The Changzhou Clay Art Club is truly a multipurpose space. I have passed by this place for a year or two in the back of Qianbeian in downtown Changzhou. This is a tiny little historic district next to where they are building the Wenhuagong / Downtown Metro Station. It’s on a back street and near a few small cafes and tailor shops. I have had a hard time locating an address or a map location. Not too long ago, I got to see the inside of the this arts and crafts club.
It has the feel of a sculpture gallery. The owner, actually, is a not only a skilled sculptor himself, but he is also works for Tianning Temple. Some of the religious themes have carried over into his private work on display here. Many of the pieces are available to purchase, so the Clay Art Club also functions at a place where one could get decor to spruce up a living space.
However, I did state earlier that the place works as a multi-use space.
It also functions as an arts education center. However, I got to know this place for the first time for a fundamentally different reason.
There are two rooms available here for hosting events. Two good friends of mine recently held a farewell party here. They were two of long term residents who had lived in Changzhou for many, many years. For personal reasons, they opted to return to Australia. They will be dearly missed.
It’s not everyday that you look at a work of traditional Chinese art and become reminded of Millia Jovovich and sub-par horror movies, but that did happen to me, and it did happen in Changzhou. How is this possible? I was looking at the above sculpture. Specifically, I was looking at the pits, nooks and crannies in the dog’s torso, and I had a vague feeling I saw something similar once. It had something to do with tendons and ligaments stretched over bare, exposed bone. And then it hit me all at once: Resident Evil. The above sculpture was reminding me of the zombie canines featured in that movie adaptation of a video game.
Actually, a lot of Tu Yidao’s work made my mind lurch towards the grotesque.
Tu Yidao 屠一道, a native to Changzhou, was born in 1913, and he went on to attract fame across China for a very particular form of Chinese art: root carving.
The tradition of carving roots extends back thousands of years to the Warring States period. In art, form is often an extension of the medium. Some of resulting sculptures take on a slightly grotesque appearance because the wood being used is oddly shaped in its natural state. It takes a skilled eye to actually look at a stump and network of roots and see a peacock. It takes even more skill to then fashion that tree root into something resembling an actual peacock or any other type of bird.
Or a horse.
The Changzhou municipal government began funding a small museum in Tu Yidao’s honor in the 1980’s, according to the Chinese language Baidu version of Wikipedia. So, this place has been around for a long time. I have been there a few times since I moved here in 2014. Sometimes I have gone there, and the doors were locked. Other times, it has been open. It sometimes felt like a gamble on whether the place remained open to the public or not.
It’s relatively tiny, and it’s in a northern corner of Hongmei Park — not to far from the RT Mart near the downtown train station. It costs five RMB to get in, and each time I visited, the worker behind the front desk had to turn the lights on. Each time I have visited, though, I have always left thinking about more than just zombie movies and reanimated canines. Chinese culture is more inventive than what some foreigners give it credit for.
If there is one things many Americans love to watch on TV, it’s documentaries about UFO sightings and conspiracy theories about alien visitation. The History Channel even has that and gets all Erich Von Daniken in probing ancient history and art for alleged ET references. The show is called Ancient Aliens and it has the habit of saying the most outlandish and absurd things by phrasing them as questions. For example: “Were the ancient Hindu gods actually astronauts from another world?” That’s not an actual quote, but something I made up that channels the spirit of the show. And trust me, that TV program has likely said something very similar.
One of the show’s frequent contributors has a hair style so bad, it rivals the current American president as the worst ever in human history. This contributor is also the subject of rampant social media memes in American social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. I will admit that watching this stuff about UFO’s is a guilty pleasure that I actually share with my dad. I don’t believe any of it, but I find the far-fetched “possibility” entertaining to consider. Then again, my dad and I are science fiction nerds. Of course we like looking at strange things. But, I found myself pondering extra terrestrials in Xinbei, and I let my brain wander into Ancient Aliens question mode. This is why.
One night recently, I left my ebike at a bar that will not be named. At the time, it was raining and didn’t want to ride back and get drenched. The next morning, I walked to retrieve it and I noticed some strange art on the back of some of the buildings. This is on a backstreet that runs north-to-south parallel to Tongjiang Road in Xinbei. I saw some weird-but-simplistic artwork painted dark grey on light grey brick. While the front of the building has shop fronts and none of this, back the structure is largely derelict and empty. Parts of the building look like they are being currently gutted.
I couldn’t decide whether I was looking at aliens, cats, or ghosts. For the rest of my stroll, I gleefully puzzled out this nonsense and what it meant. Give me some leeway; it was a fun distraction from walking in cold and drizzle. I also developed my own theory. But, allow me to mimic the intellectual slight of hand Ancient Aliens uses. Could it be that these weird images are actually related to an after-school arts education center in the building?
One of the nice things about the Changzhou Museum are the temporary exhibits. This are quite often a good reason for return visits from time to time. Recently, there has been gallery showing of the work of Wei Huabang.
Print making is unique art in that it actually creates two works of art. One is the image produced on paper, and the other is the print itself. In a way, it ends up being a bas relief sculpture of sorts.
The focus of the exhibit seems to be more of a career retrospective. The themes are varied to industrial at points to natural scenery and more abstract works. While Wei does traditional printmaking by carving out images with knives, he also has pioneered of rubbing paper onto stones to create detailed works of texture.
There are a few weeks left before this exhibit goes away. It can be found on the ground floor of the musuem.
Could the Mona Lisa have been painted on a single kernel of rice? Yes, it sounds like a fundamentally absurd question, but then again, the Changzhou Museum currently has a mind blowing temporary exhibit that led me to ask myself the question in the first place. Zhang Quanhai specializes in making colorful art so small, you need a magnifying glass just to look at it. He uses tiny, polished stones. While many are bigger than a rice kernel, the amount of precision and skill it takes create such small pictures is a bit breath taking. The exhibit is divided into two sections. One has the stones in ornate display boxes, and the other has Zhang’s work with magnifying glasses positioned over them. Out of the two options, the magnifying glasses were a better viewing experience. It allowed me, at least, to fully appreciate talent it takes to produce such tiny works of art. Time is running out on this exhibit, however. I cannot read Chinese, but the sign said it was supposed to end a few days ago. If it is still there, it’s on the third floor.
Some foreigners have at one point in their life said a variation of the following: “China would cease to function without red stamps.” That would be a reference to the red circle and star you would see on any official document, contract, or even bank paperwork and receipts. Here is an example a little close to home for me. Lets say you take a job teaching at a Chinese college. You sign your new contract, but the contract is not actually valid until it gets a red stamp from an very important person — usually a vice president or another type of administrator.
Whether the joke is actually funny or true or not is best left for another time. There is a broader issue to consider. Red stamps on official documents are not entirely a new thing in China. Actually, it is a very old part of the culture dating back thousands of years. Imperial officers used them all the time, and they usually stamped in red ink. The first Qin emperor — the guy buried with the Terracotta Warriors — had one created that became an heirloom passed down through generations.
The craft of carving and creating these stamps is an art often closely related to calligraphy. It survives in Chinese culture to this day. However, seal cutting is much harder than calligraphy. A Chinese friend once told me that “all cutters are good calligraphers, but being a good calligrapher doesn’t guarantee the skills needed for carving.” Engraving the characters requires a strong but delicate hand. Also, all the Chinese characters must be cut in reverse. This is to ensure the character looks right once ink is applied and the stamp is put to paper. This requires the artist to practically know how to write mirror, backward images of hundreds of Chinese characters.
Seal carving extends beyond just making square or rectangular red stamps. Some of it functions a little closer to calligraphy by stringing characters together into a sentence or a proverb. As a rule, red is always used for official business. Stamps in black ink and other colors are for personal use. Examples of this can be seen in the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei. This month, an exhibit opened showcasing the work of Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲. But the stone seals and the red and black stamps themselves are on display in glass cases. Some of Jiang’s regular calligraphy is also being exhibited.
Something else should be noted. Calligraphy is an art that some foreigners may have a hard time appreciating. There really is no cultural equivalent in the West. Seal cutting, on the other hand, might be easier for westerner to comprehend. Printmaking — whether by using woodblocks, zinc plates, or linoleum sheets — does have a long artistic heritage in the west. And seal cutting is a Chinese form of printmaking.
It’s a sad irony. Yun Nantian – a late Ming and early Qing Dynasty painter also internationally known as Yun Shouping – painted nature. He liked to focus on a single plant in isolation, which was usually a flower. This may sound like simple subject matter; however, he chose to render each petal, each leaf in precise detail. His work is also filled with smooth gradients of color. Think of it this way: he could paint reddest part of a flower and then effortlessly transition into a softer shade of pink. His gracefulness with a brush can also been seen with his calligraphy. Vertical lines of poetry accompany most of his work. Even there, his Chinese characters flow with lines and curves that look absolutely effortless. His attention to craft went on to influence many others, leading to a style sometimes referred to as the “Changzhou School of Painting,” So, Yun Nantian painted lovely pictures and wrote lines of memorable poetry. How is any of that sad or ironic?
It’s not the work that’s depressing; it more part of his legacy generations later. In 1633, Yun Nantian was born in what eventually became the current Wujin district of Changzhou. One might think such an influential artist would be celebrated as a hometown hero, right? Not exactly. Changzhou has had history of producing intellectuals that goes back thousands of years. Somehow, Yun Nantian’s legacy seems to have been glossed over.
His former residence has been preserved, but it is closed to the public. The white exterior walls look dingy, and the parts of the roof look severely weathered. That’s the least of the problem, though. Yun Nantian’s home is located in one of the more destitute, remote neighborhoods of western Wujin. For a man that spent so much time and effort painting plants, the neighborhood around his home is devoid of any lush, beautiful natural scenes, and this is not the sort of place you “accidentally” find. You have to go looking for it. For me, that involved using Baidu maps on my phone. Getting there, I rode my eBike through an industrial shopping district. Think of a gigantic strip mall specializing in plywood, drywall, and concrete blocks. By gigantic, I mean it took up several city streets that run parallel to each other.
Even after that, I steered my bike onto a rough road of concrete slabs. After a turn and over a drab looking bridge, I found myself in the sort of colorless stone maze. As usual, my white face drew looks of from the locals. This is easily a place where westerners in Changzhou seldom, if ever, tread. There was brown “cultural” traffic sign in the direct vicinity pointing to Yun Nantian’s home. But that, like the residence itself, looked weathered and aged. Somebody had parallel parked a huge truck next to the front entrance. Yet, the most disturbing thing turned out to be a notice plastered to the door. Since my Chinese skills are not what I like them to be, I snapped a cell phone pic and sent them to my most trusted Chinese friends. Essentially, I asked what does this say?
It was a legal notice from the Changzhou municipal government. A few individuals were mentioned, and shamed, by name. Judging by their family names, the alleged culprits had Yun Nantian as their ancestor. They had claimed the historical site as their inheritance – their birthright. Only, things don’t work that way in Mainland China. Even in age of economic liberalization and “Communism with Chinese Characteristics,” there is no such thing as the private ownership of land. The government owns everything and makes a killing by selling decades-long leases. When it comes to this ruthless aspect of Chinese real estate, Wade Shepard offers a more compelling, more in-depth explanation in his book Ghost Cities of China. As for Yun Nantian’s descendents, the promised retribution was clear. They had been accused of illegally occupying city property. They had apparently “damaged” the property. They were to pay a very hefty fine, and they were to turn over any profit they had made from using the premises. This was also just the opening salvo. They city government promised an even worse penalty if the alleged offenders did not comply. This notice was also written on January 23, 2015 – seven months before I went looking for any vestiges of Yun Nantian in Wujin.
There is another notable location to consider. The renowned painter’s grave is also located in Wujin. However, like his old home, it’s in an out of the way, nearly obscure place. Wujin is a huge district. The college town is the last major, built-up, urban area the further south you go. The Science and Education complex stands next door. However, if you go east by one more city map grid, you will end up in farmland. Yun Nantian’s grave is located there. Getting there requires first going to the middle section of Xiacheng Road – the area that has an intersection with Mingxin Road in the south and Gehu in the north. The road into the farming area starts wide at first, but that gives way to rough, crumbling concrete. This stone path forks, and once you veer north, the grave site is easy to spot. It’s a small walled-in compound.
Like his former residence, his resting place seems closed to the public. Each time I have visited, there big brown entrance doors were padlocked. If Google Translate can be trusted, the site had revamped and refurbished a couple of years ago. You can tell, too. The surrounding walls have a fresh, unweathered coat of white paint. While the doors were locked, I was able to peer through two glassless windows. I wasn’t able to see much, but I did see enough to know the place was being routinely cared for. The grass had been cut, and the plants were not overgrown into a jumbled thicket. Somebody had left a hose and bucket out. I tried sticking my arm through the window to take a couple of pictures, but I didn’t get much – the curved outline of a small gazebo. Reviewing my digital snapshots later, I did find one thing apropos to Yun Nantian’s spirit. When I stuck my arm and camera through the window, I ended up with some useless pics. One, however, depicted a few green leaves crisp against a blurred background.
Note: This has been crossposted from my personal blog, where it was originally published.