This material is taken from the Amity News Service online.

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An Interview With He Qi, Chinese Christian Artist

(ANS) Dr. He Qi is a Doctor of Aesthetics and consultant to the Amity Christian Art Centre in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. He is a member of the Chinese Artists' Association and an executive board member of the Asian Christian Art Association. He has been teaching classes in Christian Art at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary since 1983. The ANS editor Ian Groves spoke with Dr. He about his background and his thoughts on the nature of Chinese Christian art at the current time.


How did you become a Christian?

I think there are two ways in which a person becomes a Christian. One way is through being introduced to Christian faith through one's family background, coming from a Christian family. The second way is followed by people who do not come from a Christian family and come to Christianity of their own accord. They are looking for the truth, for the meaning of life, for answers. I came to faith in this second way.

During the Cultural Revolution, while I was a Middle School student, I was sent down to the countryside to do manual labour in the early 1970s. This was something which happened to most Middle School Students at that time. I didn't want to do heavy physical labour every day, so I found a way to get out of this. At that time there was a huge demand for portraits of Chairman Mao, since everyone wanted to hang his portrait in their home or workplace. So, I managed to spend my days painting, copying portraits of Chairman Mao, instead of labouring in the fields.

One day I happened to come across a very old copy of a magazine which contained a picture of the painting "Madonna and Child" by Raphael. I was extremely moved by this painting. At the time of the Cultural Revolution the atmosphere was one of struggle, of hatred, of criticism. All around you could only see images of struggle and criticism. It was hard to find any images of peace. So, you can imagine how I felt when I saw this picture, with the Madonna smiling and the little baby Jesus also smiling out at me. I was deeply moved and touched, and felt a great sense of peace. After this, I did portraits of Chairman Mao by day and then, late at night, I did some copies of the "Madonna and Child," both sketches and oil paintings. I gave some of these copies to friends to encourage them too. To this day I still keep one of those oil paintings and recently a famous woman writer who was my neighbour during those times told me that she still has one of the "Madonna and Child" sketches which I gave her.

This was my first contact with Christianity and with Christian art. From this encounter, I went on to find out more about the Christian faith.

After the Cultural Revolution, I graduated from the Fine Arts department of Nanjing Normal University and, from 1979-1982, I worked in Tibet. I was part of a team sent to copy the frescos and wall paintings from several Buddhist Lamma temples. This was another important time for me personally, as I came to see the significance of religious art. During the Cultural Revolution, many religious art works were destroyed. After our time in Tibet, we went to Beijing to display our copies of the Buddhist wall paintings in an exhibition.

I came to understand the importance of preserving and promoting religious art at that time. During the late 70s and early 80s there were so few artists in China who were interested in religious art. I was able to do research during my time in Tibet, enabling me to make some comparisons between Buddhist art and Christian art and look into the nature of religious art in general.

How do you understand the terms "Christian Art" and "Chinese Christian Art"?

Chinese Christian art can be seen as one branch of Christian art as a whole. For ordinary Chinese people, however, they associate Christian art only with certain Western images taken from Renaissance religious paintings. I find something wrong in this attitude, since Christianity did not originate in Europe but in Western Asia. It was only later that the disciples of Jesus took Christianity to Europe. Christians in Europe had to endure persecution for several centuries before European peoples accepted the faith. Then, for the thousand or so years of the Middle Ages, Europeans packaged Christianity using their own cultural images.

I have travelled to Europe and seen the early Christian art on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. The pictures of Jesus Christ on those walls look very similar to contemporary images of the god Apollo, and the images of the Madonna look very similar to images of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Early European Christian art reflected elements from Roman, Mediterranean and ancient Greek art of the time. Similarly, during the Dark Ages, various German tribes used animal images, such as the eagle and the lion, to represent the different writers of the four Gospels, since most members of the different tribes were herdsmen and shepherds at the time. Looking at some later Renaissance art in Florence, I find that portraits of the Madonna look exactly like the women of Florence of the time. Similarly, in one of Titian's portraits of the Madonna, she is painted to look exactly like his wife.

When Europeans began to explore and conquer territories around the world, their missionaries took this European-packaged Christianity with them. Especially after the Opium Wars of the 19th century, Christianity and all its Western symbols entered China. Therefore, many people in China and around the world equate "Christian Art" with "European Art", which is obviously a wrong way of looking at things.

"Chinese" Christian art can actually be traced back to the Tang Dynasty and the presence of Nestorian Christians in China. They arrived in Chang'an (present day Xi'an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, in 635. The Nestorian Christians adapted a lot of their symbols and practices to blend in with the prevalent Chinese Buddhism of that time. So we find, around 150 years after the arrival of the Nestorians, the famous Nestorian Stone Monument. This stone tablet is in the shape of a cross, but it is seen rising from a lotus flower (a symbol of Buddhism) and is surrounded by stylized clouds (a symbol of Taoism). Indeed Christianity was often inseparable from Buddhism in the eyes of many people at the time, so when one Tang Dynasty emperor put a ban on Buddhism in 845, it extended to the Nestorian Christians too, as people popularly thought Nestorianism was a form of Chinese Buddhism.

The second period of Chinese Christian art can be said to have occurred during the Ming Dynasty with the arrival of the famous missionary Matteo Ricci. He brought some European Christian art with him to China and took it to Nanjing, asking some local artists to copy the art in the form of wood carvings and using Chinese style. The focus of Western artists and local Chinese folk artists is very different as far as style and technique are concerned. I saw a painting of Jesus Calming The Storm from this time, and the disciple Peter looks just like a local Chinese man of the time. Also one painting of the Madonna from that time looks very much like images of the Buddhist goddess Guangyin. So, this was a period when Christian art started to be done in China using indigenous Chinese cultural symbols.

The third period of Chinese Christian art can be seen during the middle of the Qing Dynasty. It is similar to the second period. The Emperor Kangxi was a great calligrapher and poet himself. He invited several European artists to China and these artists experimented with producing religious art using Chinese artistic methods. I have seen some of these paintings from this time, including several Madonnas and one painting of St. George slaying the dragon by the Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione.

The fourth period can be seen as the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the early twentieth century, after the Opium Wars. Western missionaries entered China along with the gunboats after unequal treaties were signed in several Chinese cities. So, in the minds of local Chinese, people associated Christianity with these gunboats and imperialists, as characterized by the saying "One more Christian, one less Chinese." Chinese people, especially the intellectuals of that time, have a strong sense of China's long history and ancient culture. In order to do missionary work at that time, many Western missionaries had to appeal to Chinese culture. So, some western missionaries practiced Christian art in a Chinese indigenous way and encouraged other Chinese artists, sculptors and church builders to do the same.

The fifth period of Chinese Christian art can be said to have begun in the early 1980s. After the Cultural Revolution the churches in China re-opened, as did the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. I went to the seminary in 1983 and the President of the seminary, Bishop K.H.Ting wanted to encourage students to take an interest in traditional Chinese art. Some students were interested in traditional art and calligraphy. Since that time we have been teaching art to the seminary students and trying to find a way to develop a distinctly Chinese Christian art.

This is not easy. The problems are not with groups outside the church, the authorities or the government. The problems lie within the church itself. There are many older pastors who are very conservative and cling to the past. They believe that typical Western Renaissance paintings are the only valid form of Christian art. Even the Chinese church magazine has used such paintings on its cover in the past. Of course, we can appreciate and share in the beauty of Renaissance paintings. But, if we call ourselves a "Three Self" church and are trying to change people's wrong ideas that Christianity is only a Western religion, then why are we still trying to package Christianity and present it to people using only Western religious imagery?

Does "Chinese Christian Art" have to be produced by a Chinese person who is a believer, in your view? Can a non-Chinese or a non-believer produce "Chinese Christian Art"?

I think we have to be very open-minded on this point. Christianity has not played as big a role in Chinese history as it has in the West, and we do not have the same Christian cultural background as the West. If we find some painters who are not Christian but who are interested in producing works of art with Christian themes or motifs then we naturally welcome and encourage them to do this. Through their work with Christian art, some Chinese artists can come to approach and even accept the Christian faith, such as myself and some of my fellow-artists.

It doesn't depend so much on the background of the painter, whether he or she is of Chinese origin or whether he or she is a believer, so much as which style and technique is used. When Western missionaries spent a long time in China in the past and learned a lot about Chinese art techniques and then applied these to the creation of Christian art with Chinese characteristics, I think we can still call this "Chinese Christian art".

People are very busy these days, making money and doing other things. Therefore, it is very important to develop Chinese Christian art, as a work of visual art can convey a powerful and complex message very quickly and effectively to busy people. We need to produce Christian art in a Chinese indigenous way so that people will know the Gospel message also belongs to Chinese people, and not just to foreigners.

Many church buildings in China are built according to Western models, and inside these churches believers sing translations of Western hymns and hang classical Western Christian paintings on their walls. How do Chinese believers view Christian works of art with Chinese characteristics? Are Chinese believers open to your work and the work of other Chinese Christian artists?

This is a hard question to answer.

Recently some pastors visited me and wanted me to produce some works of art for their churches. I was happy to do this. But, when they asked me to do some copies of classical works by Leonardo DaVinci, then I refused. I wanted to do some of my own works with Chinese characteristics and showed them some examples. When they saw Jesus with a Chinese face they became nervous and feared their congregations would not accept such an image.

The older pastors in the church today were strongly influenced by Western missionaries in China before Liberation. After the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, other parts of the world managed to distance themselves from Western influences in Christianity and developed their own understandings and expressions of the faith, such as with Liberation Theology in South America and with indigenous expressions of Christian faith in Africa. Even in Asia, we now have the Asian Christian Art Association, which looks at producing Christian art in an indigenous Asian way. But, in China, after 1949, we closed the door to the world, so these trends passed us by and we didn't know what was happening in the church outside of China. So, when the church reopened in China in the 1980s, many pastors and congregations still clung to old traditional Western expressions of faith, including seeing classical Renaissance artwork as the only valid expression of the Christian faith within art. It is difficult to change this kind of idea in older pastors. The problem is not with the church leadership, since people such as Bishop K.H.Ting and Dr. Wenzao Han have traveled a lot and seen a lot, so they know what has been happening in the outside world and they have a more open mind.

Older pastors at this time still have a strong psychological attachment to the ways and traditions instilled in them by Western missionaries. It is very difficult to change this. Therefore, it could be that we will not see a shift in attitude toward Chinese indigenous Christian art until the next generation, the next century. Since this is the case, I see my teaching among the students at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary as very important, as the students I teach will become the future pastors of the next generation. Our work is not so much for the present time but more a preparation for the future.

One very interesting observation is that, while many older Chinese pastors believe only Western Christian art has any validity, Western Christians, on the other hand, are very interested in our Chinese indigenous Christian artwork. Although we find it hard to gain acceptance for our works within Mainland China, we find they are very well received in places such as Hong Kong, other parts of Asia and around the world. So, maybe when Mainland Chinese pastors see Western Christians accepting and appreciating indigenous Chinese Christian art then it might help the Chinese pastors themselves to get over the barrier they have toward this art form.

Dr. Wenzao Han, President of the China Christian Council, once said that Chinese Christian artists should concentrate at this present time on doing the best work they can, producing outstanding and excellent examples of Chinese indigenous Christian art. If we do this, we can let our artwork speak for itself and persuade church members that Chinese Christian art has validity. We should not worry so much about talking about art and persuading people to accept our art, we should get on with the creative process itself, producing works of excellence that speak for themselves. We cannot expect people to accept our work unless it is worth accepting.

Can you say a little more about your teaching at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary? What kind of students do you teach? And how great is their interest in Christian art?

I am currently teaching three different courses. One is a kind of "Practical Christian Art" course, where I give students ideas on how they can decorate their churches in the future when it comes to important festivals such as Christmas or Easter. This is a required course for all first year students.

The second course is an optional course on the "History of Christian Art." Although this is an optional course, I have over 60 students signed up for the course this term, so it is fairly popular. I teach them the history of Christian art not only in the West but also in China. I emphasize how each place around the world has taken the Christian message and indigenized it using their own cultural symbols and images, and how it is important for the Chinese church today to do the same if it is to reach out to Chinese people.

The third course I teach is "Aesthetics", which is also an optional course. This is not an easy course for students to master. When I visited a Lutheran Seminary in the United States last year, I noticed how most of the students there were older and more mature. They already had at least one Bachelor degree before they came to seminary, and many had also had long years of work experience. In China, most of our seminarians come to seminary straight from Middle School, so they are not so experienced or mature in many ways, and they find complex ideas and concepts difficult to grasp. Nevertheless, this course is also popular, and many students sign up each time.

Many Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's coming into the world. How is the Chinese Church planning to commemorate this occasion? Are you planning to commemorate it in any way through your art work?

The Hong Kong Christian Council has invited me to begin their celebrations of this anniversary next year, with an exhibition of some of my works at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The title of this exhibition will be "The Image of Jesus Christ in China," and we expect it to take place around Easter next year.

In December of next year, it is hoped that we can do a live television broadcast with a link up between churches in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan, showing how Chinese Christians in all these different parts of China are marking the anniversary of Christ's birth on the advent of the Third Millennium.

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