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AmoyMagic--Guide to Xiamen & Fujian
Copyright 2006 by Sue Brown & Dr. Bill, Xiamen Univ.
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Aerial photo of Xiamen and Yuandang Lake  Photo by Mr. Zhu Qingfu

Photo of Xiamen University Professor Tang  Shaoyun Tang Shao Yun's (唐绍云)Magic Brush!
(Click thumbnails below for larger versions)

When I attended an art exhibition by Xiamen University’s Professor Tang Sao Yun, I expected paintings of archetypical Chinese fishermen poling prosaic bamboo rafts past wizened spruce and pagodas perched on cloud covered precipices. I soon found that Tang’s works defy pigeonholing as Chinese or Western, classical or contemporary.

Tang’s genius is in manifesting the magic of the mundane, in capturing on canvas what we take for granted. In this Tang reminds me of Western literature’s most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, who once chided his assistant Mr. Watson, “People see but they don’t observe.”

I suspected that Tang’s rendition of a country road at sunset depicted an exotic locale like Southern France or Wales, but Tang assured me that it was simply the beach road I had cycled down minutes earlier. He explained, “I often travel this road in the evening to market. I like the moon hovering over the trees, and the gentle glow of street lamps at dusk.” Tang pointed to a courtyard wall smothered in snarled vines and arthritic tree branches seeking escape from the crowded enclosure. He said softly, “I’ve always wondered who lives behind that wooden gate. It is mysterious.”

From Tang’s perspective the gate was indeed mysterious, though to my chagrin, during my nine years in Xiamen I had never noticed either the gate or the wall."Vicissitudes." Click thumbnail for larger image

I had also never thought twice about the wizened tree at the ancient Huli fort until I saw Tang’s “Vicissitudes.” Tang noted the gnarled roots, tangled like a wooden web in their suffocating death grip upon the obstinate boulder, and said, “The roots resemble Chinese grass-style characters, don’t they? This tree has seen a lot of history.”

Tang’s magic brush had transformed the tenacious tree into an ancient historian who had recorded in roots upon rock the rise and fall of tides and men, of oppression and deliverance. I could almost fancy young scholars sitting at this ancient academic’s feet. I determined to revisit the tree. Perhaps it might speak to me as well?

"Pigeon Whistle"  Click thumbnail for larger imageWhile the Huli tree evokes China’s past, the stately subject of “Pigeon Whistle” embodies China’s future. Tang spoke reverently of the tree towering over the courtyard of his old Beijing apartment, “This tree is China. She changes with the seasons, slow or dormant in winter, but in spring, gaining a new lease on life -- 枯木逢春). Always changing, but ever reaching upward."Modern History of China" Click thumbnail for larger image

For Tang, even an old nondescript window tells tales. “A Modern History of China – Stirred by the Sea Wind” portrays the harbor through the window of Xiamen University’s old library. On the wooden ledge is a yellowed copy of “A Modern History of China,” opened to the chapter on the second opium war. A scholar’s candle drips waxen tears, evoking images of the grievous century of opium trade conducted at gunpoint by foreign ships traveling the now tranquil waters below. Yet this art, like the artist, emanates not melancholy but hope, for as Tang explained, “The Sea has influenced all changes in modern China, both good and bad. Today, as China opens to the world, most of the influence is good.” The rising sun of a new day casts beams of golden light upon the window frame, and freighters, not warships, ply the harbor. It is a moving work, and reminds us to learn from the past that we might forge a brighter future.

"Classroom by the Sea"  Click thumbnail for larger imageEveryone does a doubletake at “The Classroom Corridor Facing the Sea.” The Xiamen University Art College’s walls, columns and floors are transparent, allowing the chimerical architecture to frame the natural beauty rather than detract from it. Through the ghostly structure one sees the gentle hills rolling into Xiamen harbor, where boats bob like fishing floats and scenic Gulangyu Island floats across the port from busy downtown Xiamen. Tang explained, “I wasn’t seeking mere realism – a camera or draftsman could do that.”

Tang has a special interest in patriotic art, heedless of whether ‘political’ art is in vogue or not. He reminisced with me how as a child of 3 or 4 he fled with his family before strafing Japanese bombers, and of his experiences before and after liberation. Like many Chinese, Tang suffered during the Cultural Revolution, but he emerged from the tumultuous decade with a more mature appreciation of those who sacrificed to transform New China from vision into reality."Overseas Chinese on the Burma Road"  Click thunbnail for larger image

One such patriotic work, which has been exhibited throughout Asia, is “Overseas Chinese on the Burma Road during the War of Resistance against Japan.” Four war-weary but resolute Chinese volunteers stand before a camouflaged truck, the serpentine Burma Road winding into the mountains and clouds behind them. The curved horizon behind the strafing Japanese bomber conveys not only the global proportions of the war but also the pivotal role that overseas Chinese’ sacrifices played for world peace and freedom. As Tang said, “Without such sacrifices, there would have been no Socialist China as we know her.”

Tang has also found inspiration from one of New China’s most well known poets -- Mao Ze Dong. The full beauty of Chairman Mao’s poem “Lou Mountain Pass” (娄山关)could be appreciated only in Chinese until Tang’s magic brush transcended language and culture. In this monochromatic study, a horseman blows reveille at daybreak, and the phantasmal outline of soldiers breaks the blanket of morning mist. One can almost hear the stalwart remnant of soldiers as they rub chilled hands and discuss hopes for a decisive victory that morning.

"Plateau Horse Racing"  Click thumbnail for larger imageAt 56 years young, this vivacious artist enthusiastically embraces many schools of art but owes allegiance to none, his priority being message, not method. In “Plateau Horse Racing,” lusty stallions painted in violent sweeps of white, brown and ocher threaten to gallop right off the black wooden frame. In an impressionist exercise, dollops of bright blues and reds and greens immortalize the essence of the bougainvillaea that splash our campus with color year round. An elderly man and woman from Tang’s home province of Sichuan were so lifelike that I could feel their eyes following me curiously, a shy greeting on the tips of their unmoving tongues.

Tang said, “There is much to learn from foreign art, but we must also take care not to abandon China’s own rich traditions and techniques.”Tang Shaoyun's Contact Information

This Sherlock Holmes of the Canvas has given me a greater appreciation of both Western and Chinese art. And he has motivated me to observe life, and to internalize what makes this brief sojourn so beautiful and rewarding -- historian trees, mysterious gates, street lamps at dusk, a Tibetan child serving butter tea, and the gnarled, gentle hands of my sons’ adopted Chinese grandfather.
Dr. William N. Brown

Addition. Since that 1997 article, Prof. Tang has traveled abroad, giving exhibitions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the U.S. & Japan. His works were selected to participate in the 6th, 7th and 8th National China Art Exhibition, and he won the 2000/2001 Asian Artists Fellowship for the Freeman Foundation Vermont Studio Center. He has also visited his talented journalist daughter, Rose, in HK several times, and amassed quite a collection of paintings of HK.

Click the Thumbnails below to view more of his paintings!

"Final Melody"  Click thumbnail for larger image

"A Funeral in a Small Town"  Click thumbnail for larger image "Stories of the Back Alleys" (in HK) Click thumbnail for larger image

"Snowstorm"  Click thumbnail for larger image "Red and Green" (IHK Bar) Click thumbnail for larger image "Temple" Click thumbnail for larger image

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Last revised: March 29, 2004

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