Monday, November 22, 2010

Growing Up in Cultural Desert

When I grew up in China, it was an obvious totalitarian regime, and as mentioned in my previous blog post, An Accidental Artist -- My Beginning, it was a cultural desert. 

During my childhood, classical music was nonexistent; literature by classical authors, Chinese or otherwise, were largely denounced; theatrical works and fine arts were consigned to ideological struggle tools.  How my father managed to keep some books published perhaps in 1950s by authors such as Pushkin, Klyrov and Goethe was quite puzzling.  That marked our family somewhat more literary minded than most.  However, considering the fact that my father was separated from the family most of the time shortly before I was born till I was about five years old, I was raised in an environment not dissimilar to, if not more wretched than, other poor Chinese children, who lacked nutrition of both material and spiritual kinds.

I've heard a telling story about that time.  In the middle of Cultural Revolution, some people would go to cinema to see Lenin in October, a Soviet Union made propaganda movie, again and again, not to be educated in the value of proletarian struggle, but to catch a couple minutes' worth of Swan Lake performance.

When my father returned from his semi-forced labor assignment in the countryside, he worked in the province's cultural bureau and we got many chances to see local artists - singers, dancers and actors, in the works sanctioned by their ultimate employer, the government.

My father also took me to Beijing a few times, to attend national art exhibits showcasing paintings and photographs which were either socialist naturalism brutes or naked lies of idyllic life which didn't exist in China.  Those experiences were not without their merits but they were rather numbing and did nothing to entice me to become an artist.

Only after I started school and with the change of the politics, arts of all kinds started to make a gingerly comeback and eventually even Swan Lake could be performed on the stage of my home city, Shenyang, an important industrial city whose art scene had been strongly influenced by Russian cultures of old and new.

Rembrandt. Juno. 1664-65. Oil on canvas
I still vividly remember my first encounters with paintings by the old masters, such as Rembrandt's Juno, on well-produced large-format calendars.  I was absolutely entranced by this regal and beautiful goddess.  During that time, I was also exposed to Italian Renaissance for the first time.

Classical plays returned as well and I was able to see some amazing performances of A Servant to Two Masters, The Miser, The Visit of an Old Lady, King Lear, Desire Under the Elm.

Good books returned too - I started to devout Balzac, Tolstoy, Austen, Zola, etc.

A symphonic orchestra formed in my home city and I was even able to listen to performances on radio of Carmen, Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte, often transmitted from more cosmopolitan Beijing or Shanghai.  My first experience with western opera was Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe, sung and danced in Chinese, with considerable verve and beauty.

That epoch poised to be an amazing cultural renaissance but art soon was defeated in the battle against commercialism, symbolized by the fact that the home theater of the main troupe in Shenyang, one of the most venerated playhouses in the nation was converted into a discotheque.  The final nail on the coffin was the big ideological struggle in the 1980s which culminated in the brutal crackdown of the democratic movement in 1989.

My art education in China thus completed.

>> My Path, Part III: Fifteen Authors Influenced Me Most and Watching Shakespeare in China
<< My Path, Part I: An Accidental Artist -- My Beginning

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