Curator’s Text: My Picture of a Gentleman

In December 2016, I received a birthday present. The present was a book of botanical illustrations by Zeng Xiaolian. It was at this moment that the name Zeng Xiaolian entered my field of vision. I cannot describe Zeng’s paintings, or convey exactly how unique this gift was. All I can say is that he opened up a new world for me.

Plants are the basis for human existence. As our ancestors came to understand and utilize plants, botanical illustrations emerged as a means for recognition and classification, as well as aesthetic experience. The pottery of the Yangshao Culture, from more than 7,000 years ago, already features exquisite plant patterns. The bronzes of the Shang, Zhou, Han and Tang dynasties are covered in various plants, with vivid and clearly-recognizable plants including honeysuckle, lotus and peonies. From the Song dynasty all the way to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the emergence of many books and illustrations on herbal medicines and wild plants, such as Illustrated Materia Medica, Compendium of Materia Medica, and Illustrated Investigation of the Names and Nature of Plants, a form of botanical illustration gradually took shape. Wu Qirui’s Illustrated Investigation, in which most of the illustrations were made with reference to real specimens, stands out as perhaps the best example of botanical illustrations from ancient China. In Europe, during the maritime expansion into the New World around the 17th century, many explorers, natural historians and painters recorded and depicted vast numbers of plants and animals from faraway lands. Europeans were delighted by these paintings reflecting plants and animals in their primal state, and a new art form was born: natural history painting. The most precious works in this form are highly cherished collections in the great museums of the world.

Carl Linnaeus created the binomial nomenclature system in the mid-18th century, ending the chaos of biological research and beginning the era of modern botanical and zoological classification. In modern times, botanical illustration entered into a period of great diversification of a broad category of paintings based mainly on flowers, with lithographs, engravings, pen drawings and watercolor paintings featured in various botanical texts as illustrations. Botanical illustration is not pure art; it is a practical art with the main application being the identification of plants, but all botanical illustrators strive for artistic value to satisfy the aesthetic demands of the reader. These artworks have been called “the most moving science, and the most rigorous art.” On my bookshelf, I have a book of botanical illustrations by the German scholar Otto Wilhelm Thomé. It is said that these are Europe’s earliest botanical illustrations.

Modern botanical research had a later start in China, in the late 1950s. In order to meet the needs of economic development and environmental protection, the compilation of Flora of China officially began in 1959, with a team of over three hundred plant taxonomy experts and 164 illustrators. This team of more than four hundred people spent 46 years compiling the 126 volume tome consisting of over thirty thousand types of plants, fifty million words, and nine thousand illustration plates. This team gave decades of their lives to create this precious botanical compendium in an indispensable national endeavor. Mr. Zeng was one of them. As he worked on this compendium, he accumulated knowledge and honed his techniques. He worked for a lifetime with diligence, patience and sincerity, practicing that famous maxim of Tao Xingzhi: “Everyone under the sun has their own unique talents. We each come to do something, and we must do it to the fullest.” His calm diligence is not without passion. When facing a flower in riotous bloom, he is always filled with childlike glee. He feels that flowers are the greatest, most magnificent expression of the profusion and evolutionary drive of plants. The flower is meant to attract insects and other animals to spread their pollen, and it has incidentally filled the world with color. He feels that flowers do not bloom for humans. Humans are overthinking things, but they have also found inspiration for love and beauty within…

The richness and vastness of plant life provides a unique experience to anyone who gives in to the fascination. Mr. Zeng voiced this fascination for the soul, and painted it for the plants. He once wrote, “Man’s understanding of nature always begins with partial phenomena and details. Every individual living thing encompasses infinite cosmic information. Our own understanding may be superficial, and we are unable to understand more than a tiny sliver of this information, but the wisdom and magic of the phenomena of life are enough to give us a glimpse into the power of the creator. Plants, animals, microbes, countless living individuals are woven together, competing and relying on each other to survive. Through the ages, they have come together to form the complex environmental web of the tropical forest. Each life has its own place, like an orchestra where each member plays its own notes, and all the notes come together in an ode to life.” In his description of plants, I begin to intuit some invisible spirit, and the soul that infuses his paintings.

I am a documentary film director. When I was creating the film The Journey of Chinese Plants, I mustered my entire understanding of Chinese plants, but I was still filled with trepidation. At that moment, I received a birthday gift and began my botanical journey with Mr. Zeng. He happily accepted my invitation and began creating a painting of the same title—The Journey of Chinese Plants. Mr. Zeng took on this challenging task at the ripe age of 79, astonishing us and our audience with his painting. This artwork bestowed the documentary with a unique aesthetic and a unique power. He spent over half a year absorbed in the creation, constantly researching source materials, rarely leaving his house and receiving no guests. When he presented me with the completed work, he said two things to me. First was a line from Tang poet Liu Yuxi: “Lament not the night as the sun sinks behind the mulberry trees, for the sky is filled with the rays of sunset.” The second was from Gu Yanwu: “Each day without death is a day for learning new things.”

This painting, measuring 2.5 meters in length, features 37 plant species either endemic to or originating from China in all their diverse glory in a beautiful arrangement, each plant the image of vitality. It is a rare achievement among his peers both in China and abroad, a masterpiece. Yet he was not satisfied, saying that he could have painted it even better if he had more time. Nothing is truly perfect in this world. All we can strive for is sincerity and the power to move people. I believe that when we present his works from various periods to the audience, the exhibition space will be filled with fresh air.

On July 29, 2019, at the press release for The Journey of Chinese Plants, Mr. Zeng passionately expressed his love for the ginkgo tree: “Natural selection is the way of nature, and the fittest survive. The ginkgo family stretches back far into remote antiquity, for hundreds of millions of years. The fourth Ice Age was laid great waste to the land, yet one species miraculously survived in China. It has lived on through countless cycles, its appearance remaining ever unchanged, towering majestic over the land. We recognize the magnificent deeds of the ginkgo, and its enduring strength is imbued in the spirit of the Chinese people. In early spring, its unique fan-shaped leaves tint the land with green. In high summer, its towering crown provides respite from the heat of the sun. In autumn, the brilliant yellow leaves fall back to the ground, and the branches fill with seeds, in a scene of indescribable beauty. In deep winter, we see only its iron-like frame, its unbowing waist. Its trunk is also covered in unique stalactite-like marks. You are like a faerie of the natural world, a symbol of the Chinese spirit. You are also a messenger of friendship. The ginkgo is now planted all over the world, your message of peace and friendship warmly received by the people of every nation. Oh ginkgo, you are the pride of China, and the eternal friend of mankind.”

Mr. Zeng’s profound understanding of plants, and his passionate state of life are always influencing us and affecting us. As the director of this documentary film, I was filled with gratitude. We filmed a promotional video for The Journey of Chinese Plants with him, and in it, he says, “I have painted botanical illustrations for an entire lifetime, but it still is not enough.” As he spoke those words, he was so natural, sincere and firm. Today, Mr. Zeng is holding an art exhibition, and our film is about to be released. This confluence of events is like a gift from God. In the future, any time I get the chance, I will gladly spread the word of his love for plants, his paintings, and his state of life. I am someone who has benefited from Mr. Zeng, and now I will be his disseminator as well.

I do not use the word gentleman lightly. Mr. Zeng is a gentleman in my heart.

The faithful student, Li Chengcai

Documentary Filmmaker