In the Eyes of the Culturati
Few Hong Kong artists are known to the world. Van Lau is one of the rare. Even fewer devote their effort in promoting Chinese culture. Van Lau has been the Chairman of the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture for 11 years. Before 1997, he has already put forward his ideas of 'culture return' and acted on it. From there we can see his vision towards culture and his deep passion for Hong Kong and the Chinese race.
"Without culture return, Hong Kong's return of sovereignty to China cannot be stable and longlasting."
Q: As an artist why do you choose to work for the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture?
A: This has to do with my background. I was an overseas Chinese living under other people's roof and under discrimination. Under my father's influence I became deeply conscious of our country. Since the 60's I have become actively involved in cultural activities and, with deep passion towards our country, I participated in the Dao Yu Tai campaign in the 70's. It is my enthusiasm towards culture and the sense of mission in promoting culture that make me take up the position of the Chairman of the Institute.
Q: Art exhibits freedom of expression. You are an artist but have a mission in promoting culture. Doesn't it sounds like a paradox? How do your strike a balance?
A: Creation is personal. It needs only ideals and beliefs. Promoting culture needs persuasion and compromise. There is indeed a contradition. However, my art is based on Chinese culture. In the past eleven years, I experienced both the sweets and sour in promoting culture. Sweet because I got the opportunity to realize my ideals; sour because I could not realize them. I feel disappointed towards the cultural activities and programs since the return and am frustrated because I myself cannot do much on it.
Q: How do you describe yourself under the duo role in art creation and cultural promotion?
A: I am a professional artist. Cultural promotion seconds to it. I never give up my art creations. My past years in promoting culture has indeed scratched away much time and efforts at the expense of my art creations. But I want to let others share my views and ideas, which I have taken from the society and would like to give back. So although promoting culture takes away my time, I am happy to do it and never regret. However, in Hong Kong, ideals is one thing and the world is another, same as bringing up children, you will feel a bit disappointed if they do not grow up to your expectation.
Q: As an artist and one experienced in promoting culture, what do you think of Hong Kong's cultural development?
A: A society with high cultural and academic level can never depend on pop culture. It must have advanced creative culture. Hong Kong does not have any arts and cultural policy. It is not until the 90's that there has been some development. But it is still in the infant stage. Culture is a complex concept here. One may refer to Chinese culture; another may refer to Western culture or see it as a Chinese-western fusion. How can one properly define it? Take literary writing as an example. Our Chinese and English standards are poor. If we promte pluralistic culture, we will easily fall into the trap of a collage culture getting us nowhere.
Q: Before Hong Kong returned to China, you put forward a concept of cultural return. Now Hong Kong has returned, what is the status now?
A: Cultural return is a concept ahead of time, but difficult to achieve. It involves two levels: a realistic level including economics and politics, which is not difficult to achieve; what is difficult is the psychological level, which involves society's consensus on values and thoughts. Hong Kong has over 150 years of colonial history. People grow and develop themselves in the influence of Western culture. It is impossible to put down Western ideas and switch to Chinese culture in a day. To achieve cultural return, the government must appreciate the problem and involve professionals in research. However, the government has done little. "One Country Two System" is a genius concept that requires the " Two System" to be tied in with common threads to become "One Country". The common threads are values towards our race's culture. Without consensus, communication and understanding in the society, the cultural problem in Hong Kong will become acute. In the worst it might result in diverse non-Chinese cultural values.
Q: You said Hong Kong does not share a common view towards our culture. What is your view on Chinese culture?
A: I am a down right nationalist and have faith on Chinese culture. I will never do anything against the Country. In the bottom of my heart I believe we have superb cultural heritages. Cultural heritages from thousand years of creation, fusion and distillation of various cultures. It is a world wonder in cultural history.
Q: What are your new plans after leaving the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture?
A: I have decided to go to Beijing in search for a breakthrough in my art creation and cultural promotion works. I am lecturing on modern art in the Beijing Principal of Central Academy of Fine Arts. I have designed a syllabus that includes art development from Chinese socialism, realism to modernism, as well as the modernism of traditional Chinese art. If it works, it can be promoted to the whole country. I will continue to work on art and will not abandon my mission on culture.
Afterthought: Van Lau is firm in his ideas. He speaks his mind directly, telling us his deep belief in nationalismand his attitude towards life. He does not avoid his political attitudes and freely expresses his deep disappointment on the cultural development in Hong Kong. When he realizes his own efforts cannot reshape the reality, he does not give up. He decided to fly to Beijing to continue his mission in promoting Chinese culture.
N.B. The mentioned 'cultural return' concept is extracted from Van Lau, "The concept of cultural return and it's realization in Hong Kong" (1996) Interested parties can fax to : (852) 26031808, the Van Lau Workshop for information.
The Hexi Corridor - an important link on the ancient Silk Road
The Silk Road has been the principal communication link between ancient China and the West. The Hexi corridor, lies in between the plateaus of Mongolian and Qingzang, is an important link of the Silk Road. It held the stage of military, economic, political and cultural development in the imperial eras, witnessing the rise and fall of powers. Today the Corridor is still of strategic importance.
The Hexi Corridor runs from Wushao Mountains in the east to the oasis of Dunhuang in the west. It is the only way from inland China to the west. To its south lies the rolling snow-bound Qilian Mountains. To its north are the Heli and Longshou mountain ranges. Away from the mountains is the desert. The Corridor is a narrow flat strip of land extending more than 1,200 kilometres long, at its broadest about 200 kilometres wide and at its narrowest only 15 kilometres. It shapes like a natural corridor, and lies at the west of the Yellow River, so is called the Hexi Corridor.
There are four oases scattered on the Hexi Corridor. Out there is the endless Gobi Desert. Hardly any grass and footprint, the desert is cool and deserted. Whereas the oases are rich woodlands flow with streams. From desert to oases, from oases to desert, the journey paints the unique landscape of the Corridor.
Trade brings in cultural development
The Hexi Corridor was once a multinational area with inhabitants from many ethnic groups, including the Han, Di, Yue-Chi, Xiangnu, Mongol and Xianbei. The Silk Road opened up the gateway of trade and cultural exchange between China and the west, creating a diverse township filled with diplomatic officers, foreign merchants and priests. The interchange of ideas and new merchandise coincided with the spread of Buddhism arriving from the west, eventually filtered into the heartland of China, flourishing the development of art, religion and science. The Hexi Corridor thus has significant contribution to the development of human civilization.
Agricultrue and ranching breeds prosperity
The Hexi Corridor is a low-lying flat land with alternate deserts and oases. The all year round melted snow form the Qilian Mountains in its south moistens the Corridor and flourishes agriculture and ranching in the oasis. With its rich natural resources and government encouragement in cultivation and irrigation, the area reap golden harvest. Zhangye and Wuwei has been known as the country's barns. Upper River Shandan has large grasslands which facilitated horse breeding for imperial use since the Han Dynasty. During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, over hundred thousand horses earmarked for post, war or state service grazed here, contributing to the country's military strength.
Target for scramble
With such strategic importance of position and rich natural resources, it is no accident that the Hexi Corridor became the target for scrable of different races. Emperors from era to era were concerned with the security and stability of the area. Various fortress were built. After Qin united the country the fortress became part of the Great Wall, fending off the Xiongnu. During the Han Dynasty, two important fortifications, the Yangguan at the south of Dunhuang, and the Yumen Pass at the northwest of Dunhuang were constructed. They formed, together with the Great Wall, a complete system of defense. They were important passageways on the Silk Road to go to Central Asia, India and Europe. In the eras to follow, the Corridor became war zone again and again. The Jiayuguan Pass, the western terminus of the Great Wall, was built for defeated the last of Yuan armies to keep the Mongols out beyond the Great Wall. The rise and fall of powers is indivisible with the control of the Corridor.
General Huo fighting away the Xiongnu (Hun)
The Hexi Corridor has a long glorious history. There are numerous heroic events in its memory. One features the Western Han military general Huo Qu-Bing, who fought away the Xiongnu and opened the Hexi Corridor. His victory earned him a name in history.
In 124BC, Xiongnu invaded the area of Hebei and northern Shanxi. The next year, Han emperor Wudi declared war. General Huo Qu-Bing led a troop of 800 to fight away the Xiongnu. Only one battle was needed and he won. He was then only eighteen years old. In 121BC Emperor Wudi declared the Hexi war, and again appointed the 20-year-old Huo to fight away the Xiongnu who hung about the Hexi Corridor. Again he won a brilliant battle. The defeated Xiongnu surrendered and back off to the desert in the north. The Hexi Corridor became under the control of the Han empire. Emperor Wudi set up four prefectures of Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang and established two passes of defence at Yangguan and Yumen in the Hexi Corridor in 111B.C. Since then, the Hexi Corridor became part of the Western Han empire. The way to the west is opened.
Unique cultural heritages
Bronze Flying Horse
Wuwei leapt to fame with the discovery of the national treasure 'Bronze Flying Horse' dating from the Eastern Han period at the Leitai Tomb in 1969. The roaring horse is finely shaped in a galloping posture with one hoof treading on the back of a swallow. The posture is unique and carefully balanced according to dynamics. It is believed to be a portrayal of the "heavenly steed" of Chinese legend. It is of high craftsmanship, fully expressive of the horse-breeding culture of China's West.
Night Glowing cup
Lianghou Ci' (The song of Liangzhou) by the Tang poet, Wang Han is a famous song about the boundary. The 'Night Glowing Cup' mentioned in the ballad is from Jiuquan. Legend has that the cups were made from some rare jade tributed from the west, which glowed when filled with wine and placed in the moonlight. The cups produced in Jiuquan are now made of black and green Qilian jade in ancient style. They are elegant wine cups.
The Hexi Corridor - A route to the glorious silk road history
Wuwei lies at the far east of the Corridor. It is the first oasis the Silk Road passed through on its westward journey along the Corridor. Wuwei has military importance as "the thread to the desert, the link of five counties". In the era of the sixteen countries four out of the five Liangs all set up their capitals there. That is why it was called Liangzhou. Wuwei, known as the country's barn, is rich in agriculture and a famous horse-ranch for imperial use since the Han dynasty. The world renowned 'Bronze Flying Horse' of the Eastern Han period was unearthed at Leitai on the northern outskirts of Wuwei.
Zhangye known as Ganzhou in ancient times is located in the middle part of the Corridor. It is the meeting point of the east-west (inland to the west) and north-south (Qinghai, Xiling to Mongolia) main roads. It was once a commercial market town in Sui and Tang periods. Marco Polo had lived in Zhangye for a whole year. Because of its rich natural resources and developed agriculture and ranching, it is called Golden Zhangye. Major scenic spots include the Giant Buddha Temple, Longevity Temple, the Great Wall of Han and Ming dynasties and beacon towers.
Jiuquan, was the first town encountered 'within the wall' by eastbound travelers and is located 20 kilometres from the Jiayuguan Pass of the Great Wall. Legend has that the Western Han general Huo Qu-Bing was granted royal wine from Emperor Wudi after he defeated the Xiongnu. Huo not wanting to have it on his own, poured the wine into a spring to share with troop. It was said the spring water then became wine and never dried up. The spring was then called Jiuquan (meaning wine spring). The town is named after it.
Dunhuang lies at the far west of the Corridor. It is the first oasis from the desert to the Hexi Corridor. Since the Han dynasty it has become an important communication locus. Merchants and priests all came around. Dunhuang is also the convergence of eastern and western culture. Its Buddhist art heritages is well renowned. The Mogao Caves which form a part of the grotto art of Dunhunag, has been named valuable "World Heritages".
A touch of ancient Dunhuang in silk scarves
The elegant, ethereal and colourful Chinese silk, representing the luxurious lifestyle of the royal family, is the symbol of the cultural exchange between the East and West. Different patterns on the ancient silk reflect the aesthetics, the custom and lifestyles of different eras. The Chinese silk is indeed a piece of art, expressive of the glory of the days.
The Silk Road opened the glorious history of East meet West. Dunhuang, being an important town on the ancient Silk Road, embodies the essence of Buddhist art. Patterns of silk in the ancient days are taken from the costume of Buddhist statues, attire of they flying apsaras as well as decorative patterns in ceilings and temples. These patterns are woven into variegated designs. Since the discovery of the grotto art in Dunhuang in the early nineteenth centuries, most of the motifs from the murals and sculptures, are being widely adapted into the contemporary living in Europe and Japan.
Dunhuang grotto art is crystallized from cultures of China with the West - a product of splendid handicrafts and wisdom. The decorative motifs are quientessence of Chinese, Indian, Persian and Greek art. Different painting styles, colouring and technique of treatment of sculptures and murals in the grottoes reflect the spirit, custom and cultures of different eras. Earlier caves feature the floral and geometric patterns in early Northern Wei style. The Dunhuang grotto art reached its zenith in Sui and Tang Dynasties. Decorative patterns are shaped under the influence of foreign cultures. The most obvious one includes patterns of parallel lining of pearls mixed with wild animals, which is from Persian art. Tang saw a new height in the development of decorative patterns. Flower bouquets, intertwining vines, cloud scrolls, birds and animals, being depicted in a luscious palette of turquoise, jade, cinnabar, brick red and dark gold, adds to its grandeur. After the Tang dynasty, Dunhuang grotto art declined with the fall of the Silk Road. Patterns look like woodprints emerged in the Five Dynasties, in simple folk styles. Patterns of costumes in late Song became simple and monotonous, which sharply contrasts the richness in the old days.
Dunhuang grotto art has not only written a brilliant page in the world's history of art, it provides a rich resource of modern art creations. The 'Bazaar' gift-shop has invited the Central Academy of Arts and Design, Beijing to design a series of silk scarves featuring the motifs of Dunhunag frescoes, to share with you a touch of the undeniable attraction of 2000 years ago.