Book Reviews

In Drawing Plain People, He Draws the Face of God

A Book Review

《灵魂与美感》 (Soul and Beauty) by 范学德 (Fan Xuede). In Chinese only.  广西师范大学出版社; 1 edition (August 1, 2017). ISBN-10: 7549578923, ISBN-13: 978-7549578924, paperback, US$23.68. Available on Amazon.

The following review was originally published in Chinese as 他画朴实的人,画出神的样子 on January 23, 2018.

I finally finished Brother Fan Xuede’s 400,000-word work, Soul and Beauty. After reading it, here is my greatest takeaway: the book talks about oil paintings but shares about life.

The book is a record of a conversation between Brother Fan and Teacher Yang Feiyun, head of the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting. Brother Fan is the interviewer, and Teacher Yang is the speaker, discussing his own understanding of life experiences and oil painting.

Someone who does not run in art circles (me, for example) may not be familiar with Teacher Yang. But his credentials are impressive:

  • In 1978, at age 24, he was admitted to the oil painting school of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. This was its first time recruiting after the ten years of the Cultural Revolution.
  • In 1986, he was sent by the Central Academy of Fine Arts to the African country of Djibouti to do a portrait of its president.
  • In 2007, the Chinese Academy of Oil Painting was officially founded, and he was named as its president.
  • From early 2008 onwards, he served two consecutive terms as a representative to the National People’s Congress.
  • In 2012, his work Girl before Still Life was successfully auctioned for 34.5 million yuan at the Beijing Poly Spring Auction.

Over the past couple of decades, Teacher Yang has had numerous exhibits and interviews and completed more paintings. Author Bei Cun is quoted as saying: “If China has any artist who truly enters deeply into the spirit (not just technique) of Western art, Yang Feiyun is without question one such artist.”

Brother Fan, however, thinks that Teacher Yang is not just a famous artist:

but [is] at the same time an educator, an organizer and a leader of contemporary Chinese oil painting artists, as well as one of the most outstanding curators; in addition, he is an individual who has and continues to seek a profound understanding of oil art.

Even though I don’t know much about oil painting, I find this book interesting because of the rich life and deep thought contained within. Let me give an example. When Teacher Yang spoke about the era’s problem, he thought that there were three problems we could never solve. The first is humanity’s dual sin problem—hidden sin and presumptuous sin, the second is human pain and trouble, the third is death.

This made me think of the famous book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The author Yuval Harari believed that when humans overcame the problems of plague, famine, and war, the new problems would be immortality, happiness, and man’s acquiring the “nature of gods.”

There are similarities between the problems, but the solutions are utterly different. Harari believes that technology is the answer, whereas Teacher Yang returns to faith and expresses faith through art. In his view of art, we do not need to “become” humans with a godly nature—we are originally created by God and already bear his image. With paint brushes blessed by the Holy Spirit, Teacher Yang “seeks and displays the godly nature in humanity.”

When Teacher Yang was young, he painted many beautiful girls. One of the paintings, Northern Girl (also on the cover of this book), is his painting of his wife, Pengpeng. Different from Zhao Lei’s[1] Southern Girl, Pengpeng is neither weak nor sorrowful; rather, dressed in traditional Chinese red, she gives off a sense of simplicity, resolve, and healthiness.

Northern Girl

As Yang advances in years and experience, this kind of “beautiful” image appears less and less in his paintings. He would rather run to the villages and paint plain fathers and village folk. In the eyes of many, these bodies are not particularly beautiful, but in his eyes, they have a “beauty of the soul.”

What is beauty? Teacher Yang says: “The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—these are in essence the entirety of beauty. Even in one so humble that all they have is a kind heart, it is still beautiful. Beauty encompasses much.”

I was inspired by this perspective. In this age, people are commonly infatuated with beautiful bodies, various “pretty boys,” “good-looks club,” and numerous variations. It’s just as Zhao Zhao sings in “When You Are Old”:

How many people once loved you in your hours of youth and happiness,
Adored your beauty, sincerely or not;
Only one person still loves your pious soul
Loves the wrinkles on your aged face.

There will be a day when we all grow old. On that day, what a great blessing it will be, what true eternal beauty, if under the face of wrinkles dwells a noble and pious soul.

Brother Fan wrote out a chronology for Teacher Yang. What moved me was that when Teacher Yang was young, he had his name on only a few paintings a year; but when he was in his fifties and sixties, he had over ten paintings every year. Time has not weakened him but has ripened his creativity.

Brother Fan himself is this way as well. In 2017, he wrote a web-published article every day. As a web-writer, I know how difficult this is. From my point of view, it is only as he ages, that he begins to step into the golden age of creativity. The broader his experiences the sharper his pen.

This is the life I envy. I admit that my own experience is limited and so my creativity is limited. But I hope that when I reach Brother Fan’s age, I will have been to as many places as he has and will have connected with many ancient and modern people inside and outside of China, broadening the borders of my soul.

Regarding how to paint oil paintings, Teacher Yang repeatedly stresses two main points: look at the masters and sketch in the villages.

“Looking at the masters” means interacting often with the best works from the history of oil painting—observing them and copying the originals. You may not reach the same level as the masters, but you need a goal in your own heart.

As for Teacher Yang himself, he was greatly influenced by people such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Millet. He says:

I have seen many young painters who draw very well and have a good sense of drawing. However, they do not have the masters in their hearts, so their drawings are judged by themselves or judged by people around them. This does not work. The classics demand that we converse with them and interact with them continually throughout our whole lives.

I think it is the same with writing. When Brother Fan and I talked over the phone, he often urged me to read Augustine’s Confessions. On his own Internet platform, he often recommends reading various classics, such as Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Chesterton’s Heretics, and so on.

Those with the masters in their heart live with confidence. When I think of my own writing, I often pay too much attention to other people’s judgments. This is because, to a certain extent, I do not have a standard for good essays in my heart. Only when I have firm ideas of “what is beautiful, what is good,” will I be able to go far on the road of creativity.

“Sketching in villages” means walking out of the ivory tower, going to the Chinese villages and drawing nature, drawing men and women in the village. Drawing still life—even drawing from photos—cannot compare at all with this.

Teacher Yang himself feels that when he goes to villages to draw, he is infused with energy. In 2007, when he went to Gannan to sketch and draw, he drew for over 40 days and completed a piece of work almost every day. He has especially deep feelings for this land and the people who live there.

Brother Fan also has a journey of “sketching.” He said that in the past year, his most popular articles were the weekly “witnesses” series, which describe brothers and sisters he has interacted with—people who have impacted his life. It is as if I can see how these people contributed strength to Fan as he wrote passionately about them.

He also really likes writing about nature. From a falling leaf, a blade of grass, to the setting sun on the tip of a fawn’s tail—he sees it all and praises God’s amazing creation.

In contrast, I write too narrowly. Those who often read Fig Listening to Music know that I mostly write about my wife and child, and then also about some music, books, and movies. In 2018, I need to purpose to go out often—to write about the scenery, to write about people. I want to encounter God in a broader life.

People often ask: “Why don’t I feel God?” This is a contradictory question, because God is everywhere, and we should be able to feel him everywhere. One possible answer is that our sight is too narrow, limiting our understanding of God.

He was already working, but I thought he was unmoved;
He gazes passionately at me, but I thought he turned his face away;
He is beside me, but I thought he quickly passed me by.

I am happy to begin the year 2018 with Soul and Beauty. I hope that in the coming 360 days, I will hold every day precious, and encounter more good books and remarkable people. More importantly, I desire to meet God through these books and people—He was nailed to the cross, resurrected from the dead, and displays his godly nature in humanity. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

“他画朴实的人,画出神的样子” (“In Drawing Plain People, He Draws the Face of God”) by 阿浅 (Ah Qian) was originally published on January 3, 2018 at,
Translated, edited, and reposted with permission.

See original blog for images of Fan Xuede’s work that were included from Fan Xuede’s Sina Blog and WeChat official account.


  1. ^ Translator’s note: Zhao Lei is a Chinese folk singer and musician. He released his first record in 2011, which included the popular song The Southern Girl with the following lines: “What’s in her graceful eyes? Thoughts of sadness. The South’s rainy winter isn’t as cold as in the north; There she doesn’t need big clothes to cover her water-like face…See, accessed on 11/23/19


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Ah Qian

Ah Qian (pseudonym), a Christian blogger living in Beijing.View Full Bio