Why and how did I become interested in China?
( A Portrait of Michael Sullivan by one of the founders of The Stars Art Movement Qu Leilei)
Castaway No 42 Dame Jessica Rawson was one of ‘the three’: one of the first women to be made masters of old Oxford colleges. When I interviewed her, she described how she had been fascinated by China from the age of four. She was head girl of her school and when she expressed her desire to read Mandarin and Chinese history at university, her headmistress bullied her into changing her mind saying “No one learns Chinese : No one goes to China.’ It took Dame Jessica many years to fulfil her dreams but by the time of our interview she had made over 80 trips to China.
When I went to junior school, my parents bought me a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias. Growing up in working class areas in the fifties, we played in the street most evenings but on Sundays that was taboo. Instead, on Sundays, I read about exotic places in my encyclopaedias. India and China stood out for me ? their stories had a different texture. I collected stamps. On my map of the world I tried to locate remote islands like The Solomons . I noticed how countries sometimes changed names: The Gold Coast became Ghana. Through my stamps, I was learning history as well as geography.
I dreamed of these places but never believed I would visit them. In 1961, when my brother, Michael, left for Australia on the £10 scheme for new immigrants, my mother understandably believed she would ever see him again: a sea voyage from Australia at £460 cost almost a year’s salary.
At Westminster College, I was taught history by, Donald Tranter, the father of Jane Tranter who received a BAFTA award for bringing back Dr Who to our TV screens. Donald was inspiring and unusually spent two terms teaching us Chinese history. You will understand from Jessica Rawson’s story just how lucky I was to be on his course. From then on I was hooked. I avidly read anything I could about current events in China.
The following year (1966) Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and I bought my copy of his Little Red Book. Six months later, disturbing footage of teachers being humiliated appeared on our news. I learned to think for myself when I saw that you shouldn’t trust idealistic speeches.
In 1983, I left teaching and, with my business partner Gill Hedge, I started the first monthly antiques fairs in Oxford followed by Oxford Antiques Omnibus. Initially we organised the fairs and supplied the catering but we were soon drawn into trading.
When I became a serious dealer, I did a lot of antiques hunting in the West Country. Devon was a favoured county for retired naval officers and ex-colonials so the auctions were rich in goods from the Far East. I was immediately attracted to them and was, at first, alone at the Antiques Market in selling oriental bronzes, ceramics and paintings on rice paper. It took me a long time before I could discriminate between objects that had been made for export and what the Chinese buyer now wants, objects made in or for the Imperial Court.
When I started writing reviews for The Oxford Times, I made a special effort to cover Indian and Chinese exhibitions. My first encounter with Dame Jessica Rawson was at the fabulous China: The Three Emperors – she was its curator. My review of The China Prints exhibition in The Ashmolean was translated into mandarin and published in Beijing by artist Sanping Wu.
When, in 2005, The Ashmolean held their first exhibition by a living artist, that artist was Chinese. I asked to review it but I didn’t know what to expect: traditional Chinese landscapes of mountains and rivers? ‘Everyone’s Life is an Epic’ consisted of twenty one striking contemporary portraits. Each subject had been asked by the artist to describe his/her philosophy of life. Under his portrait, the homeless man had written ‘You are not a failure until you give up trying’ and his chiselled features were surrounded by bold colour with the Chinese translation in calligraphy that was integral to the work. East and West had met in this brush.
I returned several times to this exhibition and asked the arts editor, Chris Gray, if I could write a profile feature on Qu Leilei. He agreed and so I met the artist and his charming wife, Caroline, in their Wimbledon home. I soon learned that the epic life was Lei lei’s. The Chinese say there is a poem in every painting and a picture in every poem. I listened to his stories from the Cultural Revolution and from The Stars Art Movement of which he was one of the five founders and words and pictures seemed to merge into one.
During the cultural revolutionary years, Western art was considered capitalist and criminal. In 1979, The Stars created the first contemporary art movement after the death of Chairman Mao. Qu Leilei and his brave friends are acknowledged, by the latest generation of successful artists to have transformed Chinese art in the way the Impressionists changed western art. Ai Weiwei was one of twenty artists to take part in their illegal exhibition when they hung their paintings on the railings outside the National Gallery (Beijing). When the police removed it, they matched to Tiananmen Square demanding artistic freedom! I was fortunate enough to visit Beijing when Qu Leilei was there. He took me to the National Gallery and showed me the railings where he had hung his controversial pictures.
On that same trip I arranged to meet a journalist called, Yao Wanger. I first met him in Oxford at a seminar at the Reuter’s Institute of Journalism. It was attended by post-graduates from all over the world. I was not surprised to see young people from Hong Kong but Yao was from Beijing and was The Editor of China Youth Daily ? an indicator that things were changing in Communist China? Indeed I was pleasantly surprised by how openly people discuss subjects now that the leadership is more pragmatic. If, however, they see you as a threat to the hegemony of The Party then the government can still be ruthless. The Falon Gong and Ai Weiwei have experienced imprisonment but, unlike under Mao, are unlikely to be killed. Yao Wanger took me to Beijing University where the Cultural Revolution began and also to a surpisingly fabulous vegetarian restaurant.
As well as reading about dramatic events in China, I have been fortunate in meeting people who have been present. Qu Leilei was in in Tiananmen Square in 1966 when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and in 1976 when the people mourned Xiao Enlai in opposition to the Gang of Four. Weimin He was painting pictures of coffins when students were being killed in 1989. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans helped us feel what it was like to live through the turbulence of The Cultural Revolution and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma describes events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But there is little accessible literature about the changes between 1976- 1989.
I decided to write a novel with that period at its heart. My novel is the memoir of Little Winter a fictional artist who joins The Stars hence its title Little Winter Paints the Stars. She writes her story for her teenage American daughter: a story set against the backdrop of momentous events in Chinese history between 1963- 1993. The history of the twentieth century is marked by apocalyptic events and wars and revolutionary activity in The West as well as The East. I believe that understanding the experience of the generation now governing China will help us understand each other. When I interviewed the historian, Bettany Hughes, she quoted Wordsworth. ‘We have one human heart’. Little Winter has a big heart.