Turning our eyes to China, we see people hustling and bustling throughout the vast land, which is littered with ruins from demolitions, constructions, demolishing [the] recently constructed, constructing out of recently demolished, or constructing and demolishing at once. The ruins of constructing and demolishing fill the void in the land, the society, and the heart-mind. On the ruins, however, there also blows the spiritual wind and burning holy fire. Where there is the blowing wind of the spirit, the holy fire destroys, purifies, and protects, but also kindles the soul, life, and zeal.
“The Spirit in Fire and Wind,” Fenggang Yang, Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University, 2019.
Hustling, vast, void . . . in the heart-mind: these are indeed apt adjectives for today’s urban China. Yet, there is no void where the “spiritual wind blows,” where the quiet yet passionate worshipers of the underground Chinese church meet and study; here, there is no emptiness in the “heart-mind.” So, too, in the midst of the demolishing and constructing, there is a vibrant creating that is beautiful and powerful. Chinese Christian artists are sculpting, painting, filming, and performing works of art that reveal the scarred soul and sanctified spirit of their contemporary China.
In the spring of 2019, Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society gathered ten of China’s highly respected Christian artists and provided a venue for them to freely display and discuss their work with each other and a fascinated public. For a foreigner who had lived for years in the tightly closed society of the Peoples Republic of China, it was a delight to see them talk, laugh and debate with one another without fear in their eyes . . . a fear that was not for themselves, but for family and friends.
One middle-aged artist was able to bring his wife; it was the first time for either of them to be out of their homeland. When asked how he received permission to bring his wife, he smiled sheepishly and said that he had told authorities that they were going on a short vacation. When his wife was asked about the strain of constant surveillance, she looked up quickly with her strong, steady, fearless eyes and said simply, “It is the China Road.” Their devotion to one another and the joy they shared in this “free” time together is a rare thing to witness among mainland couples who are often “united” in a marriage of convenience—for career, finances, or in response to family pressures. However, this couple had indeed been blessed by a “holy fire” and spirit—not only in the art he created, but in their marriage as well.
This artist, like many at the exhibition, creates in multiple mediums. He is an independent documentary film director and printmaker—and obviously a fearless one. All of the works that he displayed were political in theme and critical of brutal despotism. When asked what gave him the courage to create these works, his answer was simply, “The story must be told; there must be a record of those who suffered.”
Another artist at the conference was intent on recording contemporary history as well. His paintings, that call to mind recent persecutions in Southwest China, exhort the Christian heart to action. One pictures a cross dangling from a crane over a blood-red cross painted on the ground. Another shows a red cross lying on the ground in the midst of falling rain. These would seem to harken to the on-going persecution of one of China’s most vibrant churches that is located in the Southwest. Its pastor is imprisoned; should Christians remain silent?
Also at the conference was a young man from Beijing who came to share about the growing body of house church praise music. Being encouraged by the blessings of the Canaan Hymns—praise songs penned by an uneducated peasant women from Henan—young, believing, musically trained college students are excited about composing praise music for their home congregations. Some of the students have formed bands that lead worship locally then travel beyond and offer to lead worship in other churches or provide praise music as mood music in Christian coffee houses or reading room/bookstore venues.
Performance art is popular among these contemporary artists, perhaps because of the energy and constant variation imbued by movement; however, in today’s China, performance art is also convenient because it does not leave a record that could be used as evidence by authorities. One artist’s performance piece places a red chair and a table with a white cloth and a trumpet in “the wilderness.” These pieces become a judgment seat, a prosecutor’s seat, a defender’s seat, and a convict’s seat. The artist becomes a lawyer and pleads not guilty for an innocent lawyer held in prison. Another performance piece has a small table between two straight-backed chairs. The artist invites the parents of a murder victim, along with the parents of the convicted murderer, to reconcile, demonstrating the possibilities for love and forgiveness. The artist is seated in one of the chairs and his work is entitled “Waiting for the Day of Reconciliation.”
Because many of these artists have had to flourish in whatever place they find amenable at the moment, most use a variety of mediums and techniques. One artist shared a photograph of thousands of sheep pastured behind what appeared to be the Forbidden City in Beijing. He had originally interpreted that image as representing the docile people of China unthinkingly accepting the care and guidance of the government. Now, since the artist’s conversion, the title speaks to the dragon’s battlefield becoming the pasture land of Jesus. This same artist brought a poster to the conference of an engraving that was too large to bring from China. It pictured a plank of wood more than five feet tall and three feet wide that had been painted white and over painted with black. The artist had then carefully exposed thousands of tiny white crosses emanating from a central tiny cross as if it were the sun. Beneath the shower of crosses were shadow figures of men covering their eyes as the white crosses rained down on them. This stunning piece was entitled “Repentance in the Light.”
This art conference, from May 3-5, 2019, was entitled “The Spirit in Fire and Wind: Christian Art in Contemporary China” and was chaired by Yang Fenggang, the founder of the Center at Purdue and a well-known sociologist and author. In his introduction of the program book for the conference, Dr. Yang wrote:
The vast land of China is undergoing the blowing of the spiritual wind and the baptism of the holy fire. The rise of the collective of Christian artists and their artworks in the 21st century is a testimony of the spirit in the wind and fire . . . This great awakening, which is happening in a vast land that is filled with diverse cultures and undergoing dramatic social changes, is a rare event in human history, perhaps comparable to the seismic changes in the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Its significance to the Chinese and humanity may only become clearer in the coming decades.
Dr. Yang was greatly influenced by the writing of Robert Wuthnow who authored Creative Spirituality, a book described in an Amazon review as, “an intriguing discussion on the artistic process, zero[ing] in on the mysterious place where creativity and the sacred meet.”
In his opening remarks, Dr. Yang noted that this year marks the following “anniversaries”: the 100th of the May 4th Movement; the 70th of the People’s Republic of China; the 40th of the reopening of churches on the mainland; the 30th of June 4th. He then traced the progression of events in China after the student massacre in Tian’anmen and how they impacted his own life. (We have heard this testimony from many Chinese friends; after June 4th they knew they had to search for a new place to “put their soul”.) He stated that “now under Xi, it is getting increasingly difficult to study the impact of Christianity in China. Therefore, the record and exchanges of this conference are very important!”
The program book for the conference highlights ten prominent contemporary artists, but twenty-some attended. Other younger artists and some interested observers from the mainland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Purdue also participated as observers.
Rachel Smith gave the keynote address, offering the perspective of “an outsider seeing how Christian artists are contributing to Chinese society.” She addressed again the spiritual void after “Mao destroyed and Deng failed to rebuild.” The result was an eventual Jingshenkungxu (spiritual void), especially among intellectuals and artists. She spoke then of a revival of all belief systems—traditional, domestic, and foreign—and the developing interconnectivity of history, society, and faith. She saw this as beginning with an art show in Singapore in 2006 by Xu Bing entitled “Believe” and then carried out in many other artists who worried about man “barreling into modernism without thinking of the dangers.”
Dr. Smith quoted Liu Di, who identified three callings that Christian artists have adopted in addressing the current society in which they live: the priestly calling (example: self-portrait with nail-marked hands); the kingly calling (example: picturing the intrinsic goodness of creation) and the prophetic calling (example: Autumn Rain Filleth the Valley of Baca . . . referring to the joy in the midst of persecution expressed most recently by those in Chengdu). She went on to describe several other metaphors put forth by artists as they have spoken on how to live in this world: steward vs. sojourner; full citizen but looking to our future home; not nested in this world, but operating outside the gates (Ai Weiwei); and finally three aspects of the artistic calling (Dao zi)—nurturing the church, nurturing society, and seeking change.
The conference followed a format of a chair introducing a panel of three artists who each had thirty minutes to show and explain their paintings. There were a total of eight sessions following this format. On Friday night, participants attended an art exhibit open to the public at the West Lafayette library and each artist was given ten minutes to talk about his creations that were included in the show and answer any questions from the public. Saturday, there were twelve sessions following the panel format and, on Sunday, all attended a service at a near-by church. Sunday after lunch, two writers shared about their works of poetry and fiction before closing remarks.
The spiritual revival in China is very much alive in the artist villages where artists are freer to discuss and share ideas than in the public square. One commented that he would guess that about fifty percent of the artists in these communities are believers. This connectedness of art and faith is providing a refuge for artists in this increasingly difficult time. One noted that art is now only encouraged in the church. Yet, art is flourishing across all mediums and responding to social experience. For example, the ubiquitous traditional painting of the tiny temple set in the vast Karst Mountains of Guilin has been replaced with a large temple dominating a landscape of those mountains. The colorful figures of classical Bejing Opera are used to depict Bible scenes! Many of the wounds of the Cultural Revolution, June 4th, and the current persecutions are being alleviated by the opportunity to express them in sacred art.
Editor’s Note: The home province of Lu Xiaomin has been corrected; she is from Henan not Sichuan as originally stated.