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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

At the start of the Silk Road

I write this post from Xi'An, the ancient capital city of the Qin and T'ang Dynasties, probably most often associated - in western minds at least - with the Terracotta Army - those ubiquitous Entombed Warriors. And having spent the day on Saturday looking at them whilst being fed a positively mind-numbing series of statistics by my guide and translator, who rejoices, for reasons best known to himself, in the western name of "Rocky", I was certainly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the emperor's megalomania, as well as by the strange beauty of the serried rows of men. The weirdest sight is the rumps of partially excavated horses, who appear to have galloped into the tomb and become stuck there. 

I was also a little overwhelmed by the scale of the tourist industry, and the fact that every single farmer whose land was seized in order to create this mammoth 'theme park' appears to be there on site intent on selling you something - from pomegranates and fast food, to endless copies of the warriors, to assorted tacky junk of all descriptions. No different from Pisa or the Vatican or Pompeii, of course, but equally unsettling. It certainly confirmed me in my hatred of mass tourism. Strangely disturbing, too, is the sight of the farmer who originally unearthed the first of the warriors when he was digging a well in 1974, there on site flogging books with his signature - the only Chinese characters he has learned to write. A woman with a big toothy grin (which quickly disappeared when she realised I had no intention of buying the book) informed me that the wonderful government had given him this easy job to compensate him for the loss of his land.  A tiny, shambolic and rather sad looking figure in a knitted sweater with holes in it, and calloused farmer's hands, he seemed somehow diminished by the great stack of books that he himself cannot read. All that aside, the moment when you walk into Pit Number 1 and realise the enormity - and the sheer insanity - of the enterprise is really and truly breathtaking. I thought of all those concubines, workmen and artisans reputedly put to death and entombed with the emperor. A cruel history indeed.

Shaanxi Province is also associated with the female craft of paper-cutting - I remember the artist Tianli Zu telling me she went there as a student to stay with the farmers and learn this craft - and also with peasant painting from Huxian County. This has a darker history than the joyful looking images would suggest, and I listened without comment today while a young volunteer at the art museum explained them to me as paintings expressing the joys of simple farmers' lives. The reality is a little different, as they formed a significant propaganda element during the Cultural Revolution. Often the peasants were trained by artists who were no longer able to work themselves, as despised members of the 'intellectual class' who had been sent down to the countryside to learn from the farmers. 
Designer: Du Mingcen (杜明岑); Yao Zhongxin ( 姚种新)
1975, September
Drawing new pictures with a colored brush
Cai bi hui xin tu (彩笔绘新图)
Publisher: Tianjin renmin meishu chubanshe (天津人民美术出版社)

The excellent Chinese Posters site explains it thus:

"Although touted as amateurs, it was later admitted that the peasant painters had received extensive professional help and assistance in "the composition of their pictures, as well as with the conception, presentation and skillful rendering" in their work. The advice and assistance was often provided by precisely those professional artists who were no longer allowed to work themselves. The professional influences are particularly evident when one compares 'Huxian art' created during the Cultural Revolution with the examples of their work from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The flat, single-dimensional figures of the early paintings were replaced with more three-dimensional figures, and the later works testify to a greater use of perspective."
Designer: Li Zhenhua (李振华)
1973, March
The brigade's ducks
Dadui yaqun (大队鸭群)
Publisher: Renmin meishu chubanshe (人民美术出版社)
Size: 53x77 cm.
The book of their paintings published in 1976, which I myself bought in Sydney in about 1979 and still own, has a foreword that says: "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the deepening struggle of criticizing Lin Piao and Confucius, especially, have brought great changes to the area. With mounting enthusiasm and revolutionary drive the peasants of Huhsien County are wielding paintbrush and palette to occupy the ideological and cultural field in the countryside and have become masters of the socialist new culture. A group of poor and lower-middle peasant artists, painting as a spare-time activity, adhere to the orientation pointed out in Chairman Mao's "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art" and are training and maturing in the storm of two-line and class struggle. They are continuing with firm steps their march forward along Chairman Mao's revolutionary line in literature and art. The works of these peasant painters are militant and have broad mass appeal... With hoe in one hand and brush in the other and taking the Party's basic line as their guide to action, they are active in the three great revolutionary movements of class struggle, the struggle for production and scientific experiment and in carrying out the central task at each step of the revolution. They have produced tens of thousands of paintings reflecting these struggles, warmly acclaiming Chairman Mao's proletarian revolutionary line, the socialist new countryside and the resounding victory of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, while condemning revisionism and the bourgeoisie." 

Photographer unknown
1975, 20 February
Chinese women play important role in revolution and construction
Publisher: Hsinhua News Agency

Text on the back: "Chinese women play important role in revolution and construction. Peasant women painter Li Feng-lan of Huhsien County in Shensi Province is working on her new work 'Breeding Seedlings'."
From this distance of time and space I cannot imagine the naiivety of the girl that I was who read the introduction to "Peasant Painters of Huhsien County" and saw it as evidence of a utopian society in the making. But the paintings themselves remain so incredibly appealing that it is no wonder that they were successful as propaganda - crisp and vivid, beautifully simple in composition, and presenting a fairy tale view of rural life from which all grime, hardship and suffering has been removed. A bucolic idyll rural life was not. And is not. I watched farmers in their fields from the comfort of my seat on the train from Beijing to Xi'An. Stooped over intensively farmed fields of vegetables and other crops, occasionally fishing in a muddy river or standing watching a bonfire, their bent figures reminded me irresistibly of Millet's 'The Gleaners'. There is little mechanisation on poor farms even today. The general sense of 'eating bitterness' was not helped by the grey fog which hung over the landscape. No wonder those young northern 'factory girls' escape to Dongguan and Shenzhen to work on assembly lines making handbags, clothing and electronic components and vow never to return to the countryside!

Looking at the work of the female 'peasant painters' today, with their flat gouache style representing women in fields of corn, flowers, watermelon, and in orchards of persimmons and pomegranates, I think of the artist Bu Hua whom I interviewed recently in Beijing. Bu Hua trained as a designer and is best known as one of the pioneers of digital animation in China. She has developed a character, based on herself as a child - a rather cheeky and defiantly feisty Young Pioneer - who navigates the surreal landscape of the 'new' China, encountering strange beasts, mystical forests and somehow emerges victorious. She is a girl with 'swagger', according to Bu Hua, and a more confident version of the artist herself - a fearless alter ego. I asked her about her thoughts on the position of women artists in Beijing, relative to men. In China, she says, there are fewer women artists than male artists so it can be easier, at least initially, for them to get attention. This is a very patriarchal society still, she says, and the way that people define success is very masculine, and based on narrow ideas about wealth and competition. "You have to be good, you have to keep on doing good work, and if you do that, people will notice." She goes on to say that she feels very lucky, doing work that she loves. And, she adds, she has a very supportive husband and does virtually no household chores, a stance I can only applaud.

The character who skips and jumps through her animations and still images is based on the artist's remembered images of herself as a schoolgirl in Beijing at a simpler time. Through her fantastical imaginings the past, present and future collide in the adventures of her 'Beijing babe'. The pace of change in China is so rapid, and the adaptation required of every human being is so extreme, she says, that people feel great anxiety and pressure to succeed, and she wants to represent that in a surreal way through her works.

Bu Hua AD3012-8\,size:326x136 ,edition:1/1,year:2012, giclee  print on paper
image courtesy the artist
Bu Hua's father was a printmaker who worked in a traditional woodblock printing technique, so she grew up in an environment in which it was normal to make art. She describes it as "learning the language of lines". She attended the special 132 Art High School and then the Central Academy of Art and Design, where she learned techniques of mural painting, using oil and acrylic paints. The professors there were exponents of 'the new tradition'; successful designers and artists, and she sees no conflict between these two fields. Blurring the conventional boundaries between High Art and Popular Culture by applying her paintings to products such as handbags, homewares and clothing is a new direction for Bu Hua, who had received some prototype handbag designs back from the factory in Dongguan the day prior to our interview. 

Bu Hua at home, photograph Luise Guest reproduced with permission of the artist
 In both her still images and animations one has the sense of innocence potentially betrayed. If Milly-Molly-Mandy stepped out of her 1920s English stories and inhabited a new dystopian fairy-tale this is what it might look like. Bu Hua believes this character is really an idealised version of herself, who allows her to provide a commentary on the world . "On the surface it's very cute and very lovely" she says, "but underneath there is anxiety and pressure." In the work below, which initially looks like a pastiche of 1920s illustration, one suddenly senses the possiblity that the ship is sinking and that the plane is perhaps a military aircraft, watched by an impassive child who already knows the world is a dangerous place. One could also read into it the current tensions between China and Japan, which are very evident here. One shop in Xi'an has a handwritten sign at the front saying "No Japanese People in this Shop". 

Bu Hua Untitled, size: 60cmx84cm, year :2012, edition:1/1, print on wood block.
image courtesy the artist
So - back to Xi'an:
I have a jumbled series of visual images in my head.  From today's visit to the museum, the beautiful Tang Dynasty figures of moon-faced court ladies with extraordinary hair-dos and gracefully sinuous curving bodies - I love them. My favourites are definitely the polo-playing girls. More feisty young women who apparently could play as equals with men. Like Bu Hua's confident and independent Young Pioneer who navigates her world alone, there is a history of strong women in China, side by side with the dark stain of misogyny that also runs through its history. Holding up half the sky, indeed.

My memories of Xi'an will include:
Beautiful tree-lined streets with grey-walled and grey-tiled courtyard houses inside the city walls. The Drum and Bell Towers illuminated at night. The endless rows of street-snack vendors selling grilled octopus, lamb, kidneys, tripe, fried bananas, spirals of apple and sausages made of wheat- basically anything you can imagine on a skewer and grilled. Mounds of walnuts, dates, pomegranates, dried fruits of all kinds. Men pounding peanuts with giant wooden mallets to make a paste-like confectionary, and pulling silky strands of ginger toffee on huge hooks. Semolina and sesame cakes. You suddenly remember that this is the start of the Silk Road. Not attracted to the boiled goats' feet, nor to the boiled frogs on the menu of a local restaurant, I have eaten beautiful noodles and dumplings filled with lotus and fennel. And found peaceful moments in a temple suddenly discovered in a side street near the city walls, and in a restored courtyard house in the Muslim Quarter.