Rising up to meet the sky

By , Zeng Shanqing is a contemporary painter well known both for his oils and for his traditional Chinese watercolor paintings.

Ever since childhood I have always loved to draw. Animals fascinated me, as did clouds. In our small courtyard in Peking I used to scurry up a tree to get closer to the sky and catch the music of the clouds. They would form and dissolve, form and dissolve, so quickly. I could not bear to miss a single moment.

The time in my life when drawing meant the most to me was during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, when I was forbidden to draw. Some of those sketches, which I drew in great haste and secrecy, are today among my most prized possessions.

It is difficult to describe the Cultural Revolution to those who did not live through it. In my case, I was branded a ''black painter,'' on the grounds that paintings of fishermen which I had done a few years earlier ''uglified the working masses.'' I was dismissed from my position teaching drawing, watercolor, and art history at Qinghua University and packed off to a so-called ''May 7 Cadre school'' in Jiangsi Province.

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I was one of a thousand inmates, all from Qinghua University. Some had been respected professors of physics or chemistry. Many were old and infirm. Fortunately I was still in my 30s and not afraid of hard work.

''Cadre school,'' in our case, was a euphemism for a labor camp, a state farm. Most of us were intellectuals, considered to belong to, or to be followers of, the capitalist class. We were to remold our thinking through a combination of hard physical labor and continuous study of Chariman Mao's thoughts.

We arose at 4 every morning and were out in the fields by 5. We plowed, hoed, planted, weeded, reaped, threshed - in fair weather and in foul - or else we engaged in various kinds of construction work. I carried 90-kilogram bags of rice, or 40 bricks per load. In the evenings, or when the weather was really bad , we studied the works of Chairman Mao.

I did not mind the physical labor, but I could not bear not to be allowed to draw. My old teacher and benefactor, Xu Beihong, used to tell me constantly, ''Singing is inseparable from having a mouth; boxing is inseparable from having fists.'' In other words, practice makes perfect.

But according to the official doctrine, all inmates of the camp had come to remold their thinking, to give their all for the revolution. That meant we could not practice our own skills, whatever they were. And in addition, I was a ''black painter.''

I was determined not to let my fingers lose the feel of drawing. I would hide a small sketch pad under my shirt, and once we were outside, whenever people were not looking, I would hurriedly bring it out and begin to draw. I rarely had more than five minutes.

Every precious second counted. Our farm was very close to Poyang Lake, China's largest freshwater lake. Every day I drank in the vast panorama of land and water and sky. The clouds there were as fast-moving as those I remembered from childhood, and my vision was not restricted by city walls and rooftops, as in Peking.

In that vast landscape I felt myself part of the millennial current of Chinese history and civilization. I thought of the Tang poet, Wang Buo, who wandered by Lake Poyang and sang: autumn water stretches out to meet the sky; sunset clouds and a lone duck fly up together.

How many poets and painters since Wang Buo had seen this same landscape? Compared with the rich totality of Chinese culture and civilization, how ephemeral was the Cultural Revolution. I was sure that someday I would be able to draw and paint again - not hurriedly or in secret, but boldly, for all the world to see.

My experience at the May 7 Cadre school lasted 21/2 years, from 1969 to 1971. The camp was closed on orders from Premier Zhou En-lai and we were all allowed to go back to Qinghua University. In my case, I was still not permitted to teach. Because I never recanted my insistence that my paintings were not black, I was placed on the university maintenance crew and continued to work as a manual laborer. I was not rehabilitated until 1977, after the fall of the ''gang of four.''

Today I feel more free than at any time since the establishment of the People's Republic. I am an associate professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. I can travel throughout China. I can paint as I please.

But I will never forget my stay at the May 7 Cadre school, nor the small, hasty sketches I made there. They remind me that the creative impulse can master every adverse circumstance. Like the lone duck of Wang Buo's poem, I too can fly up into the rosy clouds of sunset.

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