics, he earned a premiere niche for art when he studied in Japan. Regrettably, in the current mainstream system of Chinese art history, “Zheng Jin” is almost absent.


Who was Zheng Jin?

Zheng Jin (1883-1959), a famous artist and art educator, alias Rui Jin who named himself Jiongchang, or Gengchang, was born in Xiangshan, Guangdong. He stayed and studied in Japan when he was a teenager and later specialized in painting. His works are pure, with elegant colors, a combination of Japanese style and paintings of the Song Dynasty. He returned to China to work in the Ministry of Education and taught part-time in graphic design in Beijing Higher Normal School. In 1917, he was appointed as Director of Beijing Art School, the first national art school in China, and resigned in 1924. During his tenure, he had continuously developed and improved the art education system in modern and contemporary China. According to research conducted by scholar Chen Jichun, the improvement of China’s art education system should be attributed to the “Beijing Art School” with Zheng Jin as the Principal. From 1927 to 1937, he launched the education movement based on folk art in Ding county, Hebei province, integrating civilian education and elite education over his lifetime. Since 1940, he had lived in Macao and focused on creation. His representative works include “Grace”, “Waiting for Dawn”, “Magnolia and Peacock”, “Fox”, “Eagles Fighting”, “Spring Returning to the Earth”, and he also finished the works and articles, such as “Civilian Education and Civilian Art” and “The Advocacy of Civilian Education Movement.”


According to the history of paintings, the Northern Song Dynasty started an educational institution that specially cultivated art talent within the “painting school” but it failed to form a wide-ranging influence because it only served the royal family. Chinese art education has been mainly passed down as a traditional style of apprenticeship. After the Revolution of 1911, schools in new modes were established, and various private art schools and art workshops appeared at the same time. They set up special courses such as drawing and craft classes to prepare for the establishment of a modern Chinese art education system.

In 1911, after Cai Yuanpei returned to China from the University of Leipzig, he was appointed as the Minister of Education by the Nanjing Provisional Government. In February, his article “Opinions on New Education” was published, and it suggested that the educational purposes of “Being Loyal to Emperors, Respecting Confucius while also adopting a Worship of Justice, Military Force and Sincerity” formulated by the former Education Ministry of Qing Dynasty should be changed to “Military Nationals, Realism, Worldview, Morality and Beauty of Citizens” which five purposes that should be combined with each other. On March 30, 1911, Cai Yuanpei successively drafted a series of policy plans conducive to the development of aesthetic education after he became the Minister of Education for the Beijing government of the Republic of China, and he laid a solid foundation for modern aesthetic education in China. However, after Cai was in office for just three months, he was so dissatisfied with Yuan Shikai’s increasingly arbitrary rule that he repeatedly requested to resign. He was allowed to leave on July 14. As a partner who was committed to the cause of aesthetic education, Fan Yuanlian, formerly the Vice Minister of Education, firmly implemented Cai’s claim after he had succeeded. On September 2, 1912, Fan Yuanlian presided over the promulgation of the education policy formulated by the Republic of China with “Emphasis on moral education, supplemented by utilitarian education, national military education and in addition a complete moral education with education in aesthetics.” This was the first time that aesthetic education has been mentioned with moral education, intellectual education and sports education and it is also a victory for Cai Yuanpei’s education in aesthetics.

In 1913, Fan Yuanlian resigned and worked in the Zhonghua Book Company after he left the Ministry of Education. During this period, there were two important incidents concerning the development of education of aesthetics. One was that the concepts of education on aesthetics that Cai Yuanpei and Fan Yuanlian worked together to develop were overthrown by Yuan Shikai, who wanted to restore the monarchy; the other was that Zheng Jin was recommended by Liang Qichao who was recruited by Zhang Yilin, the Minister of Education at that time, to work in the Ministry of Education. Zhang Yilin participated in the literati submission organized by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. In 1916, Fan Yuanlian took charge of the Ministry of Education for the second time. In addition to immediately resuming and implementing the education policy introduced in 1912, he also organized two major events: first of all, he hired Cai Yuanpei as the President of Peking University; second, he appointed Zheng Jin as Director of the Preparatory Office for Beijing Art School.

Why was Zheng Jin prepared for the first National Art School? Scholar Chen Jichun made a specific analysis in his book “Zheng Jin Art Research.” Firstly, because of Cai Yuanpei’s advocacy and Fan Yuanlian’s support, Fan and Zheng were both Liang Qichao’s students; secondly, from the point of view of political ecology, He Changxiong, who was in charge of the constitution and subsidiary legal system at that time, had a close relationship with Zhang Yilin, the former Minister of Education. He was active in the art world when he was in Japan. Scholars believe that his status as a legal adviser to the Republic of China and his relationship with the upper levels of China and Japan, his actions were much greater than the influence of the average painters, his possibility of participation in supporting these activities cannot be ruled out.

As for the overall environment at that time, Lu Xun, who entered the Ministry of Education before Zhen Jin, was designated as the director of novels for the “Public Education Research Association”. Chen Shizeng who entered the Beijing art circle before Zhen, had transferred from museum study to painting in Japan. In contrast, Zheng Jin seemed to be the perfect candidate for the preparation of the “Beijing Art School”. Although Zheng Jin’s appointment was related to his painting achievements, he was also a historical choice in the complicated personnel relationship of the Republic of China.


Building a school is a tough and heavy responsibility. It is a long process even now and cannot be accomplished in a short time, not to mention in the turbulent era of the first half of the 20th century. Between 1921 and 1923, the warlords’ separatist system led to national wars, the economy was unsustainable, and education funds were misappropriated by warlords, seriously affecting the educational achievements of the school. The principals of the eight national Schools, including Zheng Jin, must vigorously organize teachers and students to attend classes normally. They had to gather and discuss the issue of salaries. In Beijing Art School, because of the serious internal contradictions caused by education funds, school restructuring, discipline construction, and teaching arrangements, chaos broke out after a few years of accumulation and was completely out of control. After teachers resigned, students were expelled, and the principal’s room was securely sealed with the approval by the Ministry of Education on June 4, 1924, Zheng Jin’s nearly seven-year principal’s career was officially finished.

It might be attributed to many reasons. Objectively speaking, the art education during the period of Zheng Jin’s tenure, still inherited the management system for art education in the Beiyang government period, and it was difficult for the School to adapt to the developments and reforms. Besides, Zheng Jin’s creation inherited the court style of the Song Dynasty and the Japanese style of painting, although it was unique, the traditional Beijing school focused on the literati painting traditions while the innovation school emphasized using the Western style, and the neutrals presented by the fusion of Chinese and Western styles. Thus he was emasculated and marginalised by teachers and students.

After Zheng Jin resigned, the school had transient peace. However, the contradictions between teachers and students were still frequent and the educational achievements were questioned. In 1925, the Ministry of Education even announced the direct closure of the School because of the constant turmoil. After a few months of suspension, the school resumed and added two subjects, Drama and Music to the curriculum. On September 15, the school was renamed “Beijing Art College” and in October the Ministry of Education approved the name “National Art College”. Despite this, the school was still experiencing conflicts. In 1926, Lin Fengmian was forced to resign after one year in management. In 1929, Xu Beihong was forced to resign after several months in post.

After he resigned from Beijing Art School, Zheng Jin did not leave art education, but he gradually stayed away from mainstream art. In the spring of 1927, with an invitation from Yan Yangchu, Zheng Jin hosted the “Intuitive Audiovisual Education Department” at the “China Civilian Education Promotion Association”. In order to work better, Zheng Jin moved to the countryside to promote the civilian education movement. In the work of the “General Education Association”, he painted illustrations, delivered speeches, published works, etc. for the “Thousand Characters for a Civilian Class”. In 1936, he was invited by Sun Zhesheng, Wu Tiecheng, and Yang Ziyi from the Guangdong Provincial Government, to return to his hometown in Zhongshan County and become the President for the “Rural Construction Committee of Zhongshan County”, focusing on planning the civilian education work in his hometown. It is worth mentioning that the painting style of his works has changed during this period. According to the texts left by Yan Yangchu, he changed the style of paintings of ancient beauty before he began to paint old farmers. In the existing art history textbooks, Zheng Jin’s pioneering achievements are mentioned but without his educational experience in this section.

In 1937, the Anti-Japanese War broke out. In 1940, Zheng Jin was forced to move to Macao. In addition to concentrating on painting, Zheng Jin also participated in some charity exhibitions and the opening ceremony. He believed that although he stayed outside the war circle, he should not forget that a fire spreads in the motherland and he should make use of a calmer environment to complete valuable work. After the victory of the Anti-Japanese War, he returned to Zhongshan and intended to continue with his civilian education, but failed to do so. After a short period of work, he returned to Macao and concentrated on painting for the rest of his life. Macao is far from the national political and cultural center, so that till his death, his work did not attract any attention from academic circles.

At that time, Beiping fell, thus teachers and students of National Art College had been in a state of volatility for a long time. It was not until 1946 when Xu Beihong was hired to rebuild Beiping Art College, and the College gradually returned to the right track. In the past 100 years, this national art school has “bred masters, created classics, and cultivated talent.” In the retrospection of its arduous developments, it is actually a history of modern Chinese art and Chinese art education. The centennial celebration ended with a review on its first principal, Zheng Jin which is also a start for the journey of the next one hundred years.

Text by Yang Zhonghui, edited and translated by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo Courtesy of the Organizer


Chen Jichun, Zheng Jin Art Research, People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Beijing, 2018.

Wang Gong, Following Memories: Reflections on Chinese Art Issues since the Republic of China, Hebei Education Press, Hebei, 2014.

Liu Xiaolu, “Several Historical Facts in the Early Period of Beiping Art College”, Art Observation, 1999, Issue 11.

Zhou Bo, “The Painter Stepping into the Mud Wall”, Reading, 2010, Issue 9.

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