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Just as early symbols tell us something of the mystical beliefs of ancient China, later symbols were revelatory in respect of popular superstitions and aspirations in a society with an expanded bourgeois class. Ever-present was the urge to reach higher in this hierarchy, as well as acknowledging the time-honoured Chinese ideals of wealth, health, happiness and longevity. The mystical forces and organisms of nature in early art were transformed in succeeding periods, into ubiquitous symbols. Flowers, plants, birds, insects and animals were increasingly absorbed into the endless repertoire of visual puns and auspicious symbols.As we encounter New China, this use of symbolic language enters into a new phase of creativity.

The early Republic period (1912-1949) of my father’s youth was an era of reformation and modern ideals. Political and intellectual ideas flowed into China from the West and the gilded youth of that time sought and found much to emulate not just in dress, science and philosophy, but in art as well. Early pioneering artists such as Xu Beihong and Lin Fengmian schooled in the Chinese art of painting, moved to Paris to conquer new worlds. However, on their eventual return to the turbulent China of the warlords, their new currency found few outlets and they reverted to brush painting -Xu using symbols such as the lion and pine tree as symbols of upstanding patriotism, Lin painting Chinese subjects such as landscapes and mythical figures from Beijing opera with cubist and fauvist vigour, presenting Old China in a new light.

After the Bamboo Curtain came down in 1949, there came a gradual exclusion of all things western. Dialectic Communism in increasingly Chinese forms was put into practice, in a way reminiscent of the evolution of Buddhism in the 6th Century, when Chinese Buddhist thought led to new schools of Chan (Zen),Tiantai or Zhenyan.The mid-20th century movement spawned its own brand of Realist art and symbols. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, popular art habitually proclaimed the moral supremacy of Mao Zedong, while other luminaries such as Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai had earlier become icons on the stamps and posters of the 1960s. From that time until about 1982, art served the state as a means of popular instruction.The later era of Deng Xiaoping saw a relaxation in the censorship of western ideas and images.

China’s awakening to Post-War contemporary art of the West at this time produced both a revolution and a revision. Apart from Yang Mao-Lin from Taiwan, all the other contemporary artists in this exhibition were born and schooled in Mainland China.The works I have chosen all show a deliberate intent to refer to the past through the use of resonant symbols while simultaneously disconnecting them from their fundamental ideals.The bound foot as an ideal of feminine beauty held men in thrall for hundreds of years. In Luo Xu’s work, is the kicking foot an act of defiance, or can we read this as symbolizing the lot of women in China, even today? The stainless steel scholars’ rocks of Zhan Wang – do they mock the literati tradition in Chinese art, or do they pay homage to it?

Open China, the New China of relentless industry, construction and building has created new commentary in symbolic images of deconstruction and dismantling in the chairs of Shao Fan, and the mould-breaking images of Liu Liguo, whether in his version of Mao Zedong ascending Mount Jinggang, almost biblical in its symbolism in Chinese Communist history, or his distortion of an 18th Century Imperial vase.Yang Mao-Lin’s work, from the other side of the Chinese sea, is literally comical, growing up as he did with the Japanese legacy of Anime in Taiwan. Where childrens’ gods are the heroes of these fictions, they masquerade in his bronzes as the magical, shamanistic beings of Tibetan Buddhism.

Perhaps the most trenchant Chinese statement comes from Cai Zhisong. His return to the most iconic media of Chinese painting and early Chinese writing on bamboo strips, but in lead and without any trace of what they are meant to accommodate, is a testament to and a comment on the durability and questionability not only of the traditions, but also the criticism of Chinese artists aping the West.The symmetry and dissonance with the past is startling. Each artist has stamped his personality, if not a signature or date, on his creations.The hierarchy within which he works is no longer a system of patrons, but of clients and critics. He criticizes, he may even dissent. What can we infer from these works, seen alongside those from the distant past?

The answer lies in the questions: I leave the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.

Anthony Lin
January 2006

Warring States (475-221BC)
9 3/8” (23.8cm) long