Elsbeth van Paridon, a Dutch Sinologist and an editorial consultant at Beijing Review, delivered a speech on presenting Chinese art, in all of its forms, to the world at the Second Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Art Innovation Forum held on October 8-10 in Shenzhen, south China’s Guangdong Province. Following is an edited excerpt from her speech:
As a Beijing-based Sinologist, I explore China through the lens of fashion and urban culture. From Beijing to Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Xinjiang Uygur and Tibet autonomous regions, China fashion and urban culture is a phenomenon that, particularly from the socioeconomic and anthropological perspectives, offers a whole new, soft-powered outlook on a society of over 1.4 billion people.
I believe China needs to tap into its all-absorbing vaults of culture and technology to tell its stories to the world. Because if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that Western millennials and Gen Zs are very curious to hear and see more about what their Chinese peers are up to.
And the topic of art makes for a captivating crossroads here. But “how to present Chinese art to the world” is a big concept.
We have music, like Jackson Wang becoming the first Chinese artist to take to the main stage at Coachella last year. That’s presenting Chinese art to the world. On that note, let’s not forget about rock bands putting a new spin on Chinese music and instruments like the iconic Second Hand Rose Band or up and comers plus chart-hitting groups from Inner Mongolia Autonomous region indulging in the art of throat singing.
We have food, like several Chinese acquaintances of yours truly creating an art installation slash pop-up centered on hotpot in New York City in 2020. Hotpot is a dish whereby a heat source placed on the dining table keeps a pot of soup stock simmering, and a variety of Chinese foodstuffs and ingredients are served beside the pot for the diners to put into the hot stock. Or the jianbing, that beloved northern Chinese street food, taking over London’s culinary scene a few years ago. Or even those calorific mooncakes adopting new international fusions and flavors. That’s presenting Chinese art to the world.
We have fashion, like more and more Chinese designers presenting their concoctions on the stages of the world’s big Fashion Four—Milan, Paris, London and New York. And perhaps soon to be Fashion Five--Shanghai is about to become part of the in-crowd. That’s definitely presenting Chinese art to the world.
In recent years, many animated movies and dramas based on traditional Chinese culture have been embraced by Chinese audiences. The animated film Chang'An, featuring the life of renowned poets in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), for example, was one of the most popular Chinese animation works this year.
Animated movie Ne Zha rocked the Chinese box office in 2019. Based on the Chinese mythical figure of the same name, the main character, shaped as an antihero, soon attracted many Chinese and even overseas fans.
Xiamen in southeast China’s Fujian Province features vibrant animation and other cultural industries that in turn see tourists flocking to the city in droves. Xiamen's Shapowei Area used to be a sleepy fishing village before transforming into a buzzing port in the 1950s. The area went quiet after the port was discarded and then came back to life in the 2010s as an artistic and cultural bloc, attracting people from all over China.
Today, Chinese people are increasingly confident in Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese-style animations have won the hearts of viewers, propelling the inevitable revival of Chinese animation.
Yu Yang, also known as Michael or YY, had been making guochao art long before the term went viral in China in 2018. Yang’s guochao art--an amalgam of pop art and Chinese traditional concepts and forms, is closely linked to the life experiences that have shaped his persona. For this artist, it was the study of Western contemporary art that led him to understand and appreciate the richness of Chinese culture and to continue his artistic career in China. “Searching for my voice as an artist, I wanted it to reflect the mindset of a global Chinese citizen that I became, rather than join the crowd of countless Chinese artists mimicking Western contemporary artists at the cost of forsaking their roots. It is this invisible influence of those scholars I grew up with that helped me to build up the confidence to reimagine the traditional motives in a contemporary context through my work,” he once told me.
Fashion artist Yvan Deng, too, has engaged in what one might arguably consider guochao. Establishing a name for himself as the only live fashion illustrator, documenting boldly and vividly the catwalk beats of Shanghai, Milan and Paris, Deng traveled from Qingdao in Shandong Province to the porcelain capital of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province to explore the clever cosmos of ancient Chinese ceramic vase patterns. His ceramic works, which include both the functional and sculptural, are infused with elements of fashion, humor, and character, depicted in traditional Chinese ink, among others. But there’s more to them than meets the eye.
Infinite & Inconceivable Lust--Deng’s 2022 exhibition of ceramic vases crafted in Jingdezhen invited audiences to reflect on their relationships and question whether our lives are pre-determined or a creation of our own making. The artist's ceramic imagery tells the love story of two dragons--their features and decorations are purposely and wholly androgynous. The firedrakes roam their otherworldly domains spiking a bond so strong its protective power even manifests on the ceramic vases--in the form of thorny points. The red and pink mishmash of colors and lighting surrounding the vases like halos represent Chinese happiness and Western passion, capturing East and West in the same narrative, on the same canvas. “My ceramic works are a showcase of contemporary China by bringing traditional crafts to new audiences and presenting them with our abundance of in-house heritage and the wave of new creative talents rolling in,” explained Deng.
The global art industry has a renewed interest in the richness of ancient Chinese culture. Both YY and Deng consider guochao and all that comes with a grassroots-driven “recognition of our own culture” among the artists and designers, or as Deng put it, “the courage to use traditional Chinese elements.”
First off, fashion is arguably wearable art.
Guochao has been the top China Fashion trend since 2018, when during New York Fashion Week Chinese Li Ning athletic apparel brand put on a show featuring a trendy look and bold use of color and embedding traditional Chinese culture elements. This very show sparked a trend that has driven demand for domestic brands and products that often incorporate Chinese traditional culture and style. And this embrace of domestic brands has spread rapidly to various sectors and products as well, from food and drinks to clothing, mobile phones and electronic vehicles.
The country’s minority styles are also part of this trend as far as I’m concerned. The taste for guochao has led to many minority fashions and techniques to be brought back onto the menu once again. China’s minority fashions are diverse and comprise everything from hard-to-handle fabrics to exuberant embroidery to fantastical earrings. Traditionally, the textiles, techniques and accessories are used to preserve some of the histories of China’s 56 ethnic groups, some of which never used a written language to document their stories. Today, they are a source of inspiration and preservation.
And as we move from A to Z, I’d like to wrap things up with this 1988 quote from Zhang Yimou, the master of visual overpowerment whose work emphasizes the importance of understanding and appreciating the beauty and complexity of Chinese culture: “If a nation wants to develop toward the future, if it wants to be powerful and prosperous or influential, it simply has to have a vitality and burning passion toward life.”
After all, if you do something, do it with passion. Or don’t do it at all.
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