Heather Russell has a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Chinese artists Li Shan on Artnet. Within that encounter there is a brief description by Li of the unique role Shanghai has played in preserving China’s connection to Western art:
In terms of culture and history, Shanghai is the gathering place for an older generation of artists, including writers, painters, musicians, etc. The majority of the first generation of artists who studied abroad came back to Shanghai, even if they left from other cities, they chose to move here after they returned to China. After the Chinese Civil War, there was a nation-wide turn towards the Soviet Union as a source of cultural influence. Artists began using the Chistyakov system, and drama students followed Stanislavski. But Shanghai was different. Shanghai attracted many Modern Chinese master painters such as Liu Haisu (Chinese, 1896–1994), Lin Fengmian (Chinese, 1900–1991), Wu Dayu (Chinese, 1903–1988), Guan Liang (Chinese, 1900–1986), and their students. At that time, the artworks being shown in exhibitions everywhere else mostly featured themes of workers, peasants, soldiers, and revolutionary heroes. Shanghai was the only place where you could still see paintings of osprey, reeds, and hydrangeas. It was also the only place where the Chinese tradition of Modern Art wasn’t interrupted. These masters and their students formed an underground community in Shanghai. I felt very lucky to have been able to live in such an atmosphere, and be exposed to what we called ‘Modernism’ when I came to Shanghai in 1964.
During the Cultural Revolution, the library of the Shanghai Theatre Academy was known for its rich collection of books. Professor Min Xiwen (Chinese, b.1918), who oversaw the library, was the area’s leading authority on Impressionist Art. Nearly all of the Chinese translations of Western texts on Impressionism were done by him. And he himself was a master of still-life painting. Thanks to Professor Min, I was exposed to Western classics through the books that he had secretly lent to me in the reading room. I would not have had that kind of opportunity if it wasn’t for the general cultural environment in Shanghai at that time. If I had gone to Beijing instead of Shanghai, the Li Shan (Chinese, b.1942) you see today would have been completely different.