An unbending Chinese artist: Zeng Shanqing is free again
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''I am a northerner,'' he recalls, ''used to cloudy skies and flat fields of grain. In 1962 I made my first visit to the south, spending two months on an island off the Guandong coast. The sun was so strong, the sea and sky so blue, and the fishermen, well, they were so powerful, their skin such a deep, deep red , I just sketched and painted all day in a kind of frenzy.''Skip to next paragraph
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His Guangdong paintings were exhibited in 1963 and received nationwide favorable attention. But the following year, the tide changed abruptly. Mr. Zeng was accused of having made workers look ugly, and the label ''black'' was attached to his paintings. He was packed off to the countryside for two years to ''change my thinking.''
However, this treatment was relatively mild compared to what happened to him after the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. He steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his paintings vilified the working masses, and in 1969 he was sent off, again, this time to do a real farmer's work, toting 220-pound sacks of rice and standing all day in paddies infested with the blood fluke, a dreaded parasite.
''I did good work,'' he recalls. ''I could transplant two mou (about one-third of an acre) of rice per day, whereas most intellectuals sent to the countryside could transplant only about a third as much. But I refused to admit I had been wrong, so I had to stay in the countryside.''In 1972 when Premier Chou En-lai ordered that intellectuals be allowed to return to the cities, I came back to Peking, but had to work at my university as a house repairman, not as a professor, because I still would not admit having been in error.''
In 1976 the ''gang of four'' was overthrown. The following year Mr. Zeng was completely exonerated and returned to his teaching position. Meanwhile his wife Yanping was shifted from the arduous ''artist-worker'' team to the Museum of Chinese History on Tian An Men Square, where she painted historical themes related to exhibits in the museum.
In 1979 Mr. Zeng's oil painting ''The Sea'' (redone from the earlier gouache) was part of an exhibition in Peking commemorating the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Thus, officially, was his work vindicated. Colleagues suggested he should concentrate his energies on oil.
But Mr. Zeng was more and more interested in traditional Chinese painting. He and his wife went to the town of Yangsuo below Guilin on the Li River, and there he found himself fascinated by the abrupt, fanciful shapes of the hills rising straight up from the river banks and used as recurring themes by centuries of Chinese painters.
He roamed the grasslands of Qinghai, sketching Tibetan herdsmen and transferring these sketches onto rice paper with quick, fluent strokes, characteristic of Chinese ink and brush.
Yang Yanping, meanwhile, was establishing her own new vocabulary -- onion seeds sprouting in a microcosm of the rhythm of the universe, the wrinkled face of a Tibetan absorbed in memories of an idyllic past, spare strokes and muted colors suggesting spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
But the two artists' interest in Chinese painting by no means suggests that they have turned their backs on the West. They would love nothing better than to see at first hand the artistic heritage and rich variety of current Western trends and schools.
''Chinese painting has splendid, rich traditions that go back for thousands of years,'' says Mr. Zeng. ''But we should never forget that these traditions are splendid and rich precisely because in some of its greatest periods Chinese painting has been open to influences coming in from the outside.
''The Dunhuang cave paintings are a marvelous example of this. The Tang dynasty was a true world empire, a crossroads of world culture.
''Some people talk of Western and Chinese art as if there were a conflict between them, as if you cannot be true to one without excluding the other. But I see no conflict at all.
''Today, under the policies of our leaders since the fall of the gang of four , China has once again opened its doors wide to the outside world, and these doors cannot be shut any more. This is the period in which I, for one, feel I must learn and absorb all that is vital and valid in Western art - and my wife feels the same way. That is the only way in which we can help to keep our own Chinese art a living language.''