In more recent times, this same Taiji boxing would become the subject matter of famous Taiwan sculptor Ju Ming, who holds his debut Chinese mainland exhibition in Beijing this month.
Although this is the first time that Ju Ming has ever held an exhibition on the Chinese mainland, his name is well known around these parts. This was something which his exhibition's host, the National Art Gallery of China, wished to emphasize, with comments from their president, Fan Dian.
"I originally intended to introduce Ju Ming's art to the Chinese Mainland ten years ago. After all, he is an artist who has made outstanding contributions to modern sculpting. His work integrates both modern art forms and the deep essence of oriental ideology. What we're showing in our gallery is the most important series created by Ju Ming, because the Taiji series is particularly realistic. They combine both the language of western sculpture, through form, volume and shape, and also Ju's own unique understanding towards traditional Chinese philosophy. He is an artist who has perfectly implemented the Chinese philosophy of man and nature becoming a harmonious whole, by making use of his materials' natural shape and by adding profound meaning with a few taps of the chisel."
Altogether there are over sixty giant sculptures on display at the National Art Gallery, mostly taken from Ju Ming's meditative Taiji series, which dates from the mid-70s. These semi-abstract figures all capture the strength and movement of Taiji, particularly the bronze Taiji Archway works, where flowing bodies come to collectively resemble a Chinese archway.
Taiji is a strand of traditional metaphysics, through which ancient Chinese attempted to explain the world's origins and the process of life. As for Ju Ming, he owes his modern day interest in this art to another Taiwan sculptor, Yang Yingfeng, who advised Ju to practice Taiji back in the 1970s.
"My teacher suggested that I practice Taiji, because I was too thin and not in good health. After I got into Taiji, it becomes a part of my life. My mind became occupied with it, no matter what I was doing at a certain time. Later, I gradually came to understand its theory of movement and stillness. Taiji is not like other Kung Fu, which stresses outer strength and power. It's more about the spirit. It simply won't leave my mind and I feel this constant urge to put it into shape using my chisel."
Over the past twenty years, Ju Ming's Tajii series has been exhibited in many parts of the world, including Thailand, Singapore, Great Britain and Japan. However, such success is a long way removed from his lowly beginnings. Born in 1938 to a poor Taiwan family, Ju Ming became the apprentice of a local woodcarver. Trained to carve traditional religious and historical images, Ju quickly acquired an impressive technical proficiency, unmatched by the average art-school graduate. Yet despite such achievements, skill alone was not enough for this young artist.
"What I learned then was how to manufacture those traditional wood carvings, which can found in temples. However, I wanted to be an artist rather than a craftsman, so I asked my master, 'Can this work of ours be exhibited?' In fact, my master had never considered this question in his whole life. Therefore, I realized that if I wanted to carve something new, I would need to find another teacher. Otherwise I would not be able to realize my artistic dream."
With these thoughts in mind, Ju Ming began to search for a teacher, whilst also self-learning from the illustrations that he found in books. At the age of 30, Ju's search for education ended, when he knocked upon the door of famous Taiwan sculptor, Yang Yingfeng. This artist proved to the key artistic figure in Ju's life, transforming him from craftsman to artist. Specifically, Yang showed his student how to both simplify art and intensify its spiritual expression.
Accordingly, Ju Ming rose to prominence in the mid-70s. In 1976, his first one-man show garnered international renown, for a display of rural themes, including buffalo and a buffalo boy.
"That was my first solo exhibition. People said that I rose to fame overnight. Yet after the show's success I gave up this rural theme, because I saw it as being too localized. Instead, my later Taiji series stressed the beauty of form and strength - an international kind of artistic language. I believe that if you want your work to be appreciated internationally, you need to use a language which can be understood by the whole world."
Thanks to Ju Ming's combination of western techniques and oriental spirit, he soon achieved not only a trademark style, but also brand-worthy recognition. With his Taiji series, he even made it to New York Soho's Max Hutchinson Gallery.
However, Ju Ming's artistic life did not stop with the Taiji series. For his subsequent Living World works, Ju went on to explore the hustle and bustle of human existence. He also experimented more widely with materials other than wood, including steel, cloth, Styrofoam and even flags. Looking back on his progression to such experimental feats, Ju Ming concludes, "I think that all of my subject matter is taken from Chinese culture and imbued with a Chinese spirit. This is the most important thing, because we are after all Chinese. Honestly, thousands of years of culture really is a treasure house. The only thing you need to know is how to carry this culture on and make it shine in your way."
The artist's summary is often so much simpler than that of the critic. Therefore, it just remains for us to add that Ju Ming's Taiji exhibition at the National Art Gallery runs until the 26th, so if you're interested and in town, you can enjoy a moment with these giant figures throughout the next few weeks.
(CRI April 13, 2006)