A heated discussion was going on between Chen Zhenlian, professor at Chinese Calligraphy, Painting and Seal Cutting at the School of Arts at Zhejiang University and his five doctoral students in a classroom.
The debate centered on modern calligraphy after Chen said a paper written by one of the students on modern stylistic and modern calligraphy works was confusing.
His students responded with a host of questions.
"I do not quite understand the word 'modern' here," one student said. "Does the sole condition of modernity mean giving up traditional calligraphy techniques? If so, can we still call it art?"
The discussion went on for hours, but Chen was elated.
"Such discussions sharpen our minds," said the renowned professor in both art and academic circles who became the president of the new School of Arts at Zhejiang University in 2000.
Although such academic discussions can be found at universities across China, such theoretical debates are not often seen among art students at specialized art colleges.
Chen, considered a pioneer in popularizing scholarly debate in the University's art school, is one of many who are striving to make the study of the fine arts more comprehensive in China.
The professor has worked to combine more academics with the University's art program. The Zhejiang University art school now has two majors: arts and crafts and art design, which include a wide range of research programs and interdisciplinary courses.
"With its strong background in liberal arts, Zhejiang University is working to ensure that professional art and design students are both creative and academically well-trained," said Chen.
Universities across the country are also setting up their own colleges of arts such as Beijing-based Tsinghua University and Renmin University of China, and Shanghai-based Tongji University and Shanghai Jiaotong University.
These moves reflect a growing trend by institutes of higher learning to offer well-rounded curriculums and it shows that art itself is growing in popularity, agreed the presidents from arts colleges at 12 Chinese universities at a seminar in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, last month.
The need to add more academic components to art curriculums is evident when looking at the lack of historical and theoretical knowledge among art students, they said.
There are many jokes about young art students who lack academic knowledge of their major. One example is of the art student who claimed Peking Opera was a "prehistoric art."
"Well, it is a joke. But it is serious enough to draw all our attention on the study of art," said Zhang Daoyi, a professor at Southeast University in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, and member of the Academic Degree Committee at the State Council.
"Art is not mere entertainment for people to enjoy or foster certain values. As a unique course, it needs to be theorized and escalated," said Zhang.
Many experts say developing the academic study of art in the Internet age means joining it with the larger scope of liberal arts studies.
"Usually, in a specialized art academy, the study of other liberal arts subjects is not taken seriously. But in fact, it is precisely the social sciences and modern technology that can help to develop art students' concepts of color, graphics and shapes," said Chen.
In the first two years at Zhejiang University, art students learn from specially designed courses that combine literature, history and other humanities with art.
"We are in bad need of excellent instructors who have a good mastery of both arts and other liberal arts studies, because we need to teach students to see the significance of applying methodologies to the study of the arts," said Chen.
More opportunities have also been provided for senior students to take professional courses in literature, history, philosophy, computer science and modern technology, Chen added.
The approach is different from typical specialized academies of arts, where students learn techniques first.
"Everyone dreams of becoming an art master. However, apart from one or two who will truly realize their dreams, a large percentage of the students turn out to be craftsmen," said Chen.
"That is why comprehensive knowledge is important."
He said he found that students with excellent scores in diverse courses usually become his top art students, and while most of them did not know how to paint when they arrived, they all became leading art students after a year of studying painting and calligraphy and theory.
"By applying such a mode of education from the abstract to the specific, we hope our students will be more capable when they graduate," he said. "So that they will not only be able to put on their own exhibitions, but can also apply their knowledge in many other occupations."
(China Daily July 2, 2002)