Pictures: Qu Leilei and I outside his childhood weekend home in The Summer Palace, The Stars March to Tiananmen Square (1979) Right:Weimin He’s picture at the ROQ site inspired by my poem An Artist Observes
.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 fulfill her dreams but by the time of our interview she had made over 80 trips to China.
When I started at junior school, my parents bought me a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedias. Growing up in a working class area in the fifties I played in the street most evenings but on Sundays that was taboo. Instead, on Sundays, I read about far away places in my encyclopaedias. India and China stood out for me : their stories had a different texture. Curiosity aroused, I tried locating places on my map of the world. From maps and stamps, I noticed how countries sometimes changed names and acquired a taste for history as well as geography.
I dreamed of these places but never believed I would visit them. In 1961, when my nineteen year old brother, Michael, left for Australia on the £10 scheme for new immigrants, my mother understandably believed she would never see him again: a sea voyage from Australia at £460 would have cost three quarters of my first year’s salary as a teacher.
At Westminster College, I was taught history by Donald Tranter, the father of my castaway 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 how lucky I was to be on his course. From then on 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 had to be wary of idealistic speeches.
My brother returned from Australia in 1972 via Japan, Vladivostok and the trans-Siberian railway! He met his future wife Fopin Li at the Commonwealth Institute. My parents had never left these shores; it was down to my brother and I to bring the world to them. They were surprisingly tolerant about it! Mixed marriages like mine are more usual in these times of mass travel and, indeed, my nephew Jeremy is married to a Chinese girl and lives and works as an engineer in Shanghai.
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 fairs, markets and eventually Oxford Antiques Centre but we were soon drawn into trading. When I became a serious dealer, I went 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 Oxford Antiques Omnibus 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 in 2002, 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. ‘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 chiseled 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 offered to write a profile feature on Qu Leilei. When I met the artist and his charming wife, Caroline, in their Wimbledon home, I discovered that the epic life was Leilei’s.
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. 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 the twenty artists who took part in their illegal exhibition when they hung their paintings on the railings outside the National Gallery (Beijing). When the police removed it, they marched to Tiananmen Square demanding artistic freedom! I was fortunate 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.
Qu Leilei 2009 and
Qu Leilei and the illegal exhibition 1979 . Below: his work for the illegal and the first legal Stars Show inside the National Gallery(1980)
Ai Weiwei today
The Stars March 1979 . Artist Ma Desheng addresses the crowd demanding freedom of expression.
Click on category China and read my review of Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace.
On that same trip I arranged to meet a journalist called, Yao Wanger whom I’d met in Oxford at a seminar at the Reuter’s Institute of Journalism. Attended by post-graduates from all over the world, I was not surprised to see young people from Hong Kong but Yao was the editor of China Youth Daily : an indicator that things were changing in Communist China? I was pleasantly surprised by how openly people discuss subjects now that the leadership is more pragmatic. If, however, you are unlucky enough to be regarded as a threat to the Communist Dynasty the government is ruthless as the Falon Gong and Ai Weiwei know all too well. Yao Wanger took me to Beijing University where the Cultural Revolution’s first Red Guards pasted their posters.
As well as reading about dramatic events in China, I have met people who were there. Qu Leilei was in Tiananmen Square, in 1966, when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution and, in 1976, when the people mourned Zhou Enlai in opposition to the Gang of Four. Manchurian born Weimin He, who later illustrated my book Oxford Castaways, 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 my first attempt was titled Little Winter Paints the Stars. Claret Press will publish the novel next year but under the title Brushstrokes in Time. My editor, the amazing Katie Isbester thought my first title sounded like a children’s book . Little Winter ( known in the USA as Winnie) writes her story for her teenage American daughter: a story set against the backdrop of momentous events in Chinese history between 1963- 1993. I hope the wonderful endorsement by Dr Maria Jaschok, Director of International Genders Studies at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford will help dispel any residual prejudice due to the author of Brushstrokes in Time being a Western woman. Maria lived in China between 1979-1995, most of fictional Little Winter’s adult life in Beijing.
The history of the twentieth century is marked by apocalyptic events, 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.
This is Star’s artist, Qu Lei lei’s portrait of Michael Sullivan, the celebrated expert on Chinese art. The Chinese Gallery in The Ashmolean, of which they were benefactors, is named after Michael and his wife Khoan. Michael Sullivan died in September 2014 and has bequeathed his amazing collection of Chinese art to the Ashmolean. A sculpture by the Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming has been given to the Ashmolean as a tribute to Michael and his life devoted to the study of Chinese art.
The woodblock print top right was made by Weimin He when he was artist in residence at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter after he read a poem I had written inspired by him. You can see some of Weimin’s fabulous work on this link. North Hoardings Revised 02-06