Ignorance as a Kind of Nourishment


Translation by Jesse Robert Coffino and Vivian Xu 


To talk about my '70s, is to talk about my history of ignorance. My enlightenment came much later than it did for the group of people in No Name, Today and Stars.[1] Yet, I have always felt a deep respect for these people. Because when I talk about my experience studying art, I inevitably compare myself with them and find myself no closer to understanding why I was so far from getting it at the time. 

While Bei Dao[2] and Keping[3] were waging revolution at Democracy Wall outside the museum, I was inside the Central Academy[4] studio, lost entirely in the excitement of sketching plaster casts. Looking back, it is hard to believe that I had no more than a superficial interest in the great events taking place around me. From the triangle at Beida[5] to Democracy Wall,[6] from the Stars Exhibition at Beihai Park and the April Photography Group[7] at the Culture Palace to the Beijing People’s Art Theatre where Gao Xingjian[8] put on his plays, I saw it all, but only as an on-looker. 

During the April 5th Movement,[9] while others filled Tiananmen Square with poems and speeches, I was sketching among the crowd. I believed it was what an artist should do. I don't find it particularly impressive that Huang Zhen took part in the Long March, for instance. But I do admire the large body of sketches he created along the route, for recording the passage of events and thereby assuming one more role than others did. Being “present” to witness these events and attending lectures at the Central Academy was the same to me, and I didn't miss either.

I remember going to Bayi Lake once to “watch” a Today poetry reading. Lodging myself within the crowd of discussants, I moved closer and closer to the “youth leader.” I wasn't familiar with this group of people at the time and so I can't recall exactly who it was, but he looked a bit like Huang Rui.[10] He saw me, eyes stopping on my body. The discussion ground to a halt. Embarrassed, I bowed my head to inspect myself and saw the Central Academy badge that I had worn in. Not long after entering the Central Academy, the dean's office somehow managed to find a bunch of school badges: white text on green, made of polished cloisonne. They were a rare treasure in those days. We wore them around campus, but most of us pulled them off before we left the school gates. I realized I had forgotten to pull mine off that day and quickly retreated. I pulled off the badge and returned to the crowd to see what they were talking about. 

This momentary crossed glance was silent recognition between the two kinds of young art students at the time: those with an opportunity to receive formal training and those outside the system. I delighted in having become a Central Academy student, studying from classical European plasters in the Academy's hallowed studios and I also envied those Song of Youth[11] style youth leaders. But I believed that they too would seek out some plasters to draw, away from the revolution, and try to gain the opportunity offered by the Academy. It must be said that these two paths (enlightenment and ignorance) both had value at the time.  

Looking back, mine was essentially the path of ignorance, a path connected to my background. The kids I grew up with were the same, if not more so. Certainly none of them had gone to Democracy Wall. We were a circle of Beida kids earnest and dutiful for a reason. Not one of our families was without its problems. If your family wasn't deemed capitalist-roaders, then they represented reactionary academic authority, or someone in your family had “turned their backs on the people”[12] during the Anti-Rightist Movement.[13] Some of us had landlords in our families and others were labeled bourgeois or deemed spies with overseas connections. Among my classmates, those not motherless were fatherless or their sister had been driven mad (many households were headed by a sister then, who frequently succumbed to mental illness—their earlier maturity perhaps leading to greater stress). Many of these classmates would later move abroad. I have encountered four of them on foreign streets, three in New York and one in Manchester, England. Of these four, two had fathers that committed suicide and two had sisters still institutionalized (thankfully my family is not genetically predisposed to mental illness and we made it through). 

We, children of problem families, born to obstruct revolutionary progress, were shrouded in a cloud of shame. That was who our families were and there was nothing we could do but accept it. Even our teachers had been lumped into this group. Among the teachers at Beida High School, many were young instructors who had been singled-out as “rightists” during the Anti-Rightist Movement, and sent to teach high school for their errors. They shared high levels of intelligence, education, intellectual curiosity and determination. Their intelligence and training meant that they had a subconscious instinct, a habit of adhering to the correct line, something that we “instructable youth” quickly came to emulate. The result was that teachers and students all competed to see who was more correct. There was nothing one could do about his polluted bloodline, but one could show how much more zealously he labored than others and prove himself a useful person. Even if we worked ourselves to death we couldn't go around with the casual swagger of “the five red types”[14] or of the sons and daughters of cadres that had yet to be purged. Not one of us could assume a carefree distance from life. This became our character. 




When Deng Xiaoping was rehabilitated in 1972, a small number of students were also  allowed to advance to high-school. I guess Beida High needed someone who knew art, because I was allowed to advance there. Deng's line was to reinstate Beida president Lu Ping's “three-stage rocket”:  Beida Elementary → Beida Middle → Beida High → Beida. Soon, however, it was said that Deng was plotting a restoration and he was once again purged. When high school graduation came, the Red Guards at Beida High, Tsinghua University High and Beijing 123 High wrote an open letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League demanding equality with the workers and the peasants, demanding to be sent to the most punishing reaches of the country. The letter was published in Guangming Daily (I later learned that this was prompted by somebody within the Communist Youth League Central Committee) and became the impetus behind one last fever-pitch wave in the Down to the Countryside Movement. We chose to insert ourselves in the poorest commune in Beijing's poorest county. 

I was grateful for having been allowed to advance to high school, so I worked for the school twice as hard as I had during middle school, often late into the night. By graduation, it had taken a toll on my health: insomnia, headaches and a low-grade fever. I would go to bid farewell to my comrades-in-arms and then return home to nurse my health. After about six months, I was fine. I went through the formalities and then set off to find my classmates. I was assigned to Shouliang Gou Village. We were two boys and three girls altogether, the village's “educated youth”[15] detachment. 

The place was in the mountains of Saibei[16] and very poor. That year's harvest had failed and so the village divvied up the allotment they had received from the national government to support us educated youth and gave us a room to live in on the pig farm. It  was surrounded by pig pens with two large woks that were both used to cook our food and heat the pig feed. It was an old room, mouse holes everywhere. If the wind picked up outside, dirt would blow in through the holes. During the high alpine winter, warmth came from the few leftover cooking coals placed immediately in a mud basin. There was a cun,[17] at least, of ice on the water tank that had to be broken every time water was fetched. Work started late in the winter, and sometimes, before starting off for work, I could copy a page from the Caoquan Stele, brush and paper freezing together. 

I arrived in March. Winter had yet to pass and the room was too cold live in, so I moved in with another educated youth, Little Ren, to Secretary Sun's house. His house had one kang[18] that everyone slept on. As a guest, I was placed at the head of the kang, Little Ren was next to me, followed by Old Sun, Old Sun's wife, his eldest son, his second son, eldest girl and second girl, respectively. At the foot of the kang was a mentally retarded deaf-mute. It was a poor place, so young women seldom chose to move there, with intermarriage, cases of congenital mental retardation are frequent. 

As I see it, the place was, in some sense, a matriarchy. Women made up the central axis of the family, and each family required two men to maintain upkeep, for no other reason than poverty. However remote, it was still the realm of the party; so monogamy was the law. But in truth, a few families consisted of a woman who, apart from her husband, had another man. The woman would manage both of the men's labor records. It was public knowledge. If some well-intentioned person tried to introduce that bachelor to a mate, the woman in charge would shout through the village, “That's unconscionable, I can die but there is still my daughter....” The well-intentioned person, feeling unjustly cursed at, would come out and curse right back. If someone's family was missing a melon, the same method was used to retrieve that stolen melon.  

The village had Big Grannie, Grannie Two, Grannie Three and Grannie Four. For a long period of time, I had no idea what all of this meant. I came to live in a bachelor's house for a winter, and only then did I come to know a bit about the goings-on of the village. Shouliang Gou (Grain Harvest Ravine) Village was poor, but you can see from its name that it was better off than villages like “Sand Ridge” and “Rat Eye Ridge.” Shouliang Gou had a landlord who was dragged off to a mountain ravine during land reform and stoned to death by the people's militia. His land, house and women were divided among the poor and lower-middle peasants. His four wives were given to four bachelors, and what I couldn't understand was how these four grannies got on so well with their poor and lower-middle peasants. It was hard to imagine that they had ever been the wives of a landlord. Back then, the movie projection brigade came around once a year. And even in those times of repressed desire, sex was a bit casual in this mountain ravine. As a child grew, he came to look more and more as if he was the neighbor's cousin. Everyone knew tacitly what was going on and everyone was related anyways. 

Now, when I bring this up with friends, I am asked, “Well what about you educated youth?” And I answer, “We were an advanced educated youth post, our behavior was exceptionally normal.” Most people don't believe that. Thinking it over now, the “advanced educated youth post” is, actually, a bit abnormal: a group of eighteen and nineteen year-olds, deep in the mountains, passing the days completely as one family, the main room separated to the left and the right by two sheets, Little Ren and I on one side, our three female classmates on the other. Sometimes a few of us would be away from the village or would return home to see family and then only one boy and one girl remained, sleeping on either side of the room. Rising early, each would come out from under their curtain, meet to wash their faces in the same basin and then discuss that day's meal and whatever else, appearing as if they were a little husband-wife couple, but without a hint of the physical connection that exists between husband and wife. 

I am going to take this opportunity to come clean about the most romantic thing that happened to me during the time when I was eighteen and nineteen years old. They say that poor mountain country produces great beauties and the Zhou family was the poorest household in the village. Old Zhou was a loafer, his wife a humble woman, tall, the wrinkles on her face comparable to crepe paper. But you could still tell that she had been a beauty in her youth. The Zhou family could be seen busying themselves through the day pulling down their perimeter wall and realigning their courtyard gate. They had never successfully raised a pig to adulthood, so their family was poor, and according to local belief, dead pigs resulted from an improperly situated gate. 

Old Zhou's eldest daughter, Er Qinzi, was famous through the commune for her beauty. Of our three female classmates, one played accordion in the county song and dance troupe. Each time she returned to the village, she would say, “There's no one in the whole troupe that can compare to Er Qinzi.” Er Qinzi was indeed pretty, and if you ask me, it came from the fact that she didn't know how pretty she was. Er Qinzi smiled when she talked, and guileless, she was never off-putting. She worked with great dexterity, pulling her only ornament, a waste-length braid, behind her. She wore the same floral-patterned apricot-colored clothes year-round. When it was hot out, she removed the cotton lining, turning it into a single garment, outer and underwear one. When it got cold, she put the cotton back in. 

Er Qinzi's house faced the little school playground. Late one evening, as I was cutting across the playground on my way home, someone called out to me from the shadows, “Little Xu”  (that was what everyone in the village called me). I looked, only to see Er Qinzi sitting on the railing of her family's courtyard gate, naked, both of her breasts visible. Floored, I fumbled out, “Oh, hey Er Qinzi,” and maintaining my speed, continued across the playground. The next day, when Er Qinzi saw me, she said, “Last night I took apart my clothes to wash them. It was warm out.”  Every year around this time, as she waited for her clothes to air-dry and people were about in her house, there was really nowhere for her to hang around.

Then, the educated youth started returning to the cities in droves. And one day, Er Qinzi sought me out. “Little Xu, can you help me with something? You're always going off to the commune. Next time you go, can you help me sell my braid there? I already told my dad that I am going to cut it.” 

      “Cutting it would be a pity,” I said. 

      “I want to cut it,” said she.

      “Why not have your brother help you then?” 

      “I don't trust him, I trust you.”

A few days later, she brought me a black, thick braid, which she opened up for me to see. I happened to have to go to the commune the next day to work on some publications and the large braid tucked away in my rucksack weighed a ton. Who knew that hair could be such a heavy thing. I forget how much the braid sold for, but I do remember wrapping the money in the piece of paper that had held the braid, which I then returned to her. This bit of money was incredibly important to Er Qinzi. It was her only sideline. 

A male educated youth received ten work points for a day's labor—able-bodied work for which you had to keep up with your team leader because he only got ten points himself.  Moreover, that year's labor output determined next year's food credits. The task I feared most, squatting down to pick weeds, meant that you had to spend the day moving around in a squat, a “workout” that really made you feel the burn. The days are tough in a rural village, but we didn't feel it then. It's what we had rushed there for. 

I was a little overzealous then, comparing myself with the others in two categories. One: who wouldn't smoke. Before we set off, we had all pledged not to smoke when we got to the village. Among the more than one hundred male educated youth in the commune, I was the only one who took not a single breath of tobacco in the entire period of our stay. I said I wasn't going to smoke, so I didn't smoke. Not much to it.  Two: who could stay there the longest between visits home. I would wait for a national or city level exhibition before I returned to Beijing, so I was frequently the only educated youth left at our post. There was a kind of satisfaction I got from this kind of self-restraint.  When I was the only one left, I didn't really cook for myself. Instead, I brought my rations to someone's house and found my board there. The pig farm was at the village entrance and people passing by on their way home from their family plots would give me a leaf or two. That constituted my vegetable. One day, a shepherd passed by driving a flock of sheep. I could smell the thick odor of sheep from within the expected whip and cry of dust. The fragrance was enticing. I can see now that my hunger had reached its limit. Sometimes I would place a few chili peppers in my mouth, the stimulus causing me to salivate. It was incredibly satisfying. My mouth needed the stimulation. 

      This particular swath of villages is tucked away in the mountains, and it is said that these villages were left undiscovered in the year the Japanese passed through the area. Yet some of the language there bears a similarity to Japanese. Later, I studied a bit of the language. Car is pronounced kuruma in Japanese, and the people of Shouliang Gou called a car guluma (“wheel horse”). Wordings such as this one were not rare. In this case, my guess is that a Tang Dynasty usage migrated to Japan while the mountain dwellers remained unaware of the changes taking place in the Chinese language. The most common family name in the area was pronounced Que, but the dictionary lists the character as Xi, noting an ancient family name. The area was remote, and so traditions survived. The first time I came across the phrases “黄金万两” (ten thousand catties of gold) and “招财进宝” (bring wealth and treasure) each written as a single character was not in a study of folk practices, but attached to a cabinet in the village secretary's house. I was moved in such a way then that no book could ever move me. 

      When weddings and funerals arrived, another “conceptual” aspect of the old village expressed itself. During mourning preparations, they would cut and paste together paper  replicas of every possible thing. It was exactly a local version of Second Life. Leafing through sheets of paper, the elders would transcribe the odd characters they found there onto a piece of white cloth, making it into a flag. When they learned that I knew calligraphy and had ink, they had me do it instead. Only later, in my research of Chinese characters, did I learn that this kind of writing is called guihuafu and that it is meant to communicate with the netherworld. 

      However, my role of greatest importance to the village came during weddings, when I was inevitably asked to arrange the bridal chamber. It wasn't because I knew how to do installation art, but because my family had a mother and a father, an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. According to traditional custom I am referred to as a “complete person.” If someone like that lays the sheets, then many children will result from the marriage: pairs of girls and boys both. In Shouliang Gou, I was in contact with the stuff of “folklore studies.” There was a ghostly air to it that settled upon me, influencing all of my creative work that followed.

Now to talk a little bit more about things art-related. It could be said that my earliest lesson in art “theory” and the founding of my artistic ideals took place on a mountain slope facing Shouliang Gou. There was a grove of apricot trees on the mountain there, a little sideline for the village. Guarding the trees was an offensive task, and nobody wanted to go. So I said I would do it. That summer, the mountain slope became my paradise. First off, I never ate even a single apricot. That brought with it the satisfaction of self-control. Otherwise, I focused on enjoying the changes taking place in the natural world around me. Each day I brought my box of paints and a book to the mountainside. But after a few days, there really wasn't much left to read. And then one day came when all I had left to read was a copy of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. I had already committed the best passages to memory, which had become familiar to the point that I could no longer sense their meaning.  

But that day under the apricot trees, reading the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, I was moved in a way rare in my reading experience. A brilliant passage on art and literature can be found in an essay otherwise unrelated to art:

To let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is to promote development in the arts and sciences, it is to promote the development of a flourishing socialist culture. Different forms and styles of art can develop freely, different schools of scientific thought can debate freely. We see the use of government power to impose one style or school of thought, or to restrict another style or school of thought as harmful to the development of the arts and sciences. The problems in the arts and sciences should be solved through discussion in the worlds of art and science, solved through artistic and scientific practice, as they cannot be solved through a reliance on simple methods.[19]


Rereading it now, I'm not quite clear as to why the passage brought about such feeling on that day. Perhaps it was the sharp contrast between the passage and the prevailing cultural climate, my excitement a mixture of awareness and disgust. Chairman Mao describes the relationship so clearly, with so much sense. What has the art world come to? I sat under the apricot tree, read a few sentences, cast my view across the mountains and felt for the first time the breadth of art, its sublime and brilliant truth. That day's harvest buried deep within the heart of an amateur artist and claimed an important place there. 

Beida is in the suburbs, and the people around me there were unconnected to the art circles. It was very late when, through an introduction provided by a coworker in my mother's office, I came to know painter Mr. Li Zongjin,[20] the only instruction I sought from a professional artist before attending the Academy. Mr. Li lived in Beida's Yannan Gardens, in an old thick-walled, deep-windowed house. He brought out his small oil sketches for me to look at. It was my first time experiencing the true magic of oils. Mr. Li sensed that I could see and brought out two larger paintings. One of them was Sketch of Beihai, which I had seen before in a publication. My time there with him was a place where the “cultural revolution” did not exist, a totally separate space in time; it was something apart from the raucousness of the art production going on outside; it was secret, something that could only exist in the vault of an ancient temple, between a monk and his novice. 

After dinner in the village, I would visit local houses to do portraits, photographing the originals and giving each subject a copy. The portraits have something of Wang Shiguo's[21] style (I did have a copy of the Selected Sketches of Wang Shiguo handy at the time). He was good at peasant portraits, and because my point of reference and the subjects I painted were so well aligned, I did a pretty good job with them. For no other reason than the dim lighting (only one lamp was hung for every two rooms), the majority of these portraits are dark. 

Each time I returned to Beijing, I would bring some of my work to show Mr. Li. On one occasion, there was a large oil painting mounted in his house, towering from the sky to the ground. It was his representative work The Speedy Capture of Luding Bridge, back from the History Museum for revision. He encouraged me to do more portraits and sketches. But when I returned to the village, the elders wouldn't let me draw them. I learned later that Grandpa Four had died while I was in Beijing. I had drawn him right before I left. But then again, I had drawn pretty much everyone in the village. So I began to focus on landscapes after that. 

All together, I visited Mr. Li's on three occasions. The last time I went, however, no one answered my knocks. I inquired, only to learn that he had committed suicide a few days earlier. He had long worn the hat of a rightist and had been at the Central Academy. But after the Anti-Rightist Movement, he was demoted to the choreography department at Beijing Film Academy. His type was not allowed to paint during the Cultural Revolution. And just as things had relaxed a bit and he could paint again, he got cancer. Unable to bear these twists of fate, he revised his representative work one last time and then committed suicide. It was an era of Soviet influence, so painting small color landscapes was in vogue, and every time I painted, I would remember Mr. Li's small oils: the backlighting, the damp stone steps. Why couldn't I paint the way those felt?

There was a saying then, “the educated youth needs the village, and the village needs educated youth.”  Bringing that education to bear required one draw on intellect and knowledge. Some of the educated youth rose early to collect night soil from the neighboring houses for experiments with methane gas; some poured through books to develop scientific animal feed. These were the kind of stories that you read about in newspaper descriptions of “advanced educated youth.” And sure enough, we soon became advanced educated youth ourselves.

My own strength was making up the blackboard newspaper.  At the work pick-up site in the village there was a blackboard painted on a plaster wall. Its black had almost entirely faded away. At first, I mistook it for nothing more than a patch job. Then, one day, I was feeling impulsive and covered it in a coat of black ink, copying a few random passages on its surface. The intention was to show off my design skills. Once finished, its brilliance took the eyes by force (the phrase eye-catching wasn't around then). From the mountains far in the distance, you could see a bright black square. It made the area surrounding it appear even more barren. Word of an educated youth's blackboard newspaper in Shouliang Gou soon began to circulate. 

Then one day, as I was returning from a trip to buy grain, I overhead someone say, “A guy came up from Beijing to look at our blackboard newspaper. He said the educated youth have done a good job with their creative propaganda work.” I learned later from people at the commune that it was Liu Chunhua.[22] He painted Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan and was director or deputy-director of cultural affairs for Beijing at the time.

The blackboard newspaper developed into the mimeograph printed periodical Brilliant Mountain Flowers,[23] which was the crystallization of our efforts to encourage artistic and literary production by the peasants and the educated youth. My role was limited to that of art design and carving the waxed stencil paper. The content wasn't my business. There were enough writers among my classmates already. All of my interest lay in “typeface”: the trends in typefaces used by big papers like The People's Daiy and Wenhui Daily, the differences between the text design and symbols used in the editorial and arts and literature sections. I had this wild ambition that one day I would compile the Encyclopedia of Chinese Word Art. 

The use of Chinese type has, in fact, always carried strong political undertones, which was even more apparent during the Cultural Revolution. But I didn't understand this at the time and only pursued formal distinctions: Song, old Song, imitation Song, bold Song, flat Song, italic Song,  whether the stroke curved, at what angle it curved, the density of strokes and the character's proportions and line thickness. It was my goal to achieve the production values of PLA Arts and Literature magazine through waxed-paper carving technique. In this little mountain ravine, a few kids—one hand rooting out lice from one's pants, the other carving away at waxed-paper—copied out a series of heroic and highly formalist texts. 

Brilliant Mountain Flowers ran for eight issues. And, as the soon as the first issue was out, it was sent to the National Exhibition of the Gratifying Achievements of the Criticize Lin, Criticize Campaign.[24] Now, this publication is seen as one of my earliest works and has been shown in western museums, not for its achievement in “Criticizing Lin Biao and Criticizing Confucius,” but as an example of highly refined mimeograph technique. 

Each person in their lifetime has but one period of true and utter focus. I used it up early, used it in the heartfelt production of a mimeograph publication whose content I never questioned. 

I have gone on to make quite a few works that deal with language. Some people are surprised, “Xu Bing has such a strong grounding in calligraphy!” they say.  But that is not really the case. I just have a lot of experience with the bone-structure of the Chinese character, something for which the Cultural Revolution provided practice. 


The Central Academy


In all honesty, apart from the romantic notion of throwing myself into the vast landscape, I did have a selfish reason for insisting on being sent down. As an educated youth, my chances of getting into the Central Academy were greater than if I had gone on to work at a neighborhood factory in the city, and going to the Academy had been my childhood dream. 

By way of Brilliant Mountain Flowers, the county cultural center learned that one of its educated youth could draw well. I was transferred to worker-peasant-soldier art production, my first experience with the kind of creative collective so popular at the time. I created a painting of several Beijing red guards on their way through Tibet. It appeared in the Beijing Daily News as my first published work.

It is precisely because of this painting that the roller coaster of getting into the Central Academy began. The painting's need for improvement became a focus of the preparations for that year's national art exhibit. Creative collaboration between the professional and amateur artist was being promoted then, so I was sent to the National Art Museum of China to revise my painting with a professional artist. 

I was on my way to the bathroom one day, when I overhead someone say these four words: “the Academy is recruiting.” My courage grew instantly as I walked up to the speaker and said, “Can I go to the Academy? I am an educated youth. I am here revising a painting.” (I meant to imply that I was already quite good at painting). It was Central Academy teacher Wu Xiaochang. He chatted with me a bit. “Xu Bing,” he said, “you are still young. Continue on with your village labor.” I was dispirited. But looking at it differently, how did he know that I was called “Xu Bing”? The exhibition organizers must have already told him about me.  

All of the important art academies had been regrouped under the rubric of “The Central May Seventh Art University,” with Jiang Qing serving as University President. Recruitment began with each school undertaking a thorough investigation to determine where they could find kids that had both shown good behavior and could paint well, and only then were regional quotas determined. On my way back from the bathroom I had a premonition: the Academy would have to add a name from Yanqing County[25] to the quota; they would come to recruit me. 

That year's recruitment began. Teachers from Beida, Tsinghua, the medical schools and foreign language universities all came to Yanqing to recruit, and they all sought me out to talk. My mother called from Beijing to plead that I go to whatever school would have me. I didn't listen. I was single-minded in waiting for the Academy to come for me. I knew that studying at any other major would shatter my lifelong dream of becoming a painter.   

Then recruitment ended. Everyone else had a place, but the Central Academy person had still yet to come. I was at a loss. Then, one day, I found myself in a grass hut by the side of the road seeking shelter from the rain. Inside, a few Beijingers were talking about school recruitment. My spirits rose; the Academy had finally come! I teased out that they were from the Film Academy, and had come in search of cinematography majors. It looked like the Central Academy was hopeless. Cinematography was close enough, so I showed him my work. They decided on the spot. 

The requisite files were sent to the county recruitment office. But just as I was preparing to set off for the Film Academy, somebody finally came from the Central Academy. The two sides talked it over. In the end, I was handed over to the Central Academy. Some time later, Professor Meng from the Film Academy told me, “Your ability to paint was already well beyond what was needed for the Film Academy.” Little Ren from our group took the vacancy. He went on to become the country's top “imperial” cinematographer, acting as lead cameraman for many of the state events involving foreign leaders. 

Good things don't come easily. A flash flood had cut out the postal route, so by the time I received my notification from the Central Academy, the entrance exam had already passed a few days earlier. I was working the land when I received the notice, and I didn't even return to my living quarters. I put down my hoe and began walking towards Beijing. When I made it out of the mountains, I hopped on the worker's propaganda truck. We drove through the night and headed straight for the Central Academy. 

It was dawn when I arrived wearing a red tank-top and holding a straw hat—the classic image of an educated youth. The military representative in charge of student recruitment said to me, “We thought your commune really had kept you to stay on as their high-school art teacher. All of the testing has finished. What can be done? I guess you'll have to go test by yourself.” He asked me to write an essay. I was tired and anxious. How could I possibly write an essay? I said to him, “Let me take the test first. I'll write the essay at home tonight and bring it back tomorrow.” He agreed. 

I was put in a classroom to “test,” but I could hear teachers in the adjoining classroom discussing which students to admit. The five volume Selected Mao had just been published, so I painted an educated youth sitting at the head of a kang, reading from Selected Mao, a small oil lamp to his side. The title was “Clear of Heart” or some such thing. 

When I got home, I was exhausted. I gave my writer friend Little Chen a call and asked him to help me with an essay that I needed by the next morning. That old classmate really was a stand-up guy. Early the next morning, I had a crisp draft in my hands. That day I went outside and painted a color landscape.  With that, the test had finished. 

As I was saying goodbye to the military representative, I requested permission to see what the other prospective students had drawn. He brought me to a classroom that had a section of wall devoted to each student's work. One look and I immediately felt at ease. My Wang Shiguo-style peasant portraits, plus some copies of Brilliant Mountain Flowers were all assembled there, holding their own, and I trusted that the Central Academy teachers knew their business. 

I went back to Shouliang Gou, to a place of timeless simplicity and fragrant earth, soaked through with folk wisdom and humor, a place in step with my physical rhythms. I “savored” my last bit of hard labor because I knew that I would leave. I began to treasure each day in the village. The days passed one by one, and still half a year later, no acceptance notice had arrived. In this span of time, China had given rise to many monumental events. The Cultural Revolution ended and the National Higher Education Entrance Examination was reinstated. I went to the Central Academy to find out for myself what was going on. The campus was covered with big character posters. One of the posters was written by the current worker-peasant-soldier students calling on the school to reject the newly admitted class and restart the recruitment process. My heart grew cold again and I began to seriously consider the life of a village art teacher. 

No more than a few days passed before the acceptance notification arrived at last. I had finally become a Central Academy student. I was going to become a professional artist. I hastily assembled my things and snatched up my big pile of luggage in a rush of strength. A large group of villagers saw me off to the public road. But before I left, Grandpa Five sought me out to say a few words, “Little Xu, you're our village talent. But as you go out into the big world, you'll meet greater people. There are always taller mountains.” It sounds like some literary or theatrical cliché, but when I heard it then, tears quickly came to my eyes. I knew that I really could leave. The people of Shouliang Gou Village had made me one of their own.

After fierce debate among the Central Academy faculty, it was decided that we would enter as part of the Class of '77. My university classmates were a very different group from my high school ones, whose families all had problems. My university classmates were all “upright red seedlings,” and it seemed that I had managed to successfully blend into their revolutionary ranks. These classmates were plain and simple. All of them good people. And we moved forward together in harmony. 

We were assigned to a major after registration. I filled out my request form with a firm commitment to studying oil painting, not printmaking or Chinese brush painting. My reasoning: Chinese brush painting—not international; printmaking—unpopular with the masses. But the Academy had already decided for me. I was assigned to the printmaking department. As a matter of fact, Chinese printmaking has an important place in the arts and a few members of the early generation of masters were still with us then. Mr. Li Hua[26] taught us woodcutting technique. He would often sit across from me in class, nodding his head once with each mark that I carved. In retrospect, this was a kind of bliss. It was as if an aura surrounded us, the rhythm of two generations connecting. 

Chinese society was coming back to life, but I sequestered myself in the studio, painting European plaster busts under the personal guidance of Xu Beihong's[27] very own students. I was more diligent than the others. When I faced a plaster bust, my internal clock stopped. I would sit for hours. People said I was being painstaking. But I felt that “hardship” could not fundamentally exist in the act of sitting in the studio when you compared it with squatting down to pick weeds off the land. 

During the second semester of our freshman year, the last series of sketching classes was devoted to a single long-term assignment: drawing Michelangelo's David. The Central Academy had reinstated drawing from plaster casts and live models. It was as much a landmark event for a new era of art education as it was a landmark experience for us students who were drawing the David. The two week class concluded, followed by winter recess. But I didn't go home that winter break. Instead, I invited a friend who had once studied art to come draw with me. We had a chance to enjoy the Academy studio space as we renewed our bygone friendship. 

I continued to work on that one assignment through the winter break, all in the interest of an “academic” consideration. We talked about realism then. But after having spent some time drawing at the Academy, I found that very rarely had someone truly managed to capture the “real.” Even long-term projects resulted not in a description of the subject, but in a mere piece of paper, a finished canvas capable only of expressing the most handsome line-control and “grid” technique, something that had forgotten its purpose very early on.


I decided to work on this drawing, without rest, to see just what degree of depth I could achieve and whether I could really grasp my subject (which is not simply a question of stroke style). Through the course of the winter break, I saw the real bust of David rise from the page, to the point that you could touch those famous bangs. As I went deeper and deeper, new technical questions arose—how to deal with the relationship between the light (the blacks and grays and whites) created by the structure of the plaster cast and the dirty patina of color that constituted its timeworn surface. (The plaster casts were brought back from France by Xu Beihong and recast again and again for use by various art academies. They no longer appeared plaster at all, their surfaces more rich and subtle than even a real person.) I moved forward millimeter by millimeter, solving each problem that presented itself as I mediated the singular connection that exists between pencil and paper. 

School was about to start up again when Mr. Jin Shangyi[28] came to observe the studios. He looked at the David, spent some time on it and then left without saying a word. It all made me a little nervous. But not long after, word began to spread through the Central Academy that Mr. Jin had said, “Xu Bing's David is the finest since the Academy's founding.” That was thirty years ago. Realist technique has improved rapidly in China and David has been more ably portrayed. 

The questions resolved by this one assignment did more for me than the hundreds of sketches I had drawn before. Sketching instruction is not about learning how to drawn an object. Instead, it is about turning you from a rough person into a refined person, a well-disciplined person who understands how to work. Sketching—one pencil, one piece of paper—is nothing more than a convenient means, and certainly not the only means, of gaining the abilities described above. Qi Baishi could make a head of cabbage and two peppers appear so fascinating, an ability inseparable from his decades of experience as a woodworker. That was his “sketching” training.  

I have since worked with museums around the world. They have all come to see me as a particularly picky perfectionist. My eyes are exacting. In one glance, I can see a centimeter's discrepancy between design and implementation. And when that's the case, it has to be redone. It's the same approach one takes to calculating the spacing in a sketch. 

Post-David, the school began to consider whether it should allow Xu Bing to transfer into the oil painting department, whether it was a waste of his profound attention to form not to let him paint oils. But when the dean implied this to me, I somehow missed his meaning and said, “Our printmaking class works well together. That's just the way it is.” I had already settled on my major, and he didn't bring it up again. I can see now that not changing majors was my fate. Otherwise, I might have ended up as Yang Feiyun[29] the second.

The old Central Academy campus was located in Wangfujing and I couldn't stand the noise and bustle there. Just walking around a department store gives me a headache. Apart from the sustenance I found in the “problems of sketching,” my affections remained in Shouliang Gou. I couldn't understand why, but I missed the place so. Every time I recalled that dirt road running by the village, that millstone and those haystacks, my pulse quickened. I should have focused the attachment I felt to Shouliang Gou on some girl instead. Indeed, it was very late before I had my first girlfriend. Once, during a crit, the teacher said, “Xu Bing's feeling for the village is a kind of love. That's very good.” 

My greatest feelings then were for the French artist Millet and the Chinese artist Gu Yuan. Both dealt with the peasantry. Looking at their work was like satisfying an addiction to some local speciality. The peasants Gu Yuan carved are nothing less than old Shouliang Gou itself. It was as if he had penetrated down to the bones of the Chinese people. I was resigned to the fact that certain aspects of art would remain “beyond reach.” There are some things that no one can control, like that something in Guo Lanying's voice, that vinegar intensity of a Shanxi woman. How can that be learned? She is a master only because she possesses that little something that nobody else has.

This “infatuation” for the village was also reflected in my woodcuts. Beginning with my first “woodcut technique” class, I carved over one hundred palm-sized woodcuts, attempting to test each of the various carving techniques—both foreign and Chinese—that I had come across. I had no idea that these small practice works would become the earliest thing of mine to resonate within the art world. 

These small works were unassuming and genuine. When I have time to leaf through them now, I am touched by my own innocence then. (When a person looses his innocence to worldly concerns, he goes on to make contemporary art.) Everyone liked these small works. Perhaps we had a great need to retrieve some sense of authenticity after the experience of the Cultural Revolution. These small works were distinct from “scar art.” Rather than indict, they treasure those things of ordinary beauty that existed in our lives back then. These small works made just such a first impression on the art circles. That's why so many people were at a loss as to how that guy could make Book from the Sky? A youth with so much promise gone astray. What a pity. 

      Gu Yuan followed the artistic and literary methodologies expressed by Mao Zedong in Talks at the Yan'an forum on Literature and Art.[30] I emulated Gu Yuan, whereas Wang Keping of Stars had already begun to study the methods of the Theatre of the Absurd. We lagged behind him. Keping was clearly working at a higher level, and that shocked us at the Central Academy. The Central Academy invited them to participate in a forum. In that moment, they were “singular” and we were “repetition,” just like the rest. I and “we” were really quite ignorant. But what you have to remember about this experience of ignorance is that it was an experience shared by everyone who lived in China's interior. The experience of the majority has a truer sense of universality and a greater descriptive quality. So it must be confronted, otherwise we are left with nothing. 

Mao Zedong's methods and culture dragged an entire nation into the middle of an historically unprecedented experiment. The toll was huge; it resulted in disaster. Each and every person became elements in an experiment, and this writing tells the story of just one of those experimental elements. What happened, happened. We can run and hide from that torture, or we can mock it. But either way, it changes nothing. What we need to do today, is to look at what's left and see how much of it can be put to use. The useful part is wrapped in a layer of something that we resent or even abhor. But this “abhorrent” layer must be crossed in order to find the value that is there.  America's seemingly vulgar culture can be confronted in the same way. Those with lofty artistic ideals must endure the vulgarity of it, penetrate it, before they can touch upon the part of this culture that has value. Apart from a few prescient people, the source of all of our thinking and the basis of our methods belong to the times we live in. From our environs, from the way our mothers and fathers and the people around us interacted with the people and things in the world around them, from Mao's thinking and methods, we inherited a skewed, but nonetheless essential method based in traditional wisdom.  This came to form a part of our world view and personality. It lodged itself deeply and stubbornly within us and it is something that any other theory must take into account.  

The '80s saw a great influx of Western thought, followed by its discussion,  comprehension and assimilation. But as far as I was concerned, it was all just another opportunity to mark oneself formally “present.” Once something has taken residence in your thought patterns, it is difficult for anything else to squeeze itself in. In New York, I am asked, “How is it that you come from such a conservative country and still do such avant-garde stuff?” (Most of the time they don't understand where my thinking comes from). And I respond, “You were taught by Beuys (contemporary German artist who proposed the idea of "social sculpture" and is considered among the most influential avant-garde artists of the 1970s and '80s) and I was taught by Mao Zedong. When Beuys faces Mao, it is like an apprentice facing a great sorcerer.” 

As I write this, I am on Mt. Kenya implementing The Mu·Lin·Sen Project, an experiment in creating a self-sustaining system that will move funds from wealthy areas to impoverished areas for planting trees. It's feasibility is based on the following principles: one, utilize free online services such as auction and sales hosting, money transfers and even online teaching to achieve the lowest possible costs (please visit www.forestproject.net); two, benefit everyone involved in the project; three, utilize regional economic discrepancies ($2.00 is a subway ride in New York, but it can plant ten trees is Kenya). After passing through this system, the trees that children have drawn will become real trees growing up from Kenya's soil. 

This project best explains what I am doing today and its connection to my upbringing. What I create has come to seem less and less like standard art. But I still demand that the work I do is creative, that the ideas behind it are focused and solid and inspire other people's thinking, and in addition, that it brings some benefit to society. I know that my creative work reflects the genes of an artist with a socialist background. That is something which cannot be concealed and will always reveal itself in the end. With increasing age, you no longer have the stamina to conceal that which is truly a part of you. What's yours, is yours. Even if you don't like it, there is nothing you can do about it. It is the direction you must take. 

I am sitting in a colonial-style garden inn. But my eyes are different from those of the other visitors here. I have shared the life and concerns of a group of people even more impoverished than the Kenyans. I don't find the junkyard quality of Nairobi's markets or the medieval poses of the Maasai shepherd particularly curious or moving. I am thereby able to forego the temptation of the picturesque in my art and grasp something more innate to human existence. 

Following this logic, my theoretical and technical preparations for The Mu·Lin·Sen Project began in the '70s. 

What I say is this, “Art predestined is true, and therefore worth money.”


      Xu Bing

                        July 2008, Nairobi, Kenya


Note: This text originally appeared in the anthology Qishi Niandai (Bei Dao and Li Tuo eds. Hong Kong: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2009). 

[1] No Name = Wuming Huahui and Stars = Xingxing Huahui were two experimental arts groups that worked outside of China's official art system. The No Name Group, founded by artists Zhao Wenliang, Yang Yushu, Shi Zhenyu and Zhang Da’an, had already begun their creative activities in the late 1950s. In late September 1979, they mounted a large-scale exhibition on the fences of the National Art Museum of China. The exhibition was quickly shut down by authorities.

[2]  (1949-    ), expatriate poet and co-founder of the underground literary journal Today = Jintian. He was one of the key Misty Poets.

[3]  Wang Keping (1949-    ), sculptor and member of Stars.

[4]  The Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing.

[5]  The triangle at Peking University (Beida) is a gathering place for students. During the Cultural Revolution, its walls were plastered with big character posters and slogans. And, in the years that followed, the triangle became, became a center of student political and cultural discourse,.

[6] A brick wall at Xidan Street in Beijing's Xicheng District. Beginning in December 1978, democracy activists posted big character posters there criticizing the Gang of Four and previous failed government policies. It was closed one year later.

[7] The April Photography Group = Siyue Yinghui, a group of amateur photographers closely connected to the April 5th Movement who held exhibitions of their work in Beijing each April in the years 1979, 1980 and 1981.

[8] (1940-    ), novelist, playwright, critic and painter. A French citizen since 1997 and recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature.

[9] The April 5th Movement, took place on April 5th, 1976 in Tiananmen Square during the Qingming Festival, a traditional day of mourning. It began as a public gathering and protest against the removal of public displays of mourning for the recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) by the Gang of Four. The protests subsequently resulted in bloodshed and then-Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) was accused of purportedly instigating the events.

[10] (1952-    ), artist and a member of Stars.

[11]  Song of Youth, is an autobiographical account of the lives of progressive youths in early 20th century China written by Yang Mo (1914-1995). Published in 1958 and simultaneously serialized in the Beijing Daily News, influencing an entire generation, it was banned during the Cultural Revolution.

[12] A label applied by the Red Guards and other rebel factors to those who had committed suicide.

[13] The Anti-Rightist Movement, which began in 1957 and lasted into the early 1960s, sought to purge alleged rightists from the Communist Party of China and from positions of authority. The movement eventually expanded, inflicting a large number of intellectuals.

[14] During the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976), only the descendants of the “Five Red Types” (Revolutionary Cadres, Revolutionary Martyrs, Revolutionary Soldiers, Workers and Poor and Lower-middle Peasants) were allowed to join the Red Guard youth brigades who focused their attacks on the “Five Black Types” (Landlords, Rich Peasants, Counter-revolutionaries, “Bad Elements” and Rightists) and their descendants.

[15] Educated Youth = Zhishi Qingnian were middle school or high school students who, according to government policies, were relocated from China's cities to the countryside where they labored as peasants. The trend, which began in 1953, continued until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. In all, more than seventeen million young people were willingly or forcibly relocated.

[16] The region of China north of the Great Wall.

[17] A unit of length equal to one-third decimeter.

[18] An indoor masonry or earthen platform bed, heated in the winter by fires underneath and spread with mats for sleeping.

[19] From a speech delivered by Mao Zedong (1893-1976) at the 11th Enlarged Supreme State Conference on February 27th, 1957.

[20] (1916-1977)

[21] (1911-1973)

[22] (1944-        )

[23] Brilliant Mountain Flowers = Lanman Shanhua takes its title from the penultimate line of Mao's 1961 poem Ode to the Plum Blossom.

[24] The nationwide Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Campaign was initiated by Mao Zedong's third wife and Gang of Four member Jiang Qing (1914-1991) between 1973 and 1974. It extended the campaign against former Secretary of Defense Lin Biao (1907-1971) for the purpose of purging the party of Lin Biao’s followers, and also, to include, by implication, then Premier and political enemy of Jiang Qing, Zhou Enlai.

[25] Shouliang Gou Village is located in Yanqing County.

[26] (1907-1994)

[27] (1895-1953) a master of both oils and Chinese ink painting, Xu Beihong became President of The Central Academy of Fine Arts and Chairman of the Chinese Artists Association in 1949.

[28] (1934-    ) oil painter.

[29] (1954-    ) oil painter and 1982 Central Academy graduate.

[30] Was extracted from the closing remarks Mao delivered on May 23rd , 1942 in the Communist liberated areas of Yan An at the discussion meeting concerning revolutionary art and culture.