Ceramic socialist realism

During one dinner in China, after much alcohol had been downed with toasts, conversation turned to calligraphy. I was surprised to hear the general opinion that Mao Zedong was considered to have produced very good calligraphy in the classical style. Recently, seeing that the brochure of the Tate gallery’s exhibition of Social Realist art from China quoted Mao extensively, I realized that he was quite strongly aware of the potential of art to subvert or accelerate social change. As early as in the Yan’an conference of 1942, Mao made statements that prefigured the philosophical basis of what came to be called the cultural revolution. This is an example: “The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source.”

A part of the permanent exhibition in the Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou is a roomful of small glazed ceramic pieces which are clearly made in the Social Realistic style. The pre-communist nationalist movement created a ferment in the art world, with many artists experimenting with western styles. This was carried to an extreme in Social Realism, as you can see in the examples here (notice the fedora carried by the man who takes the bull by the horn). Looking closely at these pieces, I realized that there is an individuality to each. Within the constraints of the system, they are still expressive of the artist’s vision. What else does one ask from an artist but technical mastery and individual vision?

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The Yangtze river

I had hazy memory from my school books that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.

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Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught, like the famous old sailboats of the Yangtze. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.

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It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.

Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
–Mao Zedong

The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.

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I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.