When I came across Qiu Ying’s exhibition at the LAMCA, I almost gave it a pass. Despite being ethically Chinese myself (born in Hong Kong, grew up in Canada) — I have never been too vested in Oriental culture. My parents were products of British colonialism, and we sang along to Beatles hits in our household. As far as Asian influences went, I learned to love hojicha tea and the minimal aesthetics of Japanese design. Other countries in Asia only served as convenient vacation stopovers when I paid my relatives a visit in Hong Kong.
Yet, this exhibition shed some new light on Chinese art.
As with most art, its beauty was what first drew me in. The muted colours of faded ink on old scrolls and fans in the grand exhibition halls exuded a mystical aura. The parchments depicted lives of a foreign past, all painted in a wide range of subject and styles. One showed a lone man at a hidden mountain gazebo, one reproduced how women and children bathed together in round brass tubs, and others portrayed the colourful Chinese landscapes of pastures, mist and sweeping willows.
What I saw next caught me by surprise — the calligraphy found on Qiu Ying’s paintings were all scribed in traditional Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese is the current official written language in mainland China, and simplified characters are what permeates the signages and marketing in our society. Although it was once the only written language, traditional Chinese is found in limited regions today, such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
(The visual difference between traditional and simplified characters is that the former have a more complex structure with more strokes. The latter was adopted in recent history by the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s. It was conceived around the cultural revolution, where some deeply rooted Chinese traditions were purged by new ideas. To this day, heavy debates concerning Chinese orthography still persists, intertwined with disputes between political ideologies and cultural identities.)
I examined the date of Qiu Ying’s works. A caption for one of the painting read: c. 1494–c. 1552.
“Few artists in Chinese history have proven as enigmatic as the great Ming dynasty painter Qiu Ying (c. 1494–c. 1552), whose life and art reveal a series of paradoxes. Though one of the most famous artists of the Ming period, almost nothing is known about his life. He is said to have been illiterate, yet surviving evidence demonstrates elegant writing. He is said to have had few followers, yet he was the most copied painter in Chinese history.” — LACMA
Despite the prestige of his works, this is the first exhibition on Qiu Ying ever organized outside of Asia. According to American art scholar Stephen Little, there are several major challenges to studying Qiu Ying’s works. First of all, his personal background is largely unknown. There is little documentation on his origins, social status or the precise date of his birth. Secondly, he is considered to be a “stylistic chameleon”. His works is characterized by an astounding shifts in style, baffling classification attempts and is often misunderstood. Qiu Ying is also said to be illiterate, but his sophisticated calligraphy suggests otherwise. His writing presents him as someone who is well read in classical literature. Lastly, he was the most forged painter in Chinese history, and thousands of Qiu Ying forgeries have circulated in the Chinese art world. This further muddles the attempts to learn about his artistry.
This exhibition has three primary goals: to clear up the fact that he is illiterate, to establish a new chronology for his development as a painter, and to provide basic guidelines for determining the authenticity of his works.
As I strolled past the last of Qiu Ying’s painting, I realized I had walked the exhibition backwards and finally caught sight of its title — “Where The Truth Lies”.
The four words were simple, but delivered a powerful message. In our world today, truth is often undermined by the allure of convenience, flattery or short term gains. However, truth is what will strengthen our own community against media manipulation and online disinformation.
We have all heard the phrase "facts, not flattery"— and truth will be our best ally as we continue to battle the Covid pandemic as a united global front.