Memory is like a dusty storehouse, where old forgotten things turn up when you least expect. Sometimes you don’t even know what meaning they hold anymore, but there they are. Quietly, a hand reaches out and links them with the present day. You may think your present self has departed from these things long ago. You may think you are a completely new you. You may have a glint in your eye as you try to measure up this past, this life you think has nothing to do with the present you. But this cannot be done. There will be a day, a moment, when it runs into you. The past is your DNA, fused into your every cell, becoming a part of you, and manipulating your actions. The bustle of the present has paved over the silence of yesterday, but yesterday always gazes at you from the distance of the past. Memory holds the past there in a particular way. It may collapse, it may be destroyed, or it may surge forth like a flood, but it always recedes, and the hills and mountain peaks will always reemerge. The past does not disappear. There is no possibility of escaping it. Even turning back the currents of time and returning to the source cannot save us from retracing its path.
Sometimes you search through the memories, hoping to find something meaningful to you amidst the chaos, but you are disappointed. Trivial details float to the surface, like scattered islands in a vast sea, drawing in your gaze until you see nothing else, and you stare until they sink to the sea floor, or fade off into the distance.
What is a person? Perhaps we are a series of memories. When we lose our memories, we truly cease to exist. Yet, within memories, there are always things that clash with the present, which seem to violate taboos. As a result, many valuable memories sink into the darkness and disappear forever. If, one day, the presentation of memories serve merely as a return to history, a reexamination of past events, so that we may avoid retracing our steps, then the memories presented will no longer be the subject of blame, but will be accepted, standing as milestones warning us as we constantly move forward, even though they are full of absurdity, and even tragedy.
At times, when I sit quietly alone, I search for the sources of my memories, but they are swallowed by the boundless darkness. Every once in a while, a trace emerges under a ray of light, but it cannot be recognized. Life began in the primordial chaos, and to the primordial chaos it will return.
In the depths of my memories, I can faintly see some narrow alleyway, a dim street light and the old doors to the nursery. My parents carried me in, then left me there, crying. An old wooden room, an orderly row of small beds, boundless darkness, boundless solitude. Every once in a while, I would glimpse an old auntie flitting about between the beds. I could smell the stench of her body. Over sixty years later, I am astonished to find that not only do these details of memory remain, but that they can emerge so clearly from the darkness.
I do not know when I left that little room and moved in with my grandmother. That was at an old house on Gangong Shrine Street. As night approached, groups of cockroaches would crawl back and forth on the hearth, lit by candlelight and faint street lights. At the full moon, Grandma would bake moon cakes and leave them on the table. In the mornings, I would go down to the street and watch the people walking by, as well as the geese strolling around. They would often nip at my legs and chase me all over the place. I remember one day I picked up a rock along the road, and threw it at a passerby’s head. I can’t understand it now. I was only five years old at the time.
I moved again, this time to live with my parents at the textile mill living quarters. That was a wide open room with bright lights and clean floors. Juniper trees outside gave off a refreshing aroma, and I woke each morning to the calls of ducks. I entered preschool soon after. The food there was very bland, often gourd soup in clear broth, with a few tiny pieces of unseasoned pork floating in it. Every once in a while, we were given a bit of horse meat. It was tough to chew, but very flavorful. I still remember it well. I know now that those were extraordinary times, when many people starved to death, we were very lucky to have enough to eat.
My memories after that were pure chaos. It was the late 1950s, the Great Leap Forward. All the people engaged in steel smelting, the clangs of hammers and blaze of furnaces filling the air, the ground covered in useless clumps of iron looking like clumps of manure. The elders told us they could be used to make airplanes and cannons.
Before long, I moved again, into a Western-style house with an attic. It was a French-style house from the 1940s, but unfortunately, during the Great Leap Forward, all of the pipes and door handles had been stripped away to make iron ingots. In those days, everyone was forced to hand over their stoves to serve as raw material for the furnaces. This was followed by the collective mess halls, and the days when we didn’t have to cook.
The early 1960s saw frequent political campaigns and a very tense atmosphere. Everyone spoke in hushed tones with grave expressions.
Bulletins were often posted in the streets and alleys, with red brushstrokes across the top, and the chief judge’s signature at the bottom. These were execution edicts. The execution grounds were on Mount Hongshan. The bolder kids would run over to watch, and come back pale in the face. The execution grounds are long gone now, covered by tall towers, a residence compound brimming with flowers and trees. The old scene has now faded into distant memories. Legend has it that wolves were often spotted at Hongshan. Perhaps they were there to gnaw at the discarded bodies, or maybe they came to console the spirits of the departed.
The Textile Mill Primary School, where I studied, was located alongside Haigeng Road. It was the most scenic school in the frontier city that was Kunming at that time. It was built in the early 1940s, designed by a French architect. The seven or eight buildings were scattered throughout a forest. The buildings originally served as a private club for high ranking employees at the mill. A clear stream flowed along the north and east sides of the campus, with fields stretching out as far as the eye could see to the south and west, the horizon capped by the Western Hills, towering over Lake Dian. The gate to the school opened to a long, tree-lined road. In summer, the trees would produce white flowers, and release a pleasing aroma. In summer, a riotous profusion of wildflowers would rise around the classrooms, with butterflies and beetles flitting about the yard.
In six years of primary school, we mostly studied easy, straightforward stories such as the stories of Hai Wa, Liu Wenxue, Huang Jiguang, Qiu Shaoyun, Liu Hulan, and the Capture of Luding Bridge. We would sometimes read such things as Cao Chong Weighs the Elephant, Mr. Dong Guo, The Extra Lute Player, and the Selected Prose of Lu Xun. I think that at an age when someone needs enlightenment, at this key point for the formation of a person’s character, they should be reading the words of the great philosophers, scientists, writers and artists of China and around the world, from ancient to modern times. Steeped in such timeless classics, the student can learn to think independently, and grow into a person with strong judgment, creativity and a healthy character. Sadly, due to ideological interference, several generations of people went without a complete education, which has inevitably led to missing character, chaotic values and a lack of independent thinking. The so called “educated youth” were typical victims of this deficiency, buried alive by the era.
Soviet cinema and literature were imported into China on a massive scale in the 1950s and 60s, forming a powerful influence in China. The sweeping, profound atmosphere unique to Soviet cinema still lingers over the hearts of many today. Atmosphere is a magical element. Once it has been established in the mind, it is hard to stamp out. It forms into a field in the mind, one which drags on any external things that enter, until they take on this atmosphere themselves. Diverse waves of thinking flooded in from the West in the 1980s, breaking the monotony of the past, and establishing a much broader field in many people’s minds, which is fortunate. It is only in broad fields that good judgment can grow, and a better future can be nurtured.
My father was a machinist at the textile mill. Having graduated from an American mission school, he could read English and say some scattered American slang. My grandfather served in the Yunnanese Army, and was surnamed Dai. According to my grandmother, he was an advisor to Tang Jiyao who was sent off to the Battle of Taierzhuang, never to return. After my father graduated from the mission school, he worked for a time as a pharmacist before taking over for a friend at the textile mill. He signed in under his friend’s name, and thus took on the surname Zeng. Beginning in the 1950s, political campaigns became a common occurrence, and history became a taboo for the Chinese people. Many people stopped talking about the past, never discussing their families, and destroying any old photographs and objects that could cause them trouble. Many scholars have looked back on this period in Chinese history, but the damage has always remained in the shadows, just out of reach. My father began at the textile mill as general staff, but through hard work, he taught himself to become a machinist. He carefully researched the machines, and improved many of their parts. As a child I would often look at my father’s drawings of the cold machinery. Sometimes I would wake up late at night, and see him moving around the metal parts under the light, the table covered in drawings and tools of various sizes. Every once in a while he would draw people to amuse himself, but they never moved me. I was into comic books and catching birds and bugs. During the Cultural Revolution, my father was branded as an academic authority and sent to the mountains in Daguan County, Zhaotong Prefecture, for reeducation through labor. It’s a remote region with precarious mountain roads, and today is a tourist attraction. All of the old machines in the villages there were fixed up by my father until they ran smoothly. He made a few drawings depicting the local landscape, rendering the deep mountain valleys with no perspective, the people seemingly sliding down the slopes. They were strange, almost primitivist drawings. My father did not return home until the Cultural Revolution ended and the national atmosphere turned for the better. Thankful for his work, the villagers would often send us local produce.
My primary school had an art teacher named Wan Wentao. She was from Zhejiang, and had graduated from Wuxi Normal University. She often had the students draw plaster models. I wasn’t very dedicated in art class, and got mediocre grades. I don’t know why, maybe she saw something in my crude drawings, but whenever we had school events, she would have me draw the picture portions of the games. She never said anything when I was finished, but there was always a faint trace of a smile on the corner of her mouth. Whenever I had a class I didn’t like, I would scribble all over the blank spaces in the textbook to pass those boring hours. Those white plaster models were constantly emerging in my mind. Those simple structures concealed within them something I could not understand. I could detect that much in Mrs. Wan’s reverent tones.
The 1950s and 60s were a time of food shortages and material scarcity, but our family did relatively well. I had twenty to thirty cents to buy breakfast every morning, half of which I would save for the bookstore on the weekends. The employees got to know me over time, as one of their youngest regular customers. They would often recommend books to me, and I would see wonder in their eyes. I never left that bookstore empty-handed. I eventually amassed quite a large collection of books, but during the Cultural Revolution, worried our house would get raided, I stored them all at a relative’s house. I went looking for them when I returned from the countryside in the 1970s, but I couldn’t find a single book. I often think back to that first book collection, wondering what ever happened to them and where they are now.
My middle school art teacher, Mr. Yang Xuechu, had graduated from the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts in the 1950s. He was tall, with a pock-marked face and a resounding, passionate voice. He really cared about his job. I ran into him once years later, and he was very surprised. I wasn’t the student he expected to take the path of the artist.
My peaceful middle school days quickly ended as the Cultural Revolution descended like a great tempest, changing everyone’s lives and transforming me from a “natural person” to a “social person.” In those crazy, blood-soaked days, I witnessed reciprocal violence, and explosions of animal ferocity. In those absurd years, people’s actions became incomprehensible. Everyone entered into a state of crisis, and morality utterly collapsed. Every person found themselves in hell, in a state of constant fear. When I saw the Rebel Faction marching in unison with rifles in their hands, when I saw fragile men and women led up to the “tiger bench,” when I saw countless terrified eyes peering out from the trucks on their way to the execution grounds, I sensed a grave existential threat. In those days, teachers were subject to struggle sessions, books were burned, artifacts were smashed, lives were treated as a joke, and the truth was trampled underfoot. I saw many crazed gazes, many pained faces, many bodies floating in the Panlong River, and many unfortunate souls hanging from the trees. In my later creations, “harm” followed me like a shadow, the harm people bring to other people, the harm people bring to nature, the harm people bring to themselves, these have been my major themes. Conflict and reconciliation are the two extremes of the world, as well as the two extremes of life. The path from conflict to reconciliation, and from reconciliation to conflict, is perhaps the inevitable trajectory of all things. The artist cannot rely on imagination alone to create his works. He must draw from experience and the present reality, and evolve these things into art.
In those years of absurdity, I learned to think. I realized that what I saw with my eyes was not always the truth, and that there are two sides to everything. For any positive side, there must be an equal negative side. In the middle of the Cultural Revolution, nearly twenty million students across the country were unable to continue their studies or find employment. In response, sending “Educated Youths” down to the countryside for “reeducation” became a matter of national policy. Thousands of young men and women were forced to leave their schools for the villages, and I was naturally swept up as well. Accompanied by the tears of family, by the dust flying in the air, and the thunder of engines, I lay down together with unfamiliar students to sleep in the back of trucks, piled up like so much unwanted garbage, like lambs on the way to slaughter. It felt like my soul had already left my body, and was drifting about in a world out of control.
In nearly three years living in the countryside, I came to learn the meaning of the word “peasant”: simple, poor and irrational, a group of people living in an isolated world, a voiceless group, a group that struggles to survive, a group that has no say in their own affairs. Their confusion as they faced the world left me feeling desolate and hopeless. Outside of farm labor, reading was my only comfort. I could lose myself in those words, and in this fantasy world, see a faint glimmer of light.
After I returned from the countryside, I began working at a factory. The monotonous, repetitive labor and the struggle to make a living left me once again desperate and hopeless. In my work, I came to know the suffering of machines. People invented machines, but are in turn constrained by them. Soon after entering the factory, I went to Shanghai for work, and as I strolled along the streets, I came across a painter painting the scenery. A light drizzle sprinkled down from the evening sky. He propped an old paint box against a trash can, and completely ignored the raindrops as he carefully applied the oil colors to assemble a rainy street scene. Something indescribable welled up within me, moving me in a way that lingered for a long time, and grew stronger with each passing day. I realized that a change was taking place within me. Something was awakening from a long slumber.
In the days that followed, I spent most of my time drawing and painting. At the used bookstore, I purchased two Soviet painting textbooks, which were a great help. They remain on my shelf today. The books present the entire painting process in great detail, systematically laying out the progression from geometric sketches to themed creations with the utmost clarity, while also providing an interpretation of the creative motivations of Vasily Surikov and Ilya Repin. Inspired by these two books, I set out on the arduous path of self-learning, followed by continuing education at the art academy. I discovered that what they taught at the academy was no different from what I had been doing on my own, except I was more proactive and had clearer goals, thanks to the guidance of the books. Though I would later turn my back on this creative path to enter into a broader space, I still have great reverence for the system laid out in these books. After all, this system produced such outstanding artists as Surikov and Repin. Such strict painting books as these are a rarity in China’s bookstores today. Now the shelves are full of books on how to pass the entrance examination, and flashy teaching materials that lead students astray. My heart grows cold when I see them.
Destiny brought me together with the painters Li Shixiong and Gao Zhongyan, whom I will always remember for their great guidance. I eventually met many other fellow painters, and through our frequent discussions, my grasp of painting improved. Then, with the help of Li Zhongxiang and Yang Chengzhong, painters at the Yunnan Academy of Painting, as well as Provincial Cultural Department Director Gao Delin, I entered the Yunnan Academy of Painting, and set out on the path of the professional painter.
When I first entered the academy, most of my time was spent collecting folk art and copying ancient murals, but this work also brought many unexpected rewards, giving me a deep understanding of China’s cultural past and the spirit concealed within.
It is difficult to predict what events a person will become involved in, and what kind of person they will become. It is destiny. Looking back, if it weren’t for the Cultural Revolution, if it weren’t for me being sent to the countryside, or working in the factory, I would have perhaps turned into another kind of person, and led a different life.
In artistic activities, I have always felt that art is about more than just perfecting one’s craft. Expressing the artist’s individual perceptions and views on the state of existence is more important. I have also noticed the crucial importance of creative motivation, which has a direct impact on the character, depth and resonance of the artwork. I have a natural affinity for change. I am often drawn to the unknown, and grow tired of the familiar. I have never been good at following things through to the end, and am always turning to new things once I have “had my fun” with something. This is seen as taboo by my peers. I have thought about this, and I know the great benefits of remaining steadfast, but as soon as I enter the studio, this understanding disappears without a trace. There are limits to people’s behavior, and nothing can escape the cycle of birth, growth, maturation and decline. Is it possible to use unchanging methods to express different concepts? When facing different perceptions of existence, the artist can only change their way of speaking. Such a shift is inevitably bad for one’s material interests, but an experimental attitude and challenges to the unknown are more important. Art history only moves forward through experimentation; otherwise, it would have become fixed in place long ago. True creation only takes place when method of discourse and existential perception are aligned. An artist who uses a fixed form to resolve infinitely shifting perceptions will end up in awkward straits. Brand awareness in artistic creation leads to the retreat of ideas. It is often rooted in material interest, and leads the artist to return to the condition of normal people. These formulaic artistic activities are mainly driven by business considerations. People with a passion for art are more concerned with finding more effective ways to convey their perception of existence.
Every artist has different motivations, different identities, and different starting points, but these cannot be set at random. They arise in a natural and unconscious state. When beginning a creation, the artist should first determine their identity, set their motivations and devise their starting point, to ensure the greatest effect. This strategy produces fear, as it hints at the retreat of rules, at an uncontrollable world beyond the rules. When a person creates, identity, motivation and starting point retreat. They have receded into the unconscious.
They are just artists. Life experiences are transformed by the artist into artistic concepts. If the artist focuses on identity, motivation and starting point when the creation begins, there will be difficulty in the process of transforming living experience into artistic concepts: is the object of expression a goal or a bridge? This will lead to a complete break within the artist. To focus on the former is to merely reproduce an external object. Only the latter enters into artistic expression. Artists who treat the reflection of external objects as the cornerstone of art will receive secular praise, but they will also encounter myriad problems. This view of creation goes against the very essence of art, and is more of a survival strategy. Artistic creation lives for spiritual freedom, but artists occupied with a profit mentality cannot achieve freedom. When the artist is moved or has an idea in one moment, at one point in space, and when the artist expresses this feeling or this idea, their identity, motivation and starting point are vested within. When, in the quest for fortune and fame, the artist places these above creation, before action, then there will be great limitations, with form and subject matter constrained. Sources of creative inspiration are everywhere. If they are corrected, can the artist still create? Creating art for fortune and fame is an awkward affair, a process filled with guessing and conjecture that strips the artist of autonomy and conceptual independence. Artistic creation is the outcome of internalization. External objects are merely material, which enters the artist’s body, ferments and sublimates to radiate outwards and add stimulation and freedom to the world.
In this increasingly commercialized and informationized society, art faces an unprecedented crisis of influence. Material desire has become the religion of the day, and the artist has become an entertainer. What can the artist contribute today? Flattery, criticism or hope? The consumerist frenzy has chased out idealism, and become ubiquitous, covering every inch of existence. Mass consumption needs consumer art just like elite consumption requires avant-garde art. The promotion of mass culture is full of tricks, and avant-garde art is also full of schemes and performances. Art today is no longer the art of the past. It long ago became a precision instrument in modern life, even if it does still retain some of the lofty image from days past. The poverty of the past did not threaten the purity of art, but today’s material bounty has led to a fall from grace. In a world measured by money, art has fallen to the level of decoration, of servitude, completely pulled down from its pedestal to become a side dish in ordinary life. In days past, art and faith were equal, like the sun, like the moon and the stars, like the spirit in the void. Today, it has been quantified into a house, a car, a string of bank balances. Perhaps art should be ordinary, like a tree or a bank of clouds. Art has gone from the secular to the ideal, and back to the secular. It is inevitable. There never was a so called ideal world, just dissatisfaction with the mortal world. With the rapid development of humanity’s means for existence, fantasies have descended to reality, and the spirit has gradually materialized. In this new humanity, is there still boundless imagination? Is there still faith that goes down to the bone? The new stage requires new people, and the new people will produce new art. This new art will no longer drift above, but will wander the streets and mix with the masses. The oracular, top-down, inaccessible art has reached the end. God has grown tired of human games. His secular Book of Revelation has been written. The path forward can only be walked and extended by new people.
Translated by Jeff Crosby