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Christian Art in China - Barbara Kreissl

Christian Art in China

by Barbara Kreissl, 2001

Although Christianity is an officially recognized religion in China, it is still considered a foreign religion. Therefore, Chinese Christian art is trapped in the conflict between inculturation and imitation of classical European Christian artists. On one hand, there is a will to indigenize Christianity by using indigenous art forms in order to make it accessible to a broader public, while on the other hand many Chinese Christians are namely looking for that "different" "foreign" aspect in Christian religion. Thus it can happen that a Chinese artist who is invited to make a painting for the foyer of a church, is told upon showing his concept: "This picture... it is too Chinese. The church members prefer something more like Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper."
 
The integration of Christian themes into traditional Chinese painting is an accordingly long procedure, which still needs time. The main motifs in traditional Chinese painting are landscapes, and people, if depicted at all, appear on a very small scale – they often can only be discovered after looking at the painting for several times. These paintings reflect the unity of nature, the fusion of men and nature. They give us a feeling for the omnipresence of Dao in nature and in their own way transport spirituality – but without connection to any religion. The paintings have to be seen in a philosophical context rather than a religious one. Their esthetic lies in the balance of composition, which leads the spectator into the landscape and invites him to remain there for meditation. The only thing this art form might have in common with classical European Christian art is the repetition of the same motifs.
 
Very few artistic traces remain from the main waves of missionary activity in China. It was definitely the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who found the most encouraging approach to proselytization at the end of 16th century, by attempting for the first time to adapt Christian thoughts to Chinese reality in order to bring Christianity closer to the people. In the field of art Giuseppe Castiglione picked up this thought at the beginning of 18th century. In order to find recognition at the Chinese imperial court he studied traditional Chinese painting but mixed it with his European skills in perspective, and thus added to his paintings a three dimensionality never seen before in traditional Chinese painting. His concept of melting together Eastern and Western skills was so successful that he remained at the imperial court as a painter for more than 50 years, and was even able to put in a word for his fellow monks in times of prosecution of the Christians. Unfortunately, this bridge from Christian religion to Chinese culture was torn down during the “Dispute on Rites” between the Vatican and the Jesuit Order, which ended with the prohibition of the Jesuits in 1773.
 
The encounter between Archbishop Celso Constantini, the first apostolic nuncio to China and a great art connoisseur, with the young Chinese painter Chen Yuandu led to a symbiosis between traditional Chinese painting style and Christian motifs never seen before, at the beginning of the 20th century. Constantini met Chen at an exhibition on modern Chinese art held in Beijing in the 1920, and he was so impressed by the talent of this young painter that he invited him home and suggested to him to include Christian motives into his work. After having done several paintings ordered by Constantini, Chen slowly began to take up Christian motifs and to interpret them in a Chinese way. And while Constantini hoped to bring Chinese people closer to God by using their familiar art forms, Chen Yuandu also saw a chance to make Europeans better understand Chinese art by using motives they were familiar with. Considering the fact that Chinese painting is based on the repetition of motifs of famous painters of the past centuries, this was an almost revolutionary step for a painter to take. It marked a turning point in Chen Yuandu's life, who later was baptized and is known as Luke Chen in art history records. It was the first step towards an indigenous Christian art in China.
 
Chen earned his living as a teacher of traditional Chinese painting at the faculty of arts of the Catholic Furen University in Beijing, by and by trained his own Christian painting class, whose aim became to transport the content of the Gospel with means offered by the familiar Chinese culture.Their Bible characters looked like Chinese people and were set in an undoubtedly Chinese landscape, even if the motives undeniably followed Western examples.
 
Following the communist revolution and the founding of the People's Republic of China the Christian painting class at FurenUniversity had to close , and by now all of its former members are dead except for Magdalena Liu, who is living in Canada today. Along with Deng Xiaoping's reforms and his opening up policy religious tolerance increased in China from 1979 onwards, and Chinese Christians could officially practice their religion again. Churches reopened their gates, and renovation as well as the building of new churches led to a revival of Christian sculpture and painting. But looking at the way Catholic churches in China are decorated nowadays, we get the strong feeling that most of the sculptures and paintings are adapted to European tradition. If for example, we enter Beijing's South Cathedral, we will find European style oil paintings depicting the 14 stations of the cross with a fair haired Jesus. But here and there we also still find Catholic artists that work in the tradition of the Catholic painting class of Furen University like the two young painters Ma Li and Wo Ye.
 
The Protestant church shows much more initiative by encouraging the art students of the Nanjing Theological Seminary to use indigenous art forms to interpret Christian themes. Despite the weight put on artistic quality, the focus lies on the fact that the works reflect Christianity in the context of Chinese culture. Han Wenzao, the President of the China Christian Council and Secretary General of the Amity Foundation points out: "We Chinese Christians lay great emphasis on our national artistic forms when we promote Christian art work in China. We make such emphasis so as to do away with the concept of an 'imported religion' and to spread the Good News on Chinese soil". The demand for artistic indigenization has also to be seen against the background of the fast modernization in China which is accompanied by an increasing fear for the blind adoption of Western values. Art is a bridge between church and society, but while figuring as a messenger it also has to keep its artistic quality, so as not to turn into banality or propaganda.
 
In order to promote this thought the Amity Christian Art Center, probably the first Christian Art Center in Chinese history not inspired by the West, was founded in 1992 as part of the Theological Seminary in Nanjing. Since its founding the Amity Art Center has already organized three major exhibitions on Christian art in Nanjing and two smaller scale exhibitions in Hong Kong. The artists are close to the Protestant Church. Their techniques are diverse and include watercolor, Chinese ink, oil painting, woodblock print, calligraphy, papercut, weaving, batik as well as woodcarving. By supporting Christian art the Amity Center not only helps to spread Christianity among a wider public, but also to keep alive traditional art forms threatened by extinction.
 
At the same time the Amity's projects also aim at supporting poor regions, like ZhangJiajie in northwest HunanProvince, home of the Tujia minority, who have a special technique of weaving. Since 1993 the Tujia people have weaved wall hangings produced according to patterns from Christian artists at the Amity Center. This way the Amity Center creates jobs and helps to fight poverty in the region, while at the same time conserving the art of “xilakapu” weaving. Since 1999, the Amity Christian Art Center also publishes a bilingual Chinese/ English Newsletter called “Christian Art Information”.
 
Another art center related to the Protestant Church is White Snow in Beijing. This center founded in 1939, had to close in 1947 and reopened in 1985 following the opening up of China. White Snow brings together professional artists as well as art lovers, which feel attracted to Christianity. It is financed through donations only, which limits its scope of activity. Apart from their yearly Christmas exhibition in Beijing, lectures by famous artists and other exhibitions are organized according to the financial situation. Unlike the Amity Christian Art Center, White Snow is not attached to an art academy and therefore, is not offering any training.
 
The works in our exhibition mainly come from members of one of these two organizations. Some artists are partly practicing Christians, while other artists are close to the ProtestantChurch without having converted to Christianity. Some of the artists are professional painters, who studied at art academies or learned from famous masters, others have been painting for many years, but would not consider themselves to be professional painters. The latter paint to help others understand their feelings towards Christianity. Their paintings are of rather idealistic value and do not serve to make their living, they are a contribution to community work. These painters sell their works in order to support the poor, or they give them away to people in need who feel attracted by the message transported by the paintings and thus are brought one step closer to belief.
 
But it is important that Chinese Christian art is not only appreciated within the community, but also finds its rank as a common language among the broader public. Fan Pu, an artist specialized on papercut puts it is way: "The essence which distinguishes the indigenous Chinese Christian art from Western Art is not the artistic form of expression and the technique, it is the method of the non-artistic theological thinking, and the method of looking at things and thinking of Christians in the Chinese Church in our own cultural context." And it is this thinking that should be transported through Chinese Christian art. The use of Chinese techniques alone does not legitimate Christian art as being "Chinese". It can go as far as being more appreciated by Europeans than by Chinese. The other way around an oil painting that reflects this Chinese "thinking" can touch Chinese more than a traditional brush painting, which lacks the Chinese essence.
 
On the occasion of the symposium on Chinese Christian art held in November, 1999, in Nanjing the attending artists discussed their approach to Christianity and related art, and the question arose, “How can an artist who specialized in the painting of flowers and birds, well-known for his skills all over China, transport Christian thoughts?” As mentioned in the beginning the depiction of persons is only of very little importance in traditional Chinese painting, while traditional Christian art focuses on the portrayal of people. How can one solve this contradiction? Shouldn't we consider the art of bird and flower painting as an adequate medium to transport the message of the Gospel, because it already enjoys such high standing in China? Here calligraphy comes to the Christian painter's rescue, since it allows him to express that his depiction of a lotus flower is not inspired by some famous Tang lyrics, but by his reading of the Bible. Chinese painting which traditionally unites painting and writing, gives the artist the opportunity to tell us which words inspired his painting. In this context the art of flower and bird painting, which might not appear as "Christian" art from a Western point of view, is not only a legitimate, but due to its popularity also a very suitable way of transporting Christian thought, and has as such to be recognized as part of the Chinese Christian Art creation. It is not the form that is determinant in the development of Chinese Christian art, but the content, Christian reality as seen from a Chinese perspective.