Year of the Ox: Liaoning Province

With a prestigious grant from the Asian Cultural Council, Hammer adjunct curator James Elaine moved to China in April 2008 to seek out emerging artists within China and throughout Asia. This blog provides a fascinating insight into Jamie’s travels and the art world in China.

The Year of the Ox: Liaoning Province

Part 2 of 3

After spending a week in the mountains of Guangdong, picking up a cold along the way, and only having one full day in Beijing to recover I really didn’t think I could handle another New Years trip. But the tickets had been purchased, and I really wanted to see artist Jia Aili’s hometown and experience the northeast’s version of the Spring Festival before it was over. It only comes around once a year.

Jia Aili and James Elaine overlooking Yalu River and Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

Dandong at Night

Dandong is a small but growing city in Liaoning Province along the Yalu River bordering the DPRK, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. One side of the river is bustling, growing, building, full of lights, restaurants, noise, and action. The other side is rather bleak, flat, monochromatic and deathly silent. Aili picked me up at the small airport and took me to a hotel he had booked for me. I was surprised, thinking I would be staying in his family home somewhere in a remote part of the countryside. It was strange to come from a poor village in Guangdong, walk into a nice hotel in a northeastern city, be escorted to my room, and to open the curtains and find before me a fantastic cinematic view of the Yalu River, North Korea, and two bridges that connect the two countries. The room was even heated. One of Dandong’s claim to fame are these two bridges.

China-Korea Friendship Bridge & Yalu River Broken Bridge

The now called Yalu River Broken Bridge, built by the colonial Japanese government and completed in 1911, was bombed by the Americans in 1950 to frustrate China's support of North Korea during the Korean War. Only the Korean side of the bridge was destroyed though. What we call the Korean War the Chinese call the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. The bridge goes from the Chinese side about one half of the way across the river to the DPRK then stops. At the end is a rather chilling display of melted twisted steel, bullet holes, then nothing but empty pylons, cold water, and North Korea. The other bridge was also built by the Japanese and completed in 1943 and is now called the China-Korea Friendship Bridge. It is still in use and carries a few trains a day with, I believe, mainly Chinese and Russian tourists into the DPRK and back.

Aili's school

After a short rest Aili came to the hotel to pick me up. We lazily drove around the city finding his old school buildings, the parks and places he used to go to as a child. He was full of excitement and pride for his “homeland” and stretched himself constantly to find the English words to tell me the stories of his youth. We pulled into a parking lot of an old schoolyard and came to a stop. Aili wanted to introduce to me his professor who had guided and taught him as a youth in his art training. Bi Chong Xu greeted us at the 3rd floor landing inside the school building and took us through one of the painting classrooms to his office and studio. This was an important event for Aili to introduce us and by doing so pay homage to his mentor. Around the classroom were many easels, drawing and painting materials, and plaster Greco-roman busts and figures for drawing instruction. It reminded me a bit of my early art school days but it was plain to see that this was different. Learning how to draw and paint formally has been the foundation of the Chinese art student’s education and practice. It is still a rigorous regimen here and you can see it in the contemporary Chinese artists work. Their seemingly natural facility in rendering their subjects is remarkable, but the training starts early.

After having tea, looking at art, and talking about Mr. Armand Hammer and the Hammer museum, we all continued together to see more sights of Dandong, which included the Ming Dynasty eastern starting point of the Great Wall on Tiger Mountain, climbing an inner city hill to see an ancient pagoda, then to dinner for delicious Korean food and late night Karaoke with Aili and his artist friends. Everywhere I go in China there are people who know about Armand Hammer as an art collector and a businessman as well. The 1982 exhibition of his art collection in Beijing still stands as an important milestone for Chinese artists education at that time. It was the first time western art had ever been seen in China. It had a marked effect on young artists then and people still fondly remember.

Aili's early paintings

The next day we visited Aili’s family home in Dandong. I met his parents and a cousin and was served tea from the family heirloom tea set. It was a bit embarrassing for Aili but was quite an honor for me. This may have been among the oldest objects owned by his family and his mother was quite proud of it. During the Cultural Revolution most of the family’s belongings and property were confiscated and forever lost. As we drank tea Aili’s mother began bringing into the room huge bundles of paintings wrapped in dusty brown paper and twine, and began opening all of them up to show me Aili’s work from middle school through university. I watched and chatted with her the best I could as she lined the room with dozens of paintings, and showed me thick books of photos of her son and his work. It was an unplanned studio visit that I was so fortunate to have had.

Aili had mentioned there was a museum in town along the river but that there was nothing in it worth seeing so we didn’t go. So most of the next day I spent wandering the streets of Dandong alone, weaving in and around huge swaying red lanterns, dodging fireworks, eating foods from the street vendors, and fighting the bitter cold as I walked and walked before Aili came in the evening to collect me and take me for another seafood feast with his friends. One place I missed during my wanderings that day was the Museum to Commemorate the War Against American Aggression. This actually may have been the museum Aili had told me about, but since I spent this entire trip with only Chinese speaking people I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. I saw a lot of amazing sights but I never found any museum, so will have to leave it on the list for things to do next time Aili and I return to his home in Dandong.

View Slideshow

Run Time: 3 min., 17 sec.

Filed under: 
Tags: James Elaine