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Wildfire Will Not Extinguish It, The Spring Breeze Will Not Revive It


Hi Art, May, 2008


I vow not to make anymore ink paintings every time I visit Liulichang. No matter how level-headed or determined a person is, the visual overload of scrolls, fans, jade, and paintings of over-ripened grapes rendered in a combination of Chinese and Western painting style, makes one want to faint on the spot. You wish someone would throw ice water on you or that you could down an ice cream bar to calm the nerves.

Some vendors pull at foreigners clothing and drag them into their shops at these discount art markets. Their behavior is so rude; it is a disgrace to Chinese culture. During my travels abroad, I realized that foreign vendors are similar to the Chinese. Painters line up on the streets in front of reputable art museums sketching.  Some are talented while others are not.  Regardless of skill, they all have freedom to do this and appear to be focused on painting, rather than gawking at people on the streets. They are quite suave: squeezing paint onto the palette and wiping their brushes cleverly, as though they’ve been doing it all their lives. The quality of the work is not outstanding, but the setup is picture perfect. Their income is probably good, or at least better than those who shamelessly cheat customers at Liulichang in the name of art. Only in this regard should the Liulichang salesmen learn from the west.

The future of the ink market is quite shaky. A few years ago, the market went sour due to controversies over authenticity. Additionally large numbers of traditional ink paintings flooded the market, which caused skepticism at international auctions. Unlike contemporary art where many of the artists are still living, most of the traditional ink painters have passed away making authentication a difficult task.  Some people bend the truth when it comes to classical ink painting to entice dealers and make buyers feel confident during a purchase. Whether such confidence will withstand the test of time for generations to come remains to be seen and depends on thorough provenance research.

I believe ink painting took a turn for the worst during the May Fourth Movement. Historically, landlords, literati and officials collected authentic ink paintings.  They often commissioned artwork revering the chosen artist as a noble guest who received special treatment. The artists did not live like most average people who worked in the fields and slept together on one crowded bed. The arrival of the New Culture Movement brought many changes to the ink painting tradition.  For the first time western plays and oil paintings gained popularity while ink painting and traditional dramas were ignored by the young generation. Confucianism was being denounced and ink paintings were burned.  After liberation a large number of artists who had traveled abroad during the Republican Era returned home with the intent of reinventing the Chinese ink painting tradition through the appropriation of Western painting techniques. Ink painting became known as “color ink painting” and symbolized the transformation. Art training introduced western techniques such as perspective, sketching the human form, and bold use of color while content started to hint at political pop.  From the 1950s throughout the Cultural Revolution, the titles of modern ink paintings were extremely significant and expressed an underlying statement: Receiving a Cow from Land Reform; An Old Man of Eighty-eight Years Knows the Army and Its People Are One Family; Changing Flood Disaster To Irrigation; The Radiance of the Red Sun Will Warm Ten Thousand Generations; Order the Planet to Offer Oil; Directing Steel Production; Let Us Judge The Crime and Success of The Past. . The ink painting tradition follows the principle: learn techniques from the old masters in order to enlighten one’s mind.

Western Contemporary art revolutionized the stylistic language of traditional ink painting through the guise of formalism. Through the influence of western contemporary art, the concepts and intrinsic qualities of ink paintings changed. We don’t know why these changes occurred.  The ink painting tradition spans thousands of years while the oil painting tradition spans hundreds of years; each tradition has developed differently with unique characteristics.  Ink painting became neutral during the May Fourth Movement.  I do not think we should be grateful to the “returnee artists” who were devoted to reforming the ink painting tradition. I wish they had never returned.  If only they had built the courage to reform western oil painting and transform it by painting with discrete perspective and render the meaning within the atmosphere. Although, Picasso and Matisse might have kicked them out of the country

During the past few decades, ink painting has been reduced to an idle practice.  The notion that China needs approval from the West to become an advanced civilization has been proven false.  Ink painting is not even considered part of the contemporary art canon. A few days ago, I received an invitation to an academic exhibition about Cultural Revolution art titled Red, Luminous and Bright. Ink painting was heavily criticized during the Cultural Revolution along with Chinese Opera.  I was the only ink painter invited to this exhibition.

Throughout the 20th century, ink painting has endured scrutiny and experienced high and low periods. During the Reform era, ink painting nearly disappeared. This had nothing to do with pressure from the West but there was a local mission to reform the tradition. It is unfair to blame political movements and cultural phenomenon like the Cultural Revolution for the changes.  The pretentious scholars of ink painting should be held accountable for this.

Painting is a meticulous job requiring technical skill. Only insiders can make a difference in the field while outsiders just cause confusion.   There are two possibilities why these idiots would try to disrupt a tradition with a history of more than a thousand years.  An inferiority complex; they criticize because they recognize their inability to reach the highest artistic level. An act of desperation; they are overpowered by being slaves to the idea of cultural inferiority.

Zhu Wei

April 16, 2008





野火烧不尽 春风吹不活