Wu Guanzhong and Yu Wenjiang

Written by Anna Xiang

Content Notification: this essay contains sensitive information including the War Against the invasion of Japan, ’The Nanjing Massacre’ and ‘Comfort women’.

This discussion paper will give an insight into Chinese traditional ink painting and the modern history of China through the lens of Chinese contemporary artists Wu Guanzhong and Yu Wenjiang. Promoting traditional Chinese painting is a constant theme throughout Wu's career. Taking this concept to a further extent, Wu's traditional ink wash painting Lion Grove Garden 1988 manifests the importance of preserving the spirit of traditional Chinese painting as well as learning from the benefits of western oil paintings. In the development and progression of conventional art, Wu plays an essential role in outstretching its extent. Wu hopes to reflect history through the historical figure Lu Xun in the artwork Lu Xun’s hometown 1977, esteeming his indomitable spirit in times of difficulties that eventually reformed the future of China. Then, through Yu's Pain from the Blood - Chinese Women Who Suffered in the War Against the invasion of Japan 2009, I examine the capacity of tradition in interpreting and reproducing China's modern history.

As the pioneer of modern Chinese ink painting, Wu persists in promoting and preserving the spirit of Chinese ink painting. This ideal is exemplified through his ink painting Lion Grove Garden 1988. The rockeries dominate approximately four-fifth of the painting, depicted in an abstract manner (Wu 2010). The ink-wash brush thoroughly forwards the grey across the frame, pausing and transitioning to outline the silhouette of the abnormal shape of the rockery. Such continuity of Wu's brushwork could only be achieved by a traditional Chinese ink brush, for its fine but resilient tip releases the ink in the thinnest of marks, creating lines with various thicknesses and densities depending on the pressure pressed (Liu 2019). Through contrasting angular, meandering long stretches with short jabs of dots, energetic rushes with freehanded lines, Wu highlights the sense of restless and boundless feeling, stressing the invisible relationship between black and white. The leading spirit of traditional Chinese ink painting is embedded in its freehanded rhythm, highlighting the beauty in harmonious fluid forms and the manipulation of white space contrasting with black (Li 2016). The body of the rockery seldom uses white, but Wu deliberately employs vast white areas to emphasise the dark lines and dots. That is, "the application of the principle keeping black with white and using white as black and there is no white or black without the other” (Li 2016:309). Such a principle comes from the Chinese classical philosophy book "Dao De Ching”, that says know the white and keep the black is the guide to life (Lao 2018). It refers to contrasting the negative with the positive, soft with the strong, while sustaining a sense of united harmony. This distinctive connotation of traditional Chinese ink painting further contributes to Wu's pursuit of promoting Chinese art traditions.

Meanwhile, Wu devotes himself to developing and evolving traditional ink painting by integrating western oil painting. His artwork Lion Grove garden consists of the nationalisation of oil painting and the modernisation of traditional Chinese painting (Lv 2020; Wu 1980). The geometric shapes embrace the style of formal abstraction from western oil painting, where Wu incorporated western art with traditional ink-wash painting (see Figure 1). In doing so, the viewers are also positioned to recognise Wu's attempt to localise Western abstract formalism. The abundance of coloured dots form the illusion of eyes in the rockery, accentuating the unrealistic and fantasy-like feeling. Such limitless expressions of emotions and feeling that transcends the shapes and forms of real-life objects were considered the mutual field of both western and Chinese traditional art. Wu seeks to communicate and incorporate both art styles using its common ground, achieving the revolution of Chinese traditional ink painting. From Wu's perspective, traditions are like threads from a flying kite that one cannot disconnect (Wu 2010; Wu 2015). Therefore, in reforming traditional art, one must maintain the spirit of Chinese traditional art. Concurrently, kites are released into the air to fly above and beyond. Hence, Wu proposed the belief of 'Zero ink marks', where he criticises the endless boundaries and limitations attached to ink mark techniques, announcing the insignificance of isolated ink mark techniques (Wu 2010). In his painting Lion Grove Garden, he overlooks such a system with his rough, random and unconventional outlines of the rockery, evidencing his bold innovations. His landscape paintings not only give people the beauty of the scenery but also the vitality of life, a broad, tenacious and resilient national spirit that conveys his deep sentiment towards his nation.

Moreover, Wu emphasises Lu Xun's significance to China's history in his ink painting. Lu Xun’s hometown exemplifies Wu's admiration of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer, poet, literary critic and leading figure of the May Fourth Movement and the New Culture Movement. Such anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movements grew out of student protests against the Chinese government's failure to oppose the decision by the Versailles Peace Committee to allocate Germany's former possessions in China to Japan in Beijing on May 4, 1919 (Ke 2013). Through depicting the scenery of the hometown of Lu Xun, Wu delineates how Lu's deep longing for his country underpins his will to revolutionise the country (Wu and Yang 2003). Looking down on Shaoxing city from the hill, Wu utilises black, white and grey blocks to form a moving sense of mottled painting. Wu constructs the blocks of houses on the left as the main body of the painting by contrasting the dense composition with the broad surface of the river. By focusing on the villages, Wu further denotes that his patriotism stems from the connection between Lu Xun and his people, leading him to resist the corroded Qing government with May Fourth Movement (Wu and Yang 2003). Furthermore, the May Fourth Movement is regarded as a catalyst for China's broader cultural and intellectual revolution, leading to the New Culture movement. The New Youth people sought to replace traditional Confucian values that were a continuation of late Qing reforms, where Lu Xun's concept of 'Grabbism' reformed China's social and political construction (Song 2019). In a period of dilemma, facing the impact of foreign culture and the culture left from the feudal, the balance between the prevailing closed doors and the different calls for full westernisation in China was significant. Lu Xun advocated neither passively "sending" nor "bringing in" culture without analysis but selectively "bringing in" through a pragmatic point of view (Lu 2017). Such ideology rooted Wu's aspiration to reform Chinese ink painting traditions, which ultimately reshaped contemporary art in China. In Lu Xun’s hometown, Wu resorts to the concept of 'deep distance' in the 'three distances' technique of Chinese painting, as stated by ink painter Guo Xi of the Northern Song Dynasty, while employing aspects of one-point perspective in western paintings (Wang 2015; Wu 1962). Peeking from the front of the mountain to the back, Wu positions the house in a fragmented and obscured manner, overlapping each other. Wu deliberately employed darker inks for the house in the foreground, which gradually fades as it reaches the back, further establishing a sense of depth and distance to the painting. This depiction of distance enables the viewer to imagine spaces that extend beyond the frame, leading to infinity. Subsequently, the infinite block of houses represents the billions of Chinese people forming the country together. Admiring the selfless and caring soul of Lu Xun, Wu stated that "a nation, a country needs Lu Xun. Without one Lu Xun, the backbone of China is much softer” (Wu 2004:12).

Similarly, Yu attempts to investigate the extent of traditional ink painting in expressing patriotic sentiments and analysing historical context. Yu established his ink painting Pain from the Blood - Chinese Women Who Suffered in the War Against the invasion of Japan (2009) based on the context of 'The Nanjing Massacre’ (Shang 2021). However, instead of illustrating a specific scene of the massacre, Yu prefers to position Chinese women who suffered during the War against Japan as the main theme (see Figure 2). The overwhelming amount of figures is portrayed with various postures and expressions. Such detailed depiction of each individual figure convince the viewer into believing the realness of the scene. In depicting these figures, he incorporates the Chinese traditional painting technique 'Gongbi' with 'freehand brushwork', combining 'Gongbi's' realistic approach with the expressive appeal of 'freehand brushwork’ (Shang 2021). The sophisticated lines of 'Gongbi' enable Yu to illustrate the desperate and painful expression of the figure in incredible detail. Such 'Gongbi' drawing contrasts the heavy yet meticulous brushstrokes in the background, guiding the viewer's attention to the facial expression of the women figure and, subsequently, their sufferings and struggles. Here, Yu challenges the rigorous process of 'Gongbi' painting, combing the subjective and freehanded expression of line and emotion (Liu and Yu 2014). By reconstructing the lines, Yu is able to adapt to the aesthetics of modern society while carrying the spirit of traditional Chinese culture.

The compressing and sorrowful atmosphere of the painting is extended through the dull and limited colour palette. Black and white are used in great measure, only painting the skin of the female figure in a pale and translucent manner. In doing so, Yu hopes to indicate the sexual assault and torture they have experienced in the War Against the invasion of Japan as ‘comfort women’ (Yu 2021). Although the Japanese soldiers do not appear in the painting, Yu metaphorically depicts the wolves as well as the sharp bayonet on the left to represent the invading Japanese Army (Yu 2021). The wolves' violent and vicious image further highlights the female victims' vulnerability, coercing viewers to resonate and sympathise with the victims. Through his traditional ink paintings, Yu imprints an unforgettable mark in the viewer's memory, delineating the 'comfort women' system in the 'Nanjing Massacre' 1937–38 (Myadar and Davidson 2020). The Japanese troops forced an estimated 200,000 women into the 'comfort women' system while murdering more than 300,000 people (Yang 1999). The female figure in the centre gazes at the viewers indignantly, standing straight against the oppression. Through the voice of this figure, Yu proclaims their existence and calls for the rights of these victims. In the international society, the suffering of the 'comfort women' remains silent  (Myadar and Davidson 2020). It is not only that the Imperial Army destroyed documentary evidence of the system, but also the social scorn that suppresses many of the 'comfort women' survivors  (Myadar and Davidson 2020). Yu wishes to recognise the pain of the survivors and bring public attention worldwide. Nevertheless, by presenting the 'comfort women' metonym for the nation's suffering under Japan's colonial rule of the Chinese peninsula, Yu enables the viewers to memorise such a historical tragedy of China.

In summary, innovation of traditions are essential in order to keep abreast of modern society. One must preserve the essence of the tradition while rejecting its dross to understand the traditional Chinese culture comprehensively (Ma 1966). Meanwhile, the expressiveness of the heavy ink brushstroke successfully conveys the weight of history. In educating and communicating the history of China through the form of art, he hopes to extend influence and attention to the victim of such a miserable period of time.

Figure 1: Wu Guanzhong (1988) Shi Zi Lin [ink on paper], Artron website, accessed 20 August 2022, https://wuguanzhong.artron.net/works_detail_BRT000000028717

Figure 2: Yu Wenjiang (2009) Pain from the Blood - Chinese Women Who Suffered in the War Against the invade of Japan [ink on paper], Chinese Art Museum website, accessed 20 August 2022, https://www.mei-shu.com/artist/259/artworks-9058.html

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