Art in China: Snapshots by a Traveler

by Frederick Turner

Recently, I was invited to teach for a semester at China Three Gorges University in Yichang City on the great Yangtze River, where it flows out from the deep gorges below the Three Gorges Dam into the plains of eastern China. I have been interested in China for many years as a poet and an admirer of classical civilizations, and some years ago I translated 150 of the greatest Tang period poems into English with the help of a Chinese colleague. I visited China as a tourist at that time, but this second visit was to live and work and be part of a community.
Meanwhile, I had been following the development of Chinese film and becoming interested in Chinese painting. While in China, I also indulged an old interest in Chinese opera, first triggered by my wife’s Chinese father, and watched a lot of traditional opera on television. One of my friends on the Three Gorges faculty, Lin Li, introduced me to an opera enthusiasts’ group, several of whom were fine singers, and I was able to hear live performances accompanied by a two-string violin. I took special care to meet some local artists in the city and in the art school at the University, and saw an exhibit of Chinese design organized by my new friend, the designer Tao Zhu. I also visited a painting show entitled “Whisper” at Yichang’s art museum, featuring talented local young artists and also some older, more national figures. That museum contained, in addition, some splendid ancient Chinese art, much of it rescued by archaeologists from the drowned lands above the great dam—ceramics, bronze chime sets, sculpture. At the Three Gorges Dam itself, which I visited with my diminutive, soft-spoken and brilliant student He Jing, there was a fine art exhibit, officially sponsored, of landscape paintings of the Three Gorges, including a single enormous screen painting extending through many rooms, depicting the entire gorge down from the dam to Yichang City, painted in the traditional style, I believe, by many hands.
I also visited one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the area, Yuquan, founded in 218, and saw a kind of Buddhism quite different from what I had expected. And I was especially moved by my trip to the Three Visitors’ cave, a limestone cavern perched high above the Yangtze, where the great Tang poet Bai Juyi, whose work I had translated, had come with two friends about 1,300 years ago and scratched a poem on the stone cave wall. My gifted student Wang Dongqing, who was one of my guides at Yuquan, is also a poet—good enough so that with his help I translated one of his poems in the style of the classical Song dynasty.
So where has this great civilization come out, I wondered, in its artistic response to its own extraordinary past, its recent radical transformations and its opening to the rest of the world?
To my eye, five main influences on contemporary Chinese art stand out. The first is the great tradition of Mandarin artistic practice and theory since the Tang period of roughly 600–900 A.D. It is based on a synthesis of the three great religious philosophies of China—Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. From Taoism it gets its basis in nature and a whole metaphysics—or, better, an interior physics—of nonlinear dynamical forces from which local reality emerges. From Confucianism it gets a social ethic based on duty, meritocratic hierarchy and harmony. And from Buddhism—especially the more meditative, abstract and mystical form of it that grew from the Chan school of Mahayana Buddhism and the Cold Mountain synthesis of Taoist with Buddhist ideas—it gets a special love of interior silence and emptiness. It is this tradition that has chiefly appealed to European and American artists and writers.
The tradition still continues, and very fine practitioners of it can be found in any large Chinese city, selling their work to locals and tourists alike, relatively ignored by fashionable art galleries and avant-garde museums. It cannot easily escape its image of being out of date and nostalgic. Of course, politically, the tradition has been associated with the regime that the Communists overthrew, but China has since been through another, relatively bloodless, revolution, and the status of traditional art in modern capitalist China is not so much that of being excitingly reactionary and subversive as of being stuffy and boring. Nevertheless, fashionable leading-edge artists in China today are still consciously or unconsciously drawn toward the old dear tropes of the silent fisherman and the spring blossoms by the poet’s mountain hut—even if those themes are part of a sardonic parody.
Some artists have unashamedly embraced the old canons of beauty, like Hao Shiming, whose exquisite ink-painting portraits of beautiful women, their remote and indrawn faces against some rich brocade or grey window, have all the true aesthetic obsession. Sometimes they are accompanied by a surreal deconstructed bird made of wicker or straw, that flutters by like the soul of the melancholy girl. Hao’s aesthetics are almost more Japanese than Chinese. The lyric line is like that of Utamaro, the great Japanese printmaker of the Ukiyo-e “floating-world” school. His models are fully contemporary in mood, jewelry, clothing and psychology, however. The ancient classical techniques are infinitely adaptable, despite the claims of modernism, and can perfectly represent contemporary reality.
Li Jin’s ink paintings, with his funny little plump figures or ordinary people done in the traditional palette, often in long or tall scroll format, and accompanied by calligraphic texts, also strongly evoke the Chinese representational tradition. Unlike much contemporary Chinese art, the feeling seems more one of compassion and gentle humor than strident satire or bitter cynicism, though he is using aristocratic or Mandarin style to depict very ordinary, cozy working-class people.
In a different response to the native tradition, Xu Bing assumes a sophisticated postmodern posture, but uses it to make a very ancient statement. His prize-winning installation piece about 9/11 scatters dust from Ground Zero on the floor of the exhibition space, a gesture that we have seen in the Whitney. But by means of masking-tape letter shapes he leaves two lines of poetry:

As there is nothing from the first,
Where does the dust itself collect?

Xu Bing is quoting a seventh-century poem by the Buddhist monk Hui-Neng in reply to a poem by a fellow monk, Shen Xiu. Here are my translations:

Shen Xiu (606–706)
The body is a holy bodhi tree,
The heart a mirror polished to a glow;
So it reflect the truth, clean it each day,
Lest dust be drawn to grime its purity.
Hui-Neng (638–713)
The bodhi is no body and no tree,
There’s no bright mirror to corrode or rust;
At first no thing at all had come to be,
So what is there to draw the grime and dust?

I met some survivors of the Cultural Revolution who still practiced the old Mandarin arts. Their very lives are a picture of courage and of a strange loyalty to a country that humiliated and persecuted them, and drove many of their friends to suicide or death. Their moral witness still affects Chinese arts, outdated though they may appear to be. My student Wang Dongqing’s poem, which I translated into the same form in English as in the original, captures the continuity of the old tropes despite the bitter weather of the new spring:

The Butterfly’s Love for the Flower
Wild tumbled clouds sweep through the sky,
the blustering storm winds blow,
Pear blossoms speckle, damp with rain,
the spring world turned to softness with their glow;
The chilly rain can’t know their pain
who, parted, grieve alone;
Rain’s stripped a thousand petals from
the thin twigs, naked now.
A double wrinkle aches between
her eyebrows clenched with woe;
She goes upstairs and seeks to pierce
where the far windswept road’s horizons go.
“When will this yearning ever end?”
but answer there is none;
The floating willow-flowers die,
the waters softly flow.

The second main influence is the Socialist Realist art sponsored by the Communist Party, now almost exclusively the realm of ridicule and camp. I have seen Warhol Pop Art ripoffs in which the features of Marilyn Monroe or the Quaker Oats man are superimposed upon the classic Mao Zedong portrait. Wang Guangli’s socialist warriors and workers advertise Marlboro and Coca-Cola. The field-green military uniform together with the red/gold party and rank insignia are irresistible. But some of these images are a little sad. Some reflect a nostalgia for the pure, idiotic enthusiasm of those times: a girl soldier drowns in a flood of Mao buttons, a bewildered cadre stands amid her modern bourgeois family. On my trip, I took a tour of a traditional minority Tujia village, culminating in a visit to an old war-period Communist headquarters. It was being maintained for the tourist trade, and a bunch of nice young students were being employed to be cadres and put on performances of revolutionary songs: Communism, the theme park.
The third influence was traditional European art. The great painter Wu Guangzhong, who died earlier this year at the age of 91, was a master of the whole range of European art styles and techniques, including Impressionism, the old masters, poster graphics, modernism (his special love seems to have been Matisse) and Surrealism. Wu was also a master of the classical Chinese styles. The Maoist regime did not treat him well. He was brutally punished by the Cultural Revolution, forbidden to paint and sentenced to hard labor. But his influence over the whole course of Chinese painting and art education is clear: in the thirty amazing years since China opened itself to the world, Chinese art education has preserved the high standards he set. Chinese artists, unlike many of their Western colleagues, seem to be uniformly well-trained in drawing, the figure, still life and the other technical aspects of their profession. Allowing art to be free, despite its often bitter tone, has proved its value to the Chinese nation, and the new freedoms are partly a tribute to Wu. When the old reflexes kicked in and the Beijing avant-garde art exhibition on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre was cancelled in 2009, the impetus toward political satire was not chilled but energized.
There are, today, Chinese realist artists who have fully mastered the classical European old master techniques. One of these is Wang Yidong, whose Teasing the Newlyweds recently—and significantly—sold for $1.67 million at Sotheby’s. Xue Mo paints the beautiful innocent faces of Mongolian girls against their native landscapes using all the techniques of Leonardo da Vinci. To quote Xue’s artist’s statement:

When I visit countries abroad and, in particular, their museums and galleries, and, from reading many art books, I am continually drawn to the works of the early Renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel the Elder and Pisanello. I am deeply moved by these artists’ intentions and creative spirit, as much as my admiration for the Mongolian and the grasslands. Can the Mongolian living in the grasslands, in my eye, have some likeness, some essence, with the Renaissance people in the masters’ works?
I hold dear the old Chinese saying that “nature has the same structure with man.” And my artistic philosophy is the same as Giorgio Morandi—that I believe more in art for art’s sake than in religion, social justice or
national glory.

In Guilin, that lovely city on the exquisite Li River, whose limestone mountains make you realize the Chinese weren’t just making up fantasy landscapes, gorgeous and finely crafted oils and acrylics of the river and its world can be bought for ludicrously low prices, or could be when I was there in 2004.
The fourth main influence on contemporary Chinese art is Western popular and commercial graphic and media art. Like the Japanese, the Chinese have created their own cartoon styles, and have their own versions of Anime, Manga and Hello Kitty. Chinese packaging, advertisements, product styling, interior decoration and design have a huge vitality—less minimal than the Japanese, and sometimes grossly over the top, but often with great charm, elegance and always the wildly exuberant Chinese color sense. Serious Chinese artists are ambivalent in their response. Inspired by “Western”1
Pop Art, with its subtext of protest against commodification, mechanical reproduction and consumerism, sometimes they adopt a rather passé satirical or parodic attitude. At other times, they frankly celebrate the new freedom, as in the prints of Feng Zhengjie and the oils of Wang Niandong, and choose the compelling iconic image over modernist intellectuality and taste.
Superficially, the strongest influence on Chinese contemporary art is Western postmodern art and art theory. This is the new international style, and, as in other countries that have recently entered the “first world” (which China, or at least bourgeois China, has indeed done), there is a huge temptation to appear cool, fashionable. As in the West, the prevailing tone is cynicism, combined with a kind of reflexive social protest. Of course, there is much to protest in China—Tiananmen is in recent social memory, there is still some censorship; government is often secretive, and is only beginning to realize
that it will have the mandate of heaven with the growing middle class on which it relies only if it is genuinely accountable to its people; and Chinese capitalism, with its huge vitality, has left many people behind and transformed the landscape, the economy and the social world almost unrecognizably.
But, again as in the West, many artists of the postmodern type seem to be only able to criticize and have little to offer in place of what they dislike. They pillory with equal vigor the communism of Mao, the capitalism of the new China, the influence of America, the technological hubris and environmental consequences of the Three Gorges Dam, and the social excesses and alienation that freedom has made possible. The arcadian peasant imagery of the Communist era is unavailable to them because it has been discredited, and the beauty of the traditional Mandarin arts is strictly forbidden because it is out of date. The prevailing image is the hideous grin that adorns every painting by the enormously successful artist Yue Minjun. Yue puts his ghastly laughing face in front of firing squads, the Statue of Liberty and Garfield the cat, and under a mandarin’s hat; he has him holding down his dress like Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Many of Yue’s contemporaries have followed suit, with faces of moronic stupidity (Fang Lijun) or terminal obesity (Yin Kun).
Another response has been that of Zhang Xiaogang, whose huge, thin, expressionless faces loom over the viewer with a mysterious pathos and menace. These are people who are utterly lost in the world, whether completely numb with terror, blank with incomprehension, or in so deep a despair as to have lost the power to express their emotions. But they are also strangely beautiful, the human face reduced to its last stereotype. Zhang often puts his figures in family groups, almost indistinguishable from one another, or posed like official group portraits, but there is no connection among them. One thinks of the sheer mass of 1.3 billion human beings and of the one-child policy that has utterly transformed Chinese society. The artist seems shellshocked, capable only of an exhausted elegance, an existential bleakness, faintly erotic, poised in a Kierkegaardian hell. Another, similar response is in the strange images of Ning Xia that I saw in the Yichang art museum, figures lost in the reedbeds of a swamp, encountering their humanity in extremis.
Where can Chinese art go to recover the vitality and beauty of those thousands of years of Chinese culture? My own response would be in the direction of those traditional yet popular forms that I explored while in China. Chinese opera currently boasts some extraordinary performers, both vocal and dramatic. The deep strangeness of its conventions allows enormous potential for expressing China’s contemporary vision of itself. Chinese film is in a state of splendid renaissance, and its historical epics, like the various versions of The Three Kingdoms and John Woo’s Red Cliff, open up the visual and historical imagination. Perhaps a new Chinese art can reach back before the great period initiated in the Tang dynasty, to its more archaic, ritual and mythic past, to the insane glories of the Three Kingdoms, the Shang calligraphy, the ancient paradoxes of Taoism and Buddhism. Western classical forms, traditions and techniques can well serve this content without overwhelming it, since, as Xue Mo senses, they come from the same deep human roots.
When I visited the Yuquan monastery, I encountered a kind of Buddhist sensibility that I had not expected. This was of an older, rougher kind than the sophisticated spirituality of later ages. The eighteen Lohans (or Arhats in Sanskrit) were depicted in the form of colossal statues ranged along the sides of the central shrine of the Buddha. Instead of meditative calm, these figures displayed an enormous ebullient spiritual energy. Clearly, they were portraits of some of the most powerful monks, people of huge psychological force, often with a formidable sense of humor and radical freedom of being. Their authority and good humor affected the whole monastery, with its gorgeous decorations and exquisite and vigorous landscape design. The Buddha figure itself was less energetic, but reflected a massive and infectious happiness. His boisterous Lohans played the part of the powerful monkey god Hanuman, the protector of the sacred, and were in harmony with it. I saw the same energy in the fierce religious ikons of the Tujia minority people and in the calligraphy of the artist Xu Bing. I saw it in the delightfully bad punk girls in the paintings of Liu Xiaochang in the local museum in Yichang City. I realized that China is not fundamentally a place of authoritarian atrocity, nor of ascetic detachment or mass society or complacent wisdom, but of a boundless naïve joy in life not unlike the spirit of the United States of America. Perhaps our two huge continental civilizations are on the eve of a major cultural collaboration.


1. The terms “Western” and “the West” are deeply problematic, I believe. It is certainly a useful shorthand, but it contains dangerous elements of racism, besides being profoundly imprecise. How can this amazing amalgam of hundreds of wildly different cultures, from Basque shepherds to Hungarian Jewish intellectuals to Australian streetsingers to Hollywood showbiz types to Sicilian farmers to Albanian Muslims to Scots businessmen—descendants of dozens of different tribes with different religions, skin color, political and legal traditions, and cultural traditions—be rolled into one category? Worse, how deeply ignorant to contrast this nonsense category with “Nonwestern” peoples along with such distinctions as linear-nonlinear, technological-natural, rationalspiritual, imperialistic-peaceful, progressive-traditional, market-community, etc., as so many theorists in the arts and humanities have done.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2010, Volume 27, Number 4