Chinese siblings visit city to discuss art, poetry, history
September 16, 2013
By Neil Pierson
Since early July, visitors to Sammamish City Hall have been able to view the paintings of Lu Yansheng and the poetry of his sister, Lu Shuangquin, in an exhibit designed to highlight Western influence on China.
Forty years ago, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, it would’ve been practically impossible for the siblings to display their work in their native country. That was one of the messages they tried to impart when they visited Sammamish on Sept. 12 for an educational program on their exhibit, “East Meets West Through Art, Poetry and Revolution.”
The poetry of Lu Shuangquin, and the paintings of Lu Yansheng and Bellevue-based artist Cheryll Leo-Gwin – a fourth-generation Chinese-American – will hang in City Hall through the end of September.
Last week, they spoke about the historical significance of their work alongside Dr. Paul Manfredi, the chairman of Chinese studies at Pacific Lutheran University.
The Cultural Revolution was a decade-long revision of Chinese civilization starting in the mid-1960s. It was wheeled into motion by Mao Zedong, chairman of the country’s Communist party, who tried to remove all capitalist influences from Chinese society. In the process, anyone with visions of artistic freedom found themselves persecuted.
“We should try to understand the reasons for which (the revolution) was launched,” Manfredi said. “Some of them are cynical views, that Mao was just trying to establish his hold on power, and he had nothing positive in mind.
“I think those are at least an overstatement, if not simply wrong. There is a degree of which the Cultural Revolution was really something that was the result of a form of inspired leadership.”
Manfredi said part of the reason the revolution was so successful was that so many people bought into Mao’s leadership, meaning they didn’t view the leader as “just an authoritarian hand.” Mao actually enjoyed calligraphy and poetry, which presented a shade of hypocrisy.
“He had a huge reverence and respect for art and literature,” Manfredi said, “but not for artists and writers, because he had very little respect for them, and the personal experience of artists and writers during that time will bear that out.”
Leo-Gwin, who was born in Canada to American parents, said it took her many years – and, finally, a visit to China – to understand her own heritage, which has greatly influenced her work.
“When I grew up, I only saw one side of the globe, and that was the western side,” she said.
Leo-Gwin’s family was impacted by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States.
Although the act was repealed in 1943, it was much longer before a positive impact was felt. Leo-Gwin explained how wives weren’t allowed to emigrate with their husbands, creating an impoverished “bachelor society.” Some of her work, like “One Child Policy” and “Golden Lillies,” attempts to address those issues.
Lu Yansheng, with translations from his sister, gave a long presentation about his education as an artist. Growing up, he had many friends from intellectual and artistic families, but with the Cultural Revolution in its heyday, it was difficult to find an outlet for his creativity.
“We were in constant fear of political oppression,” he said. “However, that fear taught us how to think, doubt, rebel and view the work with a critical eye.”
With the revolution fully ended in the 1980s, Lu Yansheng was admitted to study at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. There, he began to learn about Western styles and incorporate them into his thinking. That process can be seen in his “Flower Series,” which features more than 20 pieces.
“My art is Chinese, created by my Chinese mind, based on my Chinese tastes,” he said. “Many aspects of Chinese culture which are embedded deeply into our genes still strongly influence how we make our choices.”
Barbara Jirsa of the Sammamish Arts Commission, who curated the exhibit, said the siblings’ visit was designed to spark passion in local families and neighbors.
“It’s our hope that by hearing the stories that you will hear tonight, we’ll inspire you to tell your stories within your communities as well,” she said.
Reach reporter Neil Pierson at 392-6464, ext. 242, or npierson@SammamishReview.com.