Over the past decade, artist, Wei Guangqing, has been presenting Chinese culture in his unique visual language. Among those presentations is his Zhong Guo Zhi Zao (literally translated as Made in China) series. In viewing his works, the audience needs to think about one question: What has been made in China?
Wei established his personal artistic style with his Red Wall—Zhu Zi's Family Maxims in 1992. The Red Wall series also includes The Extended Virtuous Words that he created in the late 1990s. He continued into the twenty-first century to work on his Red Wall series and presented the artworks collectively titled San Zi Jing (literally translated as Three Character Classic) in 2004. The red wall thus became not only a symbol of Wei's personal artistic style, but the most unique and representative sign in contemporary Chinese art.
The red wall, a readily understandable metaphor in Chinese culture, refers to the walls of imperial palaces and temples and is culturally representative of imperial power and religious power. It is certainly important for us to interpret his works to recognize the metaphor and the symbolism earlier critics have tended to avoid mentioning.
Wei's Red Wall series begins with Zhu Zi's Family Maxims to The Extended Virtuous Words to Three Character Classic. Each named after a traditional Chinese literary work. In those artworks, there were actually no significant changes of composition and colors. The artist emphasized on the change in the writing of the Chinese characters in his Three Character Classic (2004). He said: "I created the Three Character Classic series last year. Chinese characters, at the early stage of its development, they had to do with pictograms, where the shape expresses the meaning. So I worked on those characters to turn them back to certain forms and shapes and to further integrate them into the narration in my Three Character Classic." But I somehow do not think that the change in the writing is of any significance and that the audience is likely to notice it. What is important in these works is the pictorial format and subject rather than the characters, which play only a role of prompting. Needless to say, each work in the series is from similar sources—traditional Chinese primers, and it seems to be over-stylized with the repeated subject. So why is the artist continuously working on his Red Wall series? In my point of view, it is the notion of zhi zao implied in his newly created Zhong Guo Zhi Zao series that explains the artist's motivation well.
Then what is zhi zao? It is necessary to distinguish three Chinese words first, namely zhi zuo, zhi zao, and chuang zao. In Chinese language, zhi zuo has to do, connotatively, with words and expressions like positive, personal, hand-made, and mill-made. Zhi zao has something to do words like machinery, industry, mass-production, copy, passive, and consumption. Lastly, chuang zao means originality, novelty, and unprecedented-ness. In this sense, chuang zao has something to do with zhi zuo, but little to do with zhi zao. That is why we often say Chinese people have chuang zao (created) a rich culture in the past five thousand years. Indeed culture, including painting, is something that we create. So why did artist Wei entitled his painting series Zhong Guo Zhi Zao (literally Made in China) instead of Zhong Guo Chuang Zao (literally Created in China)?
It could be that Wei just randomly used the widely used term zhong guo zhi zao in the consumerist era to entitle his works. He meant that his representation of the images borrowed from traditional Chinese culture was a kind of product. That is to say, the painting was made or produced by him. I, however, would not think so, for the title of his painting was simply Zhong Guo Zhi Zao (literally Made in China) instead of Wei Guangqing Zhi Zao (literally Made by Wei Guangqing). It was in this sense where the contradiction lied. How could his painting, culturally created by him, be labeled as something made in China? Behind the title that virtually hid the artist's value judgment of traditional cultural values—its relation with that of the contemporary times.
So what exactly are his judgments as well as the relationship to the values?
First, let's take a look at what the artist has zhi zao (made).'What Wei titles as Zhong Guo Zhi Zao includes two series: one is the extension of the Red Wall series, where the background of the red wall remains, but the central symbol is changed into the maxim with illustrations in the form of a bowl; the other was the Jin Ping Mei series. Compare with his early Red Wall series, there is no big change in the subject or theme in these works. In this sense, all of his artworks, with the same motif, can be regarded as products made in China, even though some of them are not included in the Made in China series. The concept Zhong Guo Zhi Zao, in its strict sense, refers to these artworks, titled Zhong Guo Zhi Zao. Obviously, as a broad concept, it refers to all artworks with the traditional cultural motifs. These motifs that Wei employed are all from illustrations in traditional Chinese publications of two categories: traditional Chinese primers and classical Chinese literary works.
The traditional Chinese primers like The Extended Virtuous Words, Three Character Classic, and Zhu Zi's Family Maxims, which Wei chose as his source of motifs, were widely distributed texts of morality and basic learning for children. Wei chose them as the representative products made in China possibly for four reasons: First, children's enlightenment and education showcased the traditional Chinese culture, and might be regarded as one of the typical products made in China. For education, in particular, children's education, could date back to the Warring States Period and the Qin Dynasty, was of great concern in ancient China. Since the Song Dynasty, even children of non-noble birth could receive education, so that there was a large collection of primers passed down from generation to generation. Second, those primers were written in simple ancient Chinese language. Rooted in folk culture, they were not difficult to read even today and most Chinese can quote lines from them. The artist took advantage of this to bring out memories from the audience. Third, those moral primers, acted in unison with the authoritative instructive books of Confucianism in China----The Four Books and Five Classics. Comparatively speaking, however, as popular literature they were more readily understandable for common people, which is something that coincides with the spirit of Pop Art. Last but most important, considering the fact that traditional Chinese culture was broken, the artist wanted to enlighten us and remind us of the value of traditional culture in the contemporary Chinese context through his works.
The artist might have other intentions or simply no special intentions when choosing sources. But it does not matter, for each viewer may have his/her own interpretation, just as critics Zhu Bin and Lu Hong wrote in their "The Cultural Pop: Wei Guangqing and His "Red Wall," "He translated an accessible visual language about the cultural issues that no one cannot be involved in…and entitled the viewer to the rights to address those historical issues through history."
Among the classical Chinese literary works that Wei choose, as his image source is the classical novel Jin Ping Mei, considered to be a significant position in the history of traditional Chinese literature. However, Wei's main concern was not its literary significance, but rather its direct and bold description of sexuality: first, sexuality, normally suppressed in traditional instruction, was presented as one of the instincts of human beings in the novel in a surprisingly passionate way, which might be interpreted as either sexual liberation or uncontrolled sexual desires. Second, sexuality is one of the strongest desires in contemporary consumerist era when sex services, among many other things that we need, are made and produced and then consumed in its Chinese way. It was through this traditional theme of sexuality that the artist expressed himself about contemporary China.
To sum up, Wei presented two narrations of the Chinese tradition: one is the self-control-oriented moral instruction beginning from the childhood, the other is unrestrained desire represented by immorally licentious conduct. But which of the two is our tradition? And which of the two is supposed to represent our culture?
The artist showed us that our tradition is what it is—a complicated body, both positive and negative. What is visible in our tradition is always superficial and instructive, while the invisible culture is instinctive. Both of them are what have been "Made in China".
Wei employed in his paintings two typical symbols---- the red wall and the teapot. The red wall, visible and external, is symbolic of standards, temples, and power. But no matter how safe it was, the wall, made up of pieces of bricks, and may be pull down when the royal power collapsed. The teapot, on the contrary, is concealed, hidden, internal, and reclusive. It takes time to taste the tea, which is hidden in the teapot and invisible. Tea and the teapot have a close connection with Chinese culture. Tea was an important export product in ancient China. Teapots used to be something that scholars liked to fondle appreciatively as they (mostly male) would like to do towards the female. Moreover, the teapot (as well as the bowl appeared in some of the Made in China series), are delicate and need to handled with care.
The red wall and the instructive text from the primers, the teapot and the sexuality in his Jin Ping Mei, all this constituted a complex metaphorical relationship.
Wei admitted later when talking about his choice of images: "China has a long history of culture, in which lies its uniqueness. I feel that I have to highlight it and I guess that is what makes my Pop Art different from the western one." Wei is absolutely superb in techniques and ways of narration. Like British Pop artists, he paid due attention to drawing techniques, and his excellence in applying colors drawings even made us take for granted that the paintings were rubbings. But more importantly, he deliberately chose the stories he wanted to narrate in his paintings. The symbolic imagery he created through comparison and contrast of forms and themes that described psychological structure of Chinese people and their corresponding psychological shadow.
Why is tradition always being a hot issue in contemporary China? Perhaps it is for addressing the problems in contemporary China that many Chinese artists turned to tradition to express themselves. Artists like Huang Yongping, Lü Shengzhong, Xu Bing, and Chen Zhen all established their own styles. Among the works of those artists, perhaps Cai Guoqiang's gunpowder and firework projects are the most magnificent while Wei Guangqing's expression is the most deliberate, concealed, insightful, and Chinese, and perhaps raises more issues and questions.
Wei Guangqing tried to avoid making value judgment in his newly created Made in China series. He seemed to pay more attention to techniques of making the painting surface, with the use of bar-code-like color ribbons, and flattened Chinese characters like "中国制造" (zhong guo zhi zao or literally Made in China) as the background in the series. Despite the changes in the color ribbons and the composition of the painting surface, the spirit, and theme remained the same in each work in the Made in China series. And that very spirit and theme is zhong guo zhi zao.
The Chinese word zhi zao (literally make/made) embodies the artist's value judgment. As we can see from the artworks, Chinese culture is no longer the creative culture that we used to think of. It seems that it has long lost its creativity, and it is just acting like a machine, which repeatedly produces the same thing.
Artist Wei Guangqing has produced the Made in China series in his own unique style, which is absolutely a kind of creation. What are some of the other things that have been made in China? And what are some of the other things that the artist is continuing to "make"? We are looking forward to that.
Edited by Lin Sophia Ma, September 2007