A graduate of fine arts and a painting major, Jia Zhuofei never believed he would be a sculptor.
In 1982, he graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Northeast Normal University and was assigned to work at Xi'an Jiaotong University.
On his way to Xi'an, the capital city of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, he visited Datong, a city in North China's Shanxi Province, where local grotto sculptures caught his eyes and he got the idea to become a sculptor instead of a painter.
"I was inspired by the grand stone sculptures and grottoes in Datong and nourished by the rich culture in Northwest China," Jia recalled.
"The trip to Datong completely changed my life," he said. He made up his mind to start a new career as a sculptor although he had to first work as a teacher at the high school affiliated to the university.
His decision was right and his efforts in remolding himself paid off.
Now 48, Jia is an associate professor at the Architecture Department of the Architectural Mechanics College in Xi'an Jiaotong University.
He is an established sculptor in China and many of his works have won national prizes and awards.
Jia displayed his talent in the fine arts when he was at primary school. He took charge of decorating his classroom. Praise from teachers and classmates gave him great confidence in art. This laid a foundation for him to learn fine arts in future, he said.
But like many others of his generation, when he was about to graduate from high school, the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) broke out in China. Universities no longer recruited students and he went to work in the countryside in 1968. But he kept on painting and teaching himself during the period, he said.
When universities in China resumed recruitment in 1977, both Jia and a student under his instruction at the time applied to the Oil Painting Department of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province.
His student was enrolled but he was not, largely because he was not born into a good revolutionary family.
The following year, he enrolled at the Northeast Normal University in Jilin Province, where he studied painting for four years.
Upon his graduation, he was first assigned to work as a teacher of fine arts in the middle school affiliated to the Xi'an Jiaotong University. He taught there for three years, during which time he built up a reputation as a sculptor in his spare time. The opportunity for a great change in his life came in 1985 when the Shaanxi Fine Arts Association asked Jia to work with them.
When Pan Ji, president of the university learnt about it, he asked Jia not to leave and promised to give him a job he liked better.
As a result, Jia was moved from the high school to teach at the Architectural Mechanics College of the university.
Since then, he has had a wider vision and a new chance to pursue his art career.
Xi'an is one of the six ancient capital cities in Chinese history. The first Chinese feudal dynasty set up its capital in Xianyang, about one hour's drive west of today's Xi'an. The ancient city, known for its terracotta warriors, has an abundant cultural heritage.
All of this gave Jia inspiration to indulge himself in art.
After he changed his job, he began to devote himself to sculpture, and many of his works are now on display on the university campus.
Between 1988-89, he studied advanced sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
The following years seemed to be fruitful as he won many national prizes. His sculpture of China's four great inventions - the compass, gunpowder, paper-making and printing - won the first prize at the Beijing New Century Hope City Sculpture Exhibition in 1996.
In the same year some of his environmental designs and sculptures were displayed in front of the Qian Xuesen Library Plaza at the Xi'an Jiaotong University. Another sculpture marking the return of Hong Kong to the motherland was displayed in Beijing in 1997.
"An artist should be responsible for society," he said. "Your work should not only be accepted by yourself but also the public because it will have a great impact on people."
To find inspiration for his work, Jia visited many places at home and abroad, including local museums and libraries, and read historical records.
To him, sculpture is a vital part of his life, especially as in the 1990s urban modernization has provided a big stage for public artists to show their creativity.
In recent years, urban sculptures have made great progress, providing him with an excellent creative environment and an opportunity to give full rein to his gifts.
In the past few years, the most remarkable work he did was the Tanziling environmental design at the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River.
The Three Gorges Project is a gigantic hydro-electric station scheme. Tanziling, located in Yichang, Hubei Province, is the place where visitors will be able to have a complete view of the whole Three Gorges Project.
Planning for the vista area at Tanziling started in 1996.
The original plan only included a stone pillar with a large stone base. When the project was halfway through, Jia was called in to make some alterations to give it a profound cultural connotation.
Because the project was already underway, it was very difficult to make the alterations.
But Jia decided to add a round altar and a trapezoid to the original design, both of them being on the same line.
On the upper part of the altar, he used green granite to form flowing water. The main part of the altar is inlaid with golden birds symbolizing the sun, and jade rabbits and toads symbolizing the moon. There are also major constellations inlaid on the side of the altar. All of these symbolize that the water of the Yangtze River comes from heaven.
Large pieces of granite are built around the round altar. The granite represents the Eight Trigrams (eight combinations of three whole or broken lines formerly used by Taoism. They not only show the four directions but also have a traditional cultural, historical and philosophical connotation.
On the lower part of the altar are tigers and phoenixes because in ancient times people living on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River worshipped the tiger and those in the lower reaches worshipped the phoenix.
Three entangled men in the central part of the altar indicate the union of people in the form of a waterwheel, indicating the water project of the dam.
"A sculpture must be based on the Chinese nation and reflect the details of its culture," said Jia.
He believes that art should express thoughts and ideas by the simplest means and that sculpture is something close to philosophy that needs an overall understanding of literature and sociology.
(China Daily 02/08/2001)