Creating Chinese Christian Art - Fan Pu
Creating Chinese Christian Art
by Fan Pu
As our country enters a stage of rapid social change and experiences progress in many forms, Chinese Christians are faced with many challenges in a new context. How can Chinese Christians in this new context develop art which will reflect Chinese uniqueness and particularities? This is a question worthy for us to explore. In this paper I would like to speak from the perspective of creating Christian art.
Fan Pu: Jesus and the woman of Samaria
Levels of artistic creation
There are several kinds of Christian art we can find in China today. One of these is represented by artists and thinkers in search of a new spirit for our people in the contemporary age. While seeking ways to reveal our people's culture in the greater context of the modern world, they invariably touch upon Christian culture, and create some dynamic and fundamentally concrete expressions with Christian themes, arousing great surprise and enthusiasm from the people. Their works are related to Christianity, yet they are not necessarily "Christian art" as such, nor do they reflect only a Christian worldview. Some of these artists have gradually accepted the Christian faith as they studied the bible, while others choose to remain outside the church as "culture Christians." In their attempt to create art related to Christianity, however, all of them provide a powerful stimulus to Christian art in China today.
Another group of artists is found among the pastors and lay people who have served the church for many years. Some had studied art, and some turned to art when they were out of work during the Cultural Revolution. The works of these artists clearly reflect traditional Christian worldview and characteristics. Some of their art works have been noticed both inside and outside of China.
Much of the Christian art that we see today are from the grassroots of our Christian communities. Most of the artists have not been formally trained. Yet with their God-given artistic talents, they learn from diligent practice and sharing with one another. Their spontaneous expressions are without constraints, sharing their heartfelt experiences from daily life, using art forms that are popular and understandable to the mass of the common people. Their art is bold and free flowing, not restricted by established rules and regulations as to what constitute true art. Since the churches' reopening in 1979, they have begun to use traditional Chinese brush painting, calligraphy, oil and acrylic painting, paper cuts, embroidery and all kinds of art form not only to beautify church buildings, but also to express and to propagate the gospel message. Since the artists themselves come from various economic, social and educational backgrounds, they naturally bring with them different life experiences. Their artistic works may not have the same standard. Yet from different personal backgrounds and with a variety of regional characteristics, the art they create is pouring out their love and praises to God, reaching the hearts, minds and souls of our people.
Forbearing one another in love, bonding together in peace
The diversity of creative work has brought a new spirit to Chinese Christian art, and new challenges to the church as well. How can we work together to develop our own indigenous Christian art? First of all we must free ourselves from the bondage of old concepts, and carve out space for all forms of artistic expression of Christianity. There is no need to seek uniformity or absolute authority. We need to let "a hundred flowers bloom, and hundred schools of thoughts contend." We should encourage more people to participate in creating art, and to reach a wider public for art appreciation.
The beauty that Christian art seeks to express is God's truth, goodness, omnipotence and loving kindness manifested through all of creation. God is the source and creator of all things beautiful. Every piece of good art is a revelation of God's beauty. Yet each piece of artwork, no matter how intrinsically rich, can reflect only a fraction of God's beauty. Only God is perfect. The beauty created by God is the sum total of all beautiful things and the only manifestation of beauty itself. As we evaluate art we should be clear that though all interpretations are valid, yet they are limited.
Each may be a partial reflection of God's beauty, but none can claim to be its full manifestation. Therefore Christian artists coming from different levels need to forebear one another in love, bond together in peace, engage one another in dialogue, learn from one another, widen our perspectives, broaden our channels of communication, preserve our differences, and build on one another's strength.
Fan Pu: Happy Jesus – One in Christ
The practice of Christian art creation
To appreciate art does not mean we forsake standards of evaluation. If Christian art is considered art, it will have to accept the honesty, intention and technical excellence in content and form, according to some agreed upon criteria of good art. Honesty in art means that the artist is honest to himself/herself, and to his/her worldview. Every piece of work has to go through careful reflection: What message will this painting bring? What feeling is it going to convey? What effect will it have? Though we may not consciously try to communicate a worldview, nevertheless our worldview will be revealed.
Still it does not mean that Christians will automatically reflect Christian worldview, nor does it mean that people who are not Christians cannot reflect a Christian worldview. As we inherit our Chinese cultural tradition, we find many places in it which can resonate with biblical truth. When art is created on this common ground, artistic work falls within the scope of Christian art. Contrariwise, Christians, even "born again," if they do not have an adequate understanding of Christian worldview and take scriptures out of context to do art work, their result may not be Christian art.
A person looking at a piece of art may not be aware of the inner thoughts expressed by the artist, yet the artist has to be aware of his/her own inner thoughts. There is a Chinese saying: "Notion in mind before the brush to paper." Before art is created, the artist needs to reflect. Honesty and a sense of responsibility are demanded of the artist.
Regardless of backgrounds, qualifications and experiences Christian artists need first and foremost to be still before God, to humbly examine themselves, to learn from teachers, from nature, from others and from books. They should study and raise their own cultural standard (knowledge).
The context of Christian art
The total number of Protestant Christians in China is only one percent of the population. Christianity has been widely regarded as a "foreign religion," an integral part "western culture." Very few people know anything about Chinese Christian art. To most of those who are part of this one percent of the population, Christian architecture has to be Romanesque or Gothic. When it comes to Christian paintings all they know are reproductions of "Christian art" such as De Vinci's "Last Supper," Raphael's "Madonna and Child" and "Transfiguration," Michael Angelo's "Pieta" or Hoffman's "Jesus in Gethsemane," and Brown's "Jesus Washing the Feet of Disciples."
Many Christians use these time-honored examples of great art to measure Christian art in China today. Though they may be limited as art critics, we see their promotion of this version of Christian art as a good sign. At least Chinese Christians are beginning to change their former views that once looked at art pieces as not spiritual, idolatry, or bringing the secular into the church. Now it is generally acceptable that through the visual images and rich language of art, the gospel indeed can be expressed and God's name be glorified and praised. We also need to give thanks to these artistic giants who gave us such a rich heritage of (western) Christian culture, so that we do not need to start our indigenous Christian art in a vacuum. Centuries of western Christian art has made a headstart so we can borrow its light for our own path.
Yet we have to be careful as to what we regard as legitimate and orthodox, and what we see as deviant. If we think that we have to follow the same style and choose the same art forms in order to be correct, we are mistaken. These giants from the history of art created their work from their own context, reflecting the theological and humanitarian thinking of their times. They were honest to themselves. We cannot blindly copy their style.
Often we have been criticized as "unorthodox" because in our art we have not followed the accepted western "norms" which have been the standards acceptable to many Christians in China as orthodox representation of Christian art. However, for us Christian art should not only reflect the eve of the end of the 20th Century but also characteristics of the Chinese people. Without these, art has no life. The universality of art is embedded in the particularities of a people. We need to use art forms which are Chinese to give praise to God our creator, and to bear witness to God. In this way art can expand our particular culture and affirm our honesty to art.
Though incorrect, these art critics are actually challenging our theologians. It is high time that Christianity in China be made indigenous! Christianity has had a long history in China, yet it has not been deeply rooted in the soil of Chinese culture. If theology has taken root in China, then Christianity would not have been regarded as "foreign," but instead "our own Chinese religion." If we use our own culture and our own art forms to express our religious thinking, how can we be labeled as "unorthodox"? Chinese Christian art needs to reflect contemporary Chinese theological thinking, Chinese Christian worldview and Christian lives in China. Chinese theologians also need Chinese traditional art to express their theological thinking. This is a process of indigenization.
A word of caution
Christian art is religious art and has its religious functions. At the same time it has its intrinsic value as art. It is one thing if our work is slipshod, mediocre, or poor in quality, and another thing entirely if our critics just do not like Chinese art forms. The latter is a matter of taste. On the one hand we should not blindly copy the west, and on the other hand we should not forsake our need for standards by simply using "indigenization" as a facile excuse to produce art of poor quality.
For example, we cannot call a painting indigenous just because we have Chinese figures in the painting. Indigenized Christian art is to use Chinese language of art to express the Christian faith in the hearts and minds of Chinese people. By simply putting Chinese clothes on the figures does not necessarily mean it is good indigenous art. The expression of the eyes, the gestures and artistic language of the painting are where we need to grope and concentrate our effort. We have often seen Jesus as a Chinese in paintings. To me, Jesus is the savior to all humankind. Of course he is also the savior of us Chinese people. Therefore to paint Jesus in Chinese image makes him more intimate to us Chinese. But some Christians cannot accept this. They say that the Word became flesh two thousand years ago as a Jew, and if we depict him as an ancient Chinese, it is not historically correct.
To me, indigenization means using our own created art to express the Christian life and the gospel message, to make it more complete. It is not indigenization for the sake of indigenization. Nor is it used to please people who hold certain perspectives. What is demanded of us as artists is honesty -- honesty to ourselves, to our faith and to our worldview. It requires our serious attentiveness to the harmony between form and content. At the moment Chinese Christian art has not yet achieved as high a level as we have hoped. Our situation is far from perfect, yet we have the faith that through our hard work and the diligence of those who follow us, Chinese Christian art will gain its rightful place in Christian art of the world.
Excerpted and translated from a presentation by Fan Pu at the First Seminar on Chinese Christian Art, September 18-20, 1996.
Ms. Fan Pu, associate director of the Amity Christian Art Center, was born in Nanjing and grew up in a Christian home where her father Fan Peiji was a leader in the Little Flock. An artist well known for his calligraphy work, Fan Peiji was ordained by the Jiangsu Christian Council in the early 1980s. At age 17 and full of youthful enthusiasm, Ms. Fan Pu joined her Nanjing middle school classmates to be volunteers going to Xinjiang Autonomous Region as part of the "up the mountain, down the countryside" movement inspired by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. These "zhi qing" ("educated youth") worked at the lowest level of farm labor. Often they are referred to as "the lost generation" who missed the opportunity for formal education. In her free time Ms. Fan did paper cuts and kept her creativity in artwork alive. "Of course we only used Chairman Mao and other revolutionary themes in those days." After 14 years of farm work, Fan Pu returned to Nanjing with her husband and two daughters in 1979. Before joining the Amity Art Center in 1993, Ms. Fan worked for a company of art design. Her special interests include paper cuts with biblical themes. She has made numerous trips to the countryside visiting villages where Christians are creating their own artwork in traditional folk art forms. Recently she was in Shandong Province, where she found many folk artists in Fei Xian, Zhang Jia Ko and Wei Xian. Some of the villages are in remote mountain areas and extremely poor, yet every one is engaged in paper cutting. Their papercuts are used to decorate their humble homes to express joy and hope in every season. Many of these villagers are Christians. Ms. Fan's dream is to find ways to introduce their art to the rest of China and to the outside world. Also through the Amity Christian Art Center these villagers will find an outlet for their work and gain income to improve their living standard.
The Amity Christian Art Center was established in 1992. It aims to develop Christian artistic creation and to relate to overseas Christians who are concerned with Chinese Christian art, making every effort possible to promote Christian art with Chinese characteristics. The center held its first Chinese Christian Art Exhibition in Hong Kong in September, 1993. In August 1994, after the founding of the Amity Cultural, Technological and Economic Exchange Center, the Amity Art Center became part of the Exchange Center and a division of the Amity Foundation. Abiding by the Three-Self Principle of the Chinese Church, the center focuses on the development of indigenous Chinese Christian art and the promotion of international cultural exchange. The Art Center commits itself to five areas of work: academic research, creation of artistic works, organizing exhibits and initiating exchanges, providing consultant service and exploring new fields for self-development.
From September 18 to 20, 1996, the Art Center held its first seminar on Chinese Christian Art and the second Chinese Christian Art Exhibition in Nanjing. Altogether 21 papers were presented to the seminar. Artists brought their works from Anhui, Fujian, Gansu, Guizhou, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Heibei, Henan, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang provinces as well as the municipals of Beijing and Shanghai. There were western and Chinese style oil paintings, acrylic work, traditional Chinese brush paintings, calligraphy, finger calligraphy, seal cutting, poetry, batik, carving, paper cuts, porcelain painting, impressionistic modern work as well as very bold "peasant paintings" with vivid colors.