The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

不见不散 Be There or Be Square

My Chinese class tonight was even more humbling than usual. At times like these I feel I am actually going backwards - learning in reverse. I am apparently now unable to pronounce the very simple word 'xing' correctly and was forced to repeat it after my teacher over and over and over again, listening intently and trying to copy, and repeatedly being told "Bu Dui! Wrong!" I finished the class feeling as if I had been through some process which involved dental anaesthesia, my face semi-paralysed and my tongue frozen. I suspect that Chinese Language Facial Paralysis Syndrome is not covered by Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, unfortunately.

Still, depressing though my lack of serious progress is, at least tonight I learned the 4 character idiom for 'Be There or Be Square', which struck me as pretty hilarious. I cannot for the life of me imagine a context in which I might say to someone "Bu Jian Bu San!" - surely you would need to be dressed in rockabilly style? I am obviously now hallucinating, a direct result of reading too many dialogues in which lumpen foreigner 'Jiake' borrows a bicycle from that tedious bore, Wang Peng, and they cycle off together to yet another birthday party. These characters in Chinese textbooks live very indolent lives - party party party, wanr wanr wanr. I must truly be losing my mind if I am envying the strangely cardboard cast of characters that make up foreign language textbooks...

But you've got to love these 4 character idioms - my personal favourite currently is "Three men make a tiger" ( 三人成虎

When I am questioning my sanity at persisting with the quixotic enterprise of attempting to learn Chinese, I remember that there actually is a purpose. In 4 months time I will be in Beijing, working on research for (I hope) a book, as well as articles and interviews with artists. I had the great pleasure the other night of meeting 2 very significant artists, Shen Jiawei and Guan Wei, both of whom came to Sydney in 1989. I will write more about their work, and Guan Wei's most recent exhibition of paintings, in another post. 

On this occasion, however, we were at the opening of an exhibition of work by 4 female Chinese artists at SoHo Galleries in Woolloomooloo: Hu Ming; Wang Lan; Yuman Zeng; and Liu Haiou. 

For the gallery web site (which really needs an overhaul) click HERE
Hu Ming, The Deep Red Lantern, Oil on Canvas, 120 x 90, image reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Hu Ming is known for her paintings of highly sexualised, nubile women in PLA uniforms. Like Maoist Lara Crofts they dance and pose. Pop culture inspired, in a deliberate slap-in-the-face to Cultural Revolution austerity and prudishness, they seem like self-conscious Playboy pinups. I have always found these images difficult, and have not known quite what to make of the fact they are being painted by a female artist. In his 2007 essay about Hu Ming, however, critic John McDonald provides some much-needed context: 'Hu Ming’s women are both aroused, and arousing. Their sexuality is superabundant, overflowing, but also strangely ingenuous. They are the descendants of all the pretty girls in CCP propaganda posters who laboured in the fields and factories, carried weapons and banners, with looks of beatific happiness welded to their faces. Instead of the calloused hands and filthy clothes of hard-working peasants, these girls always looked neat and clean, and seemed to have an ample supply of rouge and lipstick. Their incipient glamour was sustained by their burning faith in a new society. It was sheer fantasy, of course, but the party authorities could hardly expect the masses to be inspired by images of sun-ravaged women, prematurely aged by back-breaking labour. Chinese art, in both its elite and popular forms, has never been interested in a realistic portrayal of women. It would be flattering to say that Confucianism treated women as second-class citizens - “non-entities” would be a more accurate description. “Give a woman an education and all you get from her is boredom and complaints,” says one Confucian text from the Song dynasty.'

Hu Ming spent 20 years of her life in the People's Liberation Army, from 1970 to 1990, eventually becoming a major. During this time she saw the last bitter years of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the 'opening up' under Deng Xiaoping and the tragedy of Tiananmen. McDonald says, " She worked in operating theatres and morgues, she dealt with the bodies of executed criminals and dead infants. She saw so much of the dark side that her paintings now project a ferocious love of life." Perhaps this is why her paintings exude life and sexuality in extreme over-the-top abundance. It is a reaction to privation, uncertainty, anxiety and fear, and also perhaps to the enforced communal living with other women for a large part of her life. She says she finds women beautiful, and wants to make beautiful images of them. 

Hu Ming, Long Live Chairman Mao, 
image source:
The exhibition was opened by Shen Jiawei, and it includes works by his wife, Wang Lan. In his remarks he acknowledged that during her youth she had suffered due to her 'bad class background'. 

Lan Wang was born in Beijing in 1953 and at the age of 16, during the Cultural Revolution, was sent to work as a farm labourer for nine years in the Great Northern Wilderness – 2,000km from Beijing. In 1977 she entered the Print Department of the Lu-Xun Academy of Fine Art in Shenyang, China, where she obtained her Masters degree. Lan then worked as an artist and teacher there for many years before coming to Australia in the early 90s.

Wang Lan, 'Girl Leading a Horse', oil on canvas, 60 x 60, from the collection of the National Art Museum of China, the work was shown in 'New Horizons' at the National Museum of Australia in 2012.
The exhibition includes works by Yuman Zeng and Liu Haiou, serious and earnest works which remind me of many paintings shown in the 'New Horizons' exhibition, in which Chinese artists work in a Modernist idiom.

Liu Haiou, 'Birch#1' oil on canvas
It's a strange exhibition in some ways, and Hu Ming's work, so redolent of Political Pop, is strangely incongruous with the other three painters. Interesting, at the very least, to compare Hu Ming's versions of PLA pin-up girls with a male artist, Guo Jian. I think there IS a difference, and the subtleties of that are interesting to contemplate. Interestingly, he too served in the army and it had an indelible effect upon his life, dreams and practice. He was involved in the pro-democracy movement and came to Australia after Tiananmen. He now lives and works between Australia and China.

Guo Jian, source:

In any case, it's always good to see Chinese women artists, whether their work is contemporary or more traditional, given some recognition. In some ways the Confucian strictures still apply and things are still not easy. Women may indeed 'hold up half the sky', but it sometimes seems no-one is noticing. The verdict? Get along and have a look - 不见不散 Be There or Be Square!