Ever since Christianity came to China, art has been an effective and indispensable supplement to written or oral texts. There have been many books and articles on Christian art in China. Focusing on the Bible and art gives us a chance to transcend denominational or doctrinal disputes. After a brief introduction to social, cultural, and historical contexts, this article consists of two parts: a brief history of the Bible and the arts in China and an overview of biblical art in contemporary China.
Before the birth of Christianity there existed many ancient religions and philosophical ways of thinking, including Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, which also influenced China. Because of theological disputes, a group of Christians, the so-called Nestorians, went eastward, and subsequently founded the Church of the East (also known as Assyrian Christianity) after the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E., which is a well-known chapter in the history of the Christian Church. The Nestorians experienced prosperity as well as persecution from that point onward; nonetheless, they successfully established churches in many parts of Asia, from Persia to India, Arabia, and even to China and Tartary (Schaff, 1882, p. 445; Vine, 1937). The earliest known written record of Christianity in China survives on a stone stele, which states that in 635 C.E. a Christian church was built in Xi’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty (Vine, 1937, pp. 130–135). Today China has the largest number of Christian believers in the world, and Chinese Christians have tried to indigenize Christianity in their writings and art. Since Amity Printing Press was established in 1986, 6 million copies of the Bible have been printed in Chinese. The interaction between biblical culture and Chinese culture has expressed itself in a variety of art genres.
Scholars have studied the history and theology of Christianity in China from many perspectives. Art is one of the neglected research foci. This study seeks to offer an additional portal to the study of Christianity in China by briefly outlining the history of the Bible and art in China.
A Brief History of the Bible and the Arts in China.
What follows divides the history of the Bible and the arts into three main periods: the early period (second century C.E. to fifteenth century), the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and the early twentieth century. Late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century biblical art is addressed in the next section (Biblical Art in Contemporary China).
Early period (second century to fifteenth century C.E.).
Historians have spent years searching for authentic records indicating the exact time when Western Christianity was first propagated in the Middle Kingdom (中国). There may have been some missionary activity as early as 300 C.E., and Christian influences may have affected Chinese thought to some small extent through gnostic and Manichaean channels (Vine, 1937, pp. 63–64). A Chinese record from the fourth century states that “there were over three thousand monks from a hundred countries in the Western Regions, even from the Roman Empire, which is the farthest west under the sky” (Yang, 2011). At the time of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty, it was said that Buddhism developed rapidly, and apart from Buddhist monks, “there were over three thousand monks from the western regions. The Wei Emperor specially built thousands of Luminous Temples in which to house them” (Sima, 2007).
Nestorian Christianity was propagated broadly in society and finally gained official legitimacy in the Tang Dynasty. It was expelled and persecuted in 845 when the emperor organized a campaign to annihilate Buddhism. (Because the Nestorians had adopted the Buddhist language when they first arrived, the emperor destroyed both Buddhist and Christian temples since he could not tell the difference between them.) Christianity (called Yelikewen during the Mongolian era) was propagated in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and was expelled during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) until the Jesuits reached the empire as missionaries in the late Ming period. During this process, the Bible was first read and spread in the Syrian language, and later in Latin, but it also found expression in different art forms.
This study will present a general overview of the Bible and art in this period by highlighting different objects, almost all of which have a connection with Nestorian Christianity.
The Nestorian Stele.
When the Nestorians came to China, their teaching was known as Jing Jiao (景教, meaning literally “luminous religion”), and the proof for their presence is the Nestorian Stele, which was excavated around 1625 near the ancient city of Xi’an. The stele is made of limestone, stands 270 cm tall, and is over 90 cm wide and slightly less than 25 cm deep.
The stele has three parts and stands on a tortoise-shaped pedestal. Two giant hornless dragons named Chi (螭) encircle the edges of the top part of the stele. The tails of the dragons are holding up a pearl in the middle of the upper part, a typical Chinese ornament on stele and cloth—“er long xi zhu” (二龙戏珠). In fact, a Chi-head stele signifies high social status and can only be used with royal permission. Under the pearl and above the nine Chinese characters there is a Greek cross (all arms are of equal length), the base of which is surrounded by a lotus flower and propitious clouds (common Buddhist symbols). On the sides of the lotus and clouds there are lily flowers. The pearl is commonly used in China as a symbol of purity, nobility, and hope. It is interesting that there is a pearl at the end of each arm of the cross and another pearl in its center. Some scholars argue that pearl resembles the Christian faith (Saeki, 1928, pp. 12–14). The symbols and images on the stele clearly illustrate a mixture of religious art forms.
The stele is in typical Chinese style except that the cross is not a native image. It has 1,780 Chinese characters, recording the basic Christian doctrine and the short history of the Nestorian Church developed in the Tang Dynasty (seven emperors’ names are listed). It provides proof that Nestorian Christianity at that time adopted Buddhist imagery and language. In addition, the cross is similar to the sixth-century cross of the Holy See in Rome. It is the same kind of cross found on the tomb tablet of St. Thomas in southern India. The forms of these crosses have expressed the innate connections among Eastern churches and can serve as proof of the spread of Christianity in the East after the fifth century (Keevak, 2008; Saeki, 1928).
Other traces of Nestorian Christianity in China.
Apart from the Nestorian Stele in Xi’an, many other discoveries prove the existence of Nestorian communities in China. Along the Silk Road, much evidence has been excavated in the form of frescoes, paintings, ornaments, and artistic monuments. For instance, in Gaochang (Chotsho or Khocho), Turfan, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, which is an ancient town and a station of the Silk Road, Albert von Le Coq found many Nestorian relics and two broken and fragmented frescoes in a temple. One of them, about 70 cm wide and 63 cm high, describes the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday: three Western-clothed figures holding willow or palm branches are waiting piously to welcome Jesus; on the left of this fresco, a minor deacon with curly hair, a Roman nose, and large eyes, wearing a brown robe is holding a perfume box in his left hand and a bowl of water in his right hand. To the right of the Nestorian monk stand the natives, two of whom are men wearing tall hats and long lapel robes with purple undergarments, listening carefully to the monk. Behind the men a woman is depicted wearing a hairpin in her full hair and a long purple skirt with buttons down the front. The rider on this fresco holds a staff cross, but only half the face is preserved. The same image appeared in another Nestorian temple in the eastern part of Gaochang. It is generally thought that the rider must be Christ (Le Coq, 1985).
Elsewhere on the Silk Road, especially in the famous Mogao caves, Dunhuang, more evidence has been discovered. Sir Marc Aurel Stein found a Nestorian silk painting from the ninth century, which is believed to be a painting of Christ because there is a Nestorian cross on the crown worn by the figure (Zhu, 1993). This painting is now preserved in the British Museum. It is painted in the same way as Chinese calligraphy and bears obvious resemblance to the styles of painted images of Buddha from the Tang Dynasty. Yet the painter intentionally imitated the style of Persian stone inscriptions of gods on the ornaments of the painted figures, such as haloes and chaplets. It might be based on the icons brought into Chang’an by Nestorian monks.
Also on the Silk Road, at the Miran ruins, Stein discovered many winged angels in frescoes. The features of the angels combined Romanesque style and the Central Asian style: the resulting fusion of styles is different from the Buddhist angel image—the Flying Apsaras (Gu, 2005, pp. 32–33; Saeki, 1928, pp. 912, 916).
In the 1930s, a great many crosses and cross-shaped ornaments were found in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. These crosses are made of bronze with four projecting arms. The arms are in the form of triangles, quadrangles, hexagons, or octagons. Some have the apex attached to a hub in the center, which displays the historical symbol of the swastika, a symbol of religious significance since the dawn of history and used in many religions including Buddhism. The crosses have deep incisions. Featuring raised designs, they may have been used as seals. Similar cast seals were found in the form of birds (doves) with crosses at their centers These crosses provide further evidence of Nestorian Christianity in the Yuan Dynasty; the use of the swastika in the cross has raised the interest of many scholars because it appears to relate Christianity and Buddhism in art (Gu, 2005, pp. 35–44).
In southern cities such as Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, and Quanzhou, people have found many Christian buildings and sculptures related to Nestorian Christianity in the Tang and Yuan dynasties. The following two cities are representative:
In 1981, a tombstone was excavated in Yangzhou. On the top of the stone is a Greek cross engraved with double lines. There are jewelry ornaments in the middle of the cross, and under the cross a lotus flower. To the left and right of the cross, two four-winged small angels, each with earrings and a crown with a tiny cross, envelop the center of the scene. The angels are facing the lotus flower and stretching out their arms to protect the cross. The carved images bear obvious European characteristics and the broad-brushed lines remind us of the images in the illustrational Bibles of the medieval church and the frescoes found in western China.
Another tombstone found in Yangzhou was engraved in Latin, and the upper part of the tombstone inscribes the martyrdom of St. Katherine. Above her story is an image of the Virgin and Child, which is believed to be the earliest painting in China of the Holy Mother and Holy Son. These images are in Chinese style without any trace of Western influence (Gu, 2005, pp. 91–103).
Quanzhou (also called Citong, a kind of tree) is an important port city with an active multi-religious history. The evidence can be found in the tombstones discovered in this ancient city: the crosses on these tombstones are known as the Citong Crosses. It is recorded that in the late Ming Dynasty, there were at least three tombstones discovered in this area. There are now about 30 tombstones held in the local museum. The crosses are Greek, whose bases are encircled by lotus flowers or, in some cases, other flowers. Sometimes there were clouds circling around the crosses. On some of the tombstones, we find winged angels whose compositions bear obvious marks of central Asian and Persian influences (Gu, 2005, pp. 63, 66, 91–111).
According to the Nestorian Stele, a Persian monk named Alopen in 635 brought scriptures to China; in 638 a Nestorian church was built at Yi Ning Fang. In 781 the stele was erected, and a seven-story Nestorian pagoda with eight angles was built, relics of which were found in present-day Zhouzi County of Shanxi Province. The church was named Da Qin Temple (大秦寺, “Da Qin” was the name given to the Roman Empire), and the building adopted the traditional style of Chinese temples under the influence of the royal and Buddhist architecture.
Farther westward, in Gaochang, many relics of the antiquated Nestorian church were found in the 1930s. There are also many Nestorian architectural structures called Temples of the Cross (十字寺) in all of the Chinese border areas: Hetian and Yili of Xinjiang Autonomous Region to the west, Yangzhou and Zhenjiang of Jiangsu Province to the east, Anshan of Liaoning Province to the north, and Quanzhou of Fujian Province, Chengdu of Sichuan Province, and Kunming of Yunnan Province to the south. However, only the relics and stone inscriptions of the Temple of the Cross at Fangshan Hill near Beijing have been discovered and studied. The others exist only as documentary evidence (Gu, 2005, pp. 14–104).
Sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
After the Yuan Dynasty, Christianity was driven out of China. In the late Ming Dynasty, Jesuit missionaries came with trade ships and used painting as a tool for evangelism, which launched a new age for the spread of Christianity in China. New artistic expressions of the Bible emerged in the works of missionary artists.
Matteo Ricci reached China in the late sixteenth century. In 1601 he presented three paintings of icons to the Ming emperor: one of them, The Virgin and Child, is painted in Byzantine style. A copy found in 1911 shows that the standing posture of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus is the same as that in the Holy See, and Jesus is depicted as a Chinese baby. Ricci brought with him many copperplate paintings and also wrote to the Vatican asking that more missionary painters be sent to China. The missionaries brought Renaissance painting technique and ideas to China, which exerted great influence on the later development of biblical art in China.
Missionaries in the Ming and Qing dynasties also created a great many woodcuts, applying images and illustrations to aid their efforts in evangelism. These include Evangelicae historiae imagines by Jerónimo Nadal (1507–1580), De Modo Rosarium Recitandi by Jean de Rocha (1566–1623), T’ien-chu chinag-sheng ch’u-hsing ching-chieh by Julio Aleni (1582–1649). Significant changes in Western Christian art occur after its introduction into China and its interaction with Chinese culture.
Because Macau played an important role in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century missionary engagement in China and Southeast Asia, many of the extant works of Christian art dating to this period can be found there. The most distinguished artist is Giovanni Nicolao (1560–1614), who worked hard and trained many students in Macau and Japan. The Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt at Macau is the home of about 17 paintings created by artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Father Nicolao and his students. The more famous of these include Virgin Mary and Jesus Circled with Angels, Descent from the Cross, The Visit of the Magi, Last Supper, and Jesus Getting Baptized. These works brought a new visual experience to the people of Southeast Asia, exhibiting strong contrasts of shadow and light, heavy and bright colors, as well as the mixed figure patterns of Eastern and Western elements. The most typical example is The Archangel St. Michael: Michael’s face is painted as that of an Eastern Buddha, wearing a small icon of Lady Mary on his breast (Gu, 2005, pp. 154–155).
One artist who should not be forgotten is Guiseppe Castiglione (known in China as Lang Shining, 1688–1766), the famous Chinese court artist. He produced many icons for St. Joseph’s Church (East Church) in Beijing but also produced many secular paintings such as Constantine’s Triumph, Guardian Angel, and The Archangel St. Michael. Following the tastes and tradition of painting in China, Castiglione was able to forge a new style that combined Chinese elements with his Western training. He used Chinese materials and elements but often incorporated Western techniques of shading and atmospheric perspective, imparting a sense of realism to the themes he presented.
Early twentieth century.
Chinese biblical art reflects a great diversity of historical contexts. After a long period of dynasties that followed isolationist policies, China was forced to open up to the world. This encounter was marked by great pain and suffering. Although by the twentieth century, Christianity had had a long history in China, two significant changes were brought about when Chinese intellectuals actively adopted and accepted Christian culture: first, in the 1920s when China was facing the national crisis; second, in the 1980s when China was facing the crisis of values in the wake of its opening and reform policy. These periods of cultural criticism and reconstruction were set in a matrix of increasing mistrust within Chinese society, which drove the Chinese people to set out in search of sources of spiritual support. In these periods of crisis, Christianity and the Bible played an important role as sources of spiritual consolation and new ideas, and art was often the expression of such ideas.
Just as many Chinese theologians have been eager to construct Chinese indigenous theology, Chinese Christian artists were also working hard to indigenize Chinese Christian art, and many of them are scholarly artists. They are exploring new ways of approaching the transcendental God in their creative work through their own theological and spiritual thinking. These artists are familiar with the Bible, passionately illustrating biblical stories through their skills. They applied two major Chinese traditional painting skills—Gong bi skill (more realistic) and Xie yi skill (more abstract)—in their works, empowering Chinese paintings with new spirit.
If we may say the artists in the previous centuries started to add Western painting skills to a Chinese context, these early-twentieth-century painters continued this effort and combined the Chinese and Western skills more naturally, and their works are more innovative and also more popularized. The church buildings as well the hospitals, schools, and nurseries built by mission societies adopted the local characteristics in their architecture and decorations. Adelbert Gresnigt (1877–1956) is a representative architect. He designed many Chinese-style church buildings in Kaifeng, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. In the 1930s and 1940s, some artists who used traditional Chinese painting skills to present biblical themes, such as Chen Yuandu, Lu Hongnian, and Wang Suda, formed a style named Ars Sacra Pekinensis.
The following artists are the most distinguished in terms of their creative work, especially their effort to incorporate Chinese artistic technique into their paintings of biblical themes.
Chen Yuandu (aka Luke; 1902–1967).
Chen Yuandu was trained in Chinese painting skills from when he was young. The figures in his paintings work well with the environment because he presents minute details vividly. He was praised for having achieved a unity of form and spirit, the highest level according to traditional Chinese painting criteria. Encouraged by Cardinal Celso Costantini, Chen painted many works with biblical themes, and while teaching at Fu Jen University he led a group of artists practicing Ars Sacra Pekinensis.
Chen’s works have two primary characteristics. First, his style is always peaceful, and his brush lines are even and regular with bright and lively colors. He liked to paint on silk because he believed that silk can better present the layers and contrast in colors. He could use Western basic painting principles freely, but the patterns, lines, and tones are very Chinese. Second, he liked to use Chinese visual symbols and the themes favored by common Chinese people. For this reason, he liked such themes as Holy Mother and Holy Son or the Holy Family. For instance, his work Jesus and Children is similar in style to Chinese Spring Festival paintings, a style favored by the Chinese working class and peasants. All figures in that painting have their own personalities, and each is in a different posture. He used many bright but elegant colors. The bamboo in the picture is one of the important symbols commonly used in Chinese intellectual paintings. He applied Western skill to present the Chinese clothes, decoration, and settings, making the picture more realistic. But for Chen the paintings were for the purpose of evangelism, so he always copied the Western layout or composition of similar themes. His other famous works include Christmas of Jesus (silk), Mary Visits Elizabeth, Annunciation, and The Boy Jesus in the Temple.
Lu Hongnian (1919–1989).
Before he became professor of Chinese Painting and the fresco research expert at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Lu Hongnian was a Christian artist at Peking Fu-jen Catholic University and produced a great many beautiful biblical paintings. Lu, a student of Chen Yuandu, integrated Chinese traditional painting with biblical themes.
Lu himself had a unique understanding of Christian doctrines and the Christian ecumenical spirit: his paintings compellingly present both Chinese traditional humanistic ideas and the Christian spirit. One example of his original technique can be seen in his painting No Room at the Inn. He placed two Chinese characters, jing hui (敬绘, painting with reverence to God), in each of his paintings on biblical themes. The phrase expresses the prayerful attitude with which he painted these works. Lu represents those Chinese artists who, like the saints, care about the life of common people and revere each life created by God.
Fang Xisheng (1903–1974).
Fang Xisheng, originally named Mon Van Genechten, was a Belgian missionary who painted in Chinese traditional style. His paintings illustrate the plight of the poor in Chinese society.
His masterpiece, Suffering China, depicts a characteristic scene of woe: Christ, painted with Chinese features, identifies with the downtrodden Chinese and Mongols accompanying him to Calvary. Here Fang uses a Daoist or Buddhist fresco painting format to illustrate a simple idea: God is among the common people, and the power of salvation through suffering is right there, immediately present. This painting is inspired by Fang’s own experience in the 1940s when he was captured by the Japanese and detained in a Japanese concentration camp. The painting also conveys his theology: Jesus is walking among the suffering Chinese people and will lead them out of darkness toward a hopeful future.
Biblical Art in Contemporary China.
The interaction between the Bible and art took a new turn in the 1980s after China had experienced another cultural disaster and walked out of the “valley of death.” Millions of copies of the Chinese Bible have been produced and distributed in China since 1985, and thousands of Christian commentaries and theological books have been translated, published, and sold in Chinese public bookstores. Because of the rapid social and economic changes and the challenge of secularization, a call for the return to spirituality has been expressed in literature and art. A group of artists express their reflections and religious experiences through various artistic media. Some of them carry with them a clear Christian identity, while others show their preference for and the influence of Christian faith in their work. They have all read the Bible and are familiar with the biblical stories. We list six artists here to highlight the diversity of this new generation.
He Qi (1949– ).
He Qi started his cross-regional comparative art investigation in 1980. He has three research foci in particular: first, the history, people, and art in Tibetan areas; second, the cultural commonalities in East, South, and West Asia; and third, comparative studies of Chinese traditional drama masks, Chinese traditional paper-cutting technique, and ethnic minority figure patterns and their use of color. The research in these areas set a solid foundation for his later creative artworks on biblical themes. In the 1990s, He Qi had a chance to conduct research in Germany for his doctoral dissertation and visited many churches in Germany, Turkey, Spain, and Italy. The international exposure inspired He Qi’s creative output in later years.
He Qi’s works contain both Chinese folk art elements as well as traditional and modern Western artistic elements. It combines stylistic elements of imagism, fauvism, cubism, and expressionism. His most famous paintings, such as Song of Songs, Jacob’s Dream, Visitation, Noah’s Ark, and Paradise Lost, apply Chinese paper-cutting technique, traditional ink painting skill, and Western art, based on paper or colored ink and wash, adding more layers to the colorful picture, evoking a lively and fluid atmosphere. One can easily find some similar elements in the works of Chagall, Mattise, and Picasso.
Qian Zhusheng (1951–2006).
Born in southwestern China and a pious Christian believer, Qian Zhusheng created woodcarving works filled with Chinese folk art themes and features. For instance, the Chinese gray-tiled houses, lattice windows, and white brick walls are the settings of his biblical works. He created many works with themes directly drawn from the Bible, and he even won a silver prize in a national woodcarving art competition for such works. Qian adorns his works with many figures. Behind the rudimentary, foolish figures moves the pure wind of the Holy Spirit. His art is simple and pure. In content it focuses on the social problems in contemporary China.
Qian suffered serious illness for 30 years and in the end died of cancer. It is because of this experience that he focused more on the humanity of Jesus and identified his own pain with Jesus’s suffering on the cross. He believed that “the most valuable quality a person can have is the ability to stay full of faith and hope in setbacks and keep a bright heart in the darkness; then he will understand the spiritual secret. The wonderful thing about art is that it can fill people with the courage of life in the midst of decay and fear, changing their dead and dull state” (Zha, 2015, p. 62). His famous works include Garden of Eden, Good News, Christmas, and Good Shepherd.
Qian liked to use simple lines to present a symbolic and peaceful picture, leaving a huge blank area—a traditional Chinese aesthetic method. But he also adopted methods of modern Western exaggeration and decoration. His works present a mysterious and meaningful mood; the more one looks at it, the more attractive it is.
Ding Fang (1956– ).
Ding Fang’s works can be read as an attempt to embody the spirit of salvation in twentieth-century Chinese art. He has been “measuring the land with his feet and touching the rocks and stones with his life” for more than 30 years. He walked and investigated many western regions of China. He also visited India and European countries, searching for the spiritual heritage on his journeys of pilgrimage. It was on such pilgrimages to the heart of all ancient civilizations that Ding Fang was moved by the similarities of all religions and civilizations.
He is well trained in both Chinese and Western artistic techniques, and his own work epitomizes a fusion of both. His landscape paintings are executed in bold and rich colors, as he endeavors to endow China’s mountains and plains with historical and cultural meanings. He adopted a symbolic mode of expression after 1985 and added more metaphysical introspection on culture to his works. Ding Fang’s “measuring with feet” and his creative works are his attempts to seek in nature itself the first language of art, a deeper and metaphysical origin of beauty to serve as a spiritual resource for his nation.
Ding Fang is probably China’s most skilled artist, who can use well both Western and Chinese techniques in his creative works. His works are filled with a spiritual fluidity that can be found in forms, colors, textures, light, and music. He believes that such a spirit is rooted in the earth, pointing to the heavens, indicating the future and supporting the past. Because the earth is trustworthy, visible, and sensible, it continuously exudes divine inspiration that people can feel and experience. Unlike other artists who like to paint an oasis in the desert, he likes to present the naked rocks and desert because he believes that the naked land and rocks are the gift of God, symbolizing a hope out of despair. This is the spirit he tries to investigate and present in his works.
Liu Xiaofeng once commented that “Ding Fang’s works can be described in the words of Epichamos: ‘The flesh is the earth, but the spirit is fire.’ There are many primitive and modern tensions and conflicts in Ding Fang’s works, produced by the anxiety of the spiritual presence and absence: the conflict of ‘we’ and ‘I’, of Eastern and Western culture, of Spirit and Language, of the materiality of the earth and the flexibility of the spirit” (Liu, 1992, p. 1).
Another Chinese scholar, Chen Jianlan, said, “Ding Fang uses the Russian icon image of eight centuries ago to integrate the lines, forms and colors into a certain sacred scene. … The abundant touches of lines are carefully crafted, and his theology or the metaphysical meaning lies here: there must be a hidden hand present before the presence of light, soothing the pain and suffering of living in this world. As such, the broad strokes of his brush and the rough textiles of his oil paint can be mild and tender in the sunshine, changing into a murmuring of gratitude, and retreating to the darkness” (Chen, 2009, p. 84).
Ding Fang’s art contains deeper cultural significance compared with other biblical art. It is because he is actively exploring the basic elements of human existence, returning to the migrant history of his Chinese ancestors. He has compared this history with that of the Hebrews recorded in the Bible, meditating on the key word “suffering” with the hope that he can draw a pilgrimage toward God that might be universally shared.
Wang Lu (1956– ).
Wang Lu is another contemporary artist who likes to pick up themes directly from the Bible. However, these works with traditional themes, such as Christmas, Judah’s Kiss, and The Escape to Egypt, are depicted abstractly and added a postmodern sense of fluidity and ambivalence. For instance, in Christmas he uses a wet brush to paint flatly in the background area, producing a shifting and misty atmosphere. The figures in the foreground are outlined with simple thin lines, and their clothes and faces are obscure. Jesus and Mary will always be red and in the center. Wang inserts in his own emotions into these biblical themes.
On the other hand, Wang is also looking for an indigenized expression and form. In another work, Entering Jerusalem with Glory, he reinforces the Chinese elements. Here the artist does not obscure the background as he usually does but depicts clearly the building in the far and clouds in the sky. His treatment of sky is a typical of the Chinese practice liu bai (leaving a huge blank space). The crowds are depicted with fine brushes, thick and thin ink strokes intersecting with each other. Jesus and his disciples standing in the foreground are drawn clearly with fine lines. The whole painting is full of Chinese national painting atmosphere.
Wang Min (Dao Zi, 1956– ).
Dao Zi refers to his painting as “sacred ink wash painting,” which he thinks is similar to sacred music, an agent of God and passing God’s words. In this approach, the artist should first be inspired by the Holy Spirit and then read the Bible repeatedly so that his thoughts can be molded by the interaction of inspiration, image, and ideas. This method was used by medieval poets, artists, and craftsmen, whose imagination moved from symbols to metaphors, reality and mystery. Dao Zi applies traditional Chinese painting tools and skills, and his works are based on his experience and senses, being related to his life and spirituality.
Dao Zi created a series of works on Jesus and the cross, which he modeled on Byzantine and Russian icons, trying to extract from them a meaningful image. At the same time, Dao Zi has sought to indigenize his products. He argues that the core of an artistic work should be the contextualized expression of “Logos” or “Dao” instead of the transition or replacement of artistic form or media exemplified by cultural differences. He makes frequent use of the dried brush and ink, avoiding any smooth or slippery lines. He believes that the artist’s control over the brushstrokes and ink matters a great deal lest the artist fall into the secular trap of Chinese literati tradition formed since the Song Dynasty, namely that of avoiding the bitterness and dust of the real world.
One critic comments on Dao Zi’s works, saying that “the pursuit of these ink wash paintings is to express Christ’s ‘body, blood and spirit’ through the rice paper, water and ink. Such an ‘incarnation’ on rice paper via water and ink is not to be worshipped as the image of Christ but invites us to pray and experience the mysterious and real presence of God” (Kuhn, 2011, p. 1).
Zhang Wei (1968– ).
Zhang Wei was born into a Catholic family and attended university in Russia with a specialization in ancient Eastern temple images. Wei has been greatly influenced by both Eastern Orthodoxy and Buddhism. His life experiences have shaped his unique and deep vision in creative works.
Zhang Wei’s masterpiece is a five-meter-high sculpture of the Virgin Mary, whose face clearly bears the characteristic features of the Buddha on Maiji Mountain and the Longmen stone carvings, and whose posture and costume are similar to the image of Lady Mary in Renaissance paintings. On close observation, the onlooker notices the details of the costume, for which the ancient Chinese technique of bas-reliefs on precipices (摩崖造像) was employed. The above elements have been integrated to form a beautiful rhythm. The face and body are mild and transparent with lines running smoothly. The whole demeanor is calm and serene. As Zhang Wei himself has stressed: “What I am concerned to show is that an icon of the Virgin Mary can be produced by a Chinese artist and erected in a Chinese church so that the attributes of the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as purity, kindness, compassion and inclusiveness can be understood by the Chinese people” (Bei, 2007, p. 21).
This is the same motivation of the fourth-century Chinese artists who created the first Chinese Buddhist images and icons. The root of Chinese biblical art should be the Chinese soil that was cultivated in the Axial Age by many great minds and souls.
This brief overview of the Bible and art in China offers an outline of its history and introduces some of its major figures. By necessity, we have focused on a very limited number of the artists actually involved. They epitomize the attempt to combine Chinese cultural elements with those of Christian culture.
The fact is, however, that biblical art has never become part of the mainstream of Chinese culture. More often than not, attempts to combine Western and Chinese painting styles has produced little more than simple combinations. How to present a spirit that is both Chinese and biblical has always been a challenge to artists.
In the twenty-first century, when the younger generation of Chinese artists is presented with more opportunities to be immersed in global culture, they will meet the challenges of interaction and artistic production with a global outlook. They will most likely preserve their own identity while incorporating elements from other cultures. The future of biblical art in China promises to be more diverse and to more determinedly embrace its Chinese legacy.
- Bei Ren. “Kai Men Jian Shan: A Comment on Zhang Wei’s Sculpture.” Sculpture, no. 2 (2007): 18–21.
- Chen, Jianlan. “Jing shen de zhai men: Ding Fang yi shu duan xiang” [A Narrow Door of the Spirit: A Reflection on Ding Fang’s Art]. Art Criticism, no. 12 (2009): 80–86.
- Gu, Weimin. Jidu zong jiao yi shu zai Hua fa zhan shi [A History of Christian Arts in China]. Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 2005.
- Jaspers, Karl. The Origin and Goal of History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
- Keevak, Michael. The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and Its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008.
- Kuhn, Andres M. “Preface to Souls of Living Water: Dao Zi’s Saintism Wash-Ink Painting Exhibition.” 2011.
- Le Coq, Albert von. Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan: An Account of the Activities and Adventures of the Second and Third German Turpan Expeditions. Translated and edited by Anna Barwell. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1985. First published 1928.
- Leeb, Leopold, ed. A Dictionary of the History of Christianity in China. Beijing: Religious Culture Press, 2013.
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Ding Fang and Zhang Jing (Cathy)