An unbending Chinese artist: Zeng Shanqing is free again

Zeng Shanqing is a painter whose sense of artistic integrity never wavered during bitter years of criticism for ''black paintings.''

''Whatever you really feel you want to paint, you must paint,'' he said in a recent interview. ''If you are sincere, if you are true to your work, in the end people will understand. Human life is short, but history is long.''

Brave words these, and spoken as often in the West as in the East. But in China, where the memory of the 10-year Cultural Revolution period remains fresh, Mr. Zeng's words have a special poignancy.

Mr. Zeng and his wife Yang Yanping (in China women keep their own names when they marry) paint with equal skill in Western oils and Chinese watercolors. She was his student before she became his wife, and in their lives they have shared bitter and sweet.

Mr. Zeng, born in a modest family, loved to draw and paint from childhood. His father wanted him to work for the railroad, feeling it provided lifetime job security. But at 14 Mr. Zeng got himself accepted by what later became the Central Academy of Art in Peking. Here his talent was recognized and he was befriended by Xu Beihong, then president of the academy, and by Wu Zuoren, then head of the oil painting department.

Mr. Zeng remembers how he wept aloud the day his first set of oil paints was stolen.

He had scrimped and saved for months to order the paints from Shanghai. The day before his class was to begin, someone took his paints from his locker. Messrs. Xu and Wu saved the day by each giving him a set of paints, the remaining colors of which he still treasures.

A star pupil, he won prizes repeatedly during his four years at the academy. After graduating in 1950, he worked for a while at his alma mater, but then was transferred to Qinghua University to teach landscape painting and Western art history in 1952. He remained in this position until 1979.

Mr. Zeng seemed well on his way to recognition as a major young artist when in 1964 he was accused of having ''uglified the working masses'' in Diego Rivera-like paintings such as ''At Rest'' and ''Father of the Sea.''

There followed several years of hard physical labor in the countryside, both before and during the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile, in 1958 Yang Yanping took her degree in architecture from Qinghua University (it was Mr. Zeng's lecture on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel that brought them together), and then spent a number of years teaching factory design at the Peking Industrial College. Never formally trained in art, she yet felt more and more that her vocation was painting, not architectural design.

She found a measure of fulfillment when asked to join a theater to create stage sets. During the Cultural Revolution she became a member of a team of ''artist-workers'' painting such monumental works as heroic outdoor portraits of Chairman Mao. It was hard and sometimes dangerous, particularly during Peking's gusty winds, and scarcely creative, but she says she got useful practice in painting portraits and landscapes.

It is only since the downfall of the ''gang of four,'' headed by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, in 1976, that the Zengs have been able to devote their full time to the painting they love. Mr. Zeng is an associate professor at the Central Academy of Art, while his wife is a member of the Peking Academy of Painters.

During a recent visit to their tiny apartment in the northwestern corner of Peking, I was shown scroll after scroll of their latest works and some of their earlier Western paintings, including ''The Sea.''

The original title of ''The Sea'' was ''At Rest,'' and Mr. Zeng painted it as a gouache in 1962. He changed the title when he redid the painting in oil in 1979, after he had regained his artistic freedom. Both in the gouache and the oil, the subject is two bronzed fishermen at rest on the light brown sand, their broad backs facing the viewer, their eyes looking out to the sea. Mr. Zeng has deliberately placed the figures in the upper right hand two-thirds of his canvas , so that there is a vast expanse of brownish sand in the foreground.

''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.''

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.''

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