Art in China
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'."
of Christian themes into traditional Chinese painting is an accordingly
long procedure, which still needs time. The main motives 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 always the same motives.
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.
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 motives 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 motives 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 motives 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
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.
communist revolution and the founding of the People's Republic of
China the Christian painting class at Furen University 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
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 Hunan Province, 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.
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 Protestant Church 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