SHANGHAI — IN a tiny atelier perched above a tree-lined street in the old French quarter of Shanghai, Qiu Deshu takes up a red-tassled calligraphy brush and turns his thoughts to nature. Dressed in flowing, white silk pajamas, the artist crafts a huge, rainbow-colored collage from layers of painted rice paper, ripped to create the hundreds of natural rifts, or ``liehen,'' that are his signature.
An embracing family, moons, animals, and other shapes float among the deep maze of rifts in Qiu's arresting murals, which seem to dance on studio walls.
``My paintings are like Buddhist allegories,'' Qiu says softly, sipping green tea during a break. Through art, he hopes to spark a sudden insight into man's suffering, harmony with nature, and the evanescence of life.
``Seeing a crack, stone, or falling leaf, a person can suddenly become spiritually detatched. In an instant, he can understand that life is a dream, a void, like air.''
One of Shanghai's most promising avant-guard artists, Qiu has attracted keen interest from foreign collectors and chic galleries in major art markets like Hong Kong and New York. In July, Hong Kong's fashionable Plum Blossoms gallery featured Qiu in a successful one-man show.
But here, public apathy and Communist Party censorship of the arts have driven Qiu, his wife, and 12-year-old son into a life of seclusion and relative anonymity in their third-storey room, once part of a wealthy French residence.
Like many bold, independent-minded artists, Qiu has come to view a life aloof from the communist-run society as the best safeguard for his creative freedom, integrity, and peace of mind.
``My neighbors leave me alone. For this, I thank them,'' admits Qiu, as footsteps creak past on the oak staircase beyond his studio door.
``They don't understand me. And in fact, sometimes I feel I don't want them to understand.''
The party's crushing of popular protests for democracy in June 1989 marked the beginning of yet another campaign to silence those Chinese artists and officials pushing the limits of cultural freedom.
Experimental films, controversial exhibits of nudes and ``action art,'' and probing, critical dramas have virtually disappeared from Chinese cities, while many privately run music halls have shut down.
In recent months, party hardliners have purged writer Wang Meng and actor Ying Ruocheng from their posts as minister and vice minister of culture. Editors of several leading arts publications have also been dismissed for their liberal views.
Meanwhile, party ideologues have resurrected as a ``guiding principle'' Mao Zedong's 1942 dictum that artists should form a ``cultural army'' devoted to revolutionary aims.
Yet despite the cultural chill, Qiu and many other artists remain quietly determined to foster a truly distinctive, modern art in China. This spirit, along with Qiu's warmth and inegnuous manner, infuse his works.
Ironically, Qiu's commitment to artistic freedom grew out of his rejection of socialist realism, the style that he blindly embraced as a zealous teenage Red Guard during Mao's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. In his spare time from a job tending a coal furnace at a leather factory, Qiu dabbled in painting propaganda posters and portraits of Mao and other leaders, some of which were displayed at national exhibitions.
``I was pretty good as a revolutionary painter,'' says Qiu, a grin brightening his cherubic face. ``I was totally faithful to Maoism.''
``I didn't even sign the paintings with my chop. We were opposing individualism at the time,'' he laughs.
But Qiu gradually grew disillusioned with serving the revolution, as did many fellow members of China's ``lost generation,'' which came of age during the decade of Maoist fanaticism.
``It was all too unreal. We were duping people,'' reflects Qiu.
In the cultural flowering of the post-Mao era in the late 1970s, Qiu left the factory and joined a neighborhood arts center as a teacher and painter. He turned briefly to the study of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy under Shanghai master Chen Jialing, but was soon frustrated by the obsession with technique and repetition of ancient styles.
So in 1979, Qiu organized the highly controversial Grass Grass Art Society, an independent group of 12 young artists devoted to innovation and ``bringing spring to the arts.''
But shortly after its members staged their first exhibition in 1980, Grass Grass was disbanded by party officials fearful that the maverick group could spark demands for political freedom. Officially censured and branded a renegade, Qiu was forbidden to paint for three years.
``I was demoralized, but I kept painting secretly to comfort myself. I had to save my soul,'' Qiu recalled later.
Qiu turned inward, to the Buddhist beliefs taught him by his parents, both deeply faithful, who had taken him to a temple to make offerings each week when he was a boy. In a sect of Buddhism similar to Zen, Qiu found the strength and inspiration that would nurture his own, unique artistic style in coming years.
In 1985, recognition of Qiu's bold, fluent style by American art historian Joan Cohen and other foreign experts won him an invitation to Tufts University in Boston. There, he spent a year as artist-in-residence, completing a gigantic mural for the campus.
Returning to China in 1986, Qiu bought his home and studio with US $20,000 saved from art sales and quit his job at the cultural center, a highly unusual step in a country where employers provide everything from housing and food rations to haircuts.
Bouyed by exhibits and frequent sales of his paintings in the United States, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Qiu has achieved what very few other young Chinese painters have: the modicum of freedom vital for an artist to mature and thrive.
Today, Qiu spends each day from morning to night painting in his studio, breaking only for meals, visits with friends, or evening reading.
``It will be extremely difficult for China to create its own, distinctive modern art when most people have to paint in their spare time,'' says Qiu.
``You need an independent spirit to become a truly independent artist.''