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Painter, Writer, Social Activist
Not regretting he has produced fewer literary works, he said: "The sense of social responsibility compels me to do so."

According to Feng, vice-president of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association and the Ministry of Culture will launch a national cultural investigation at the beginning of the year. The project is expected to take 10 years, involving more than 10,000 volunteers.

"We will take this opportunity to help more Chinese, especially the administrators, to become aware of traditional Chinese culture," he said.

From painter to writer

Feng, 59, took to painting as his profession after graduation from senior high school in 1960, when he started to work at the Painting and Calligraphy Institute of Tianjin.

He had to interrupt his artistic pursuit in 1966, when the "cultural revolution" began. He shifted to writing in his spare time, trying to recount the lives of the people around him.

However, he didn't rest with the contemporary events but dug deep into history, trying to analyze the events from a historical point of view.

His Sancun Jinlian (Three-inch Lily Feet) and Zhenzhu Niao (Pearl Birds) are now considered by some as contemporary literary masterpieces.

But his best-known book is <>Ten Years for 100 People, narrating the pains people went through during the "cultural revolution."

The idea of writing about the book came from one of his friends. "He (the friend) asked me if the future generation would know the truth of that age," Feng recalled. "My friend said if somebody writes down what happens now, that will be a meaningful thing."

Bearing the words in mind, Feng secretly made a lot of notes. He finished the book when the chaotic 10 years ended. In 1986, the book was published.

The book received critical and popular acclaim. To these supporters, the book is one of the best that tells the personal stories of that period. "When I read the stories, sometimes I couldn't believe they were true," a reader said. "These ridiculous stories make me think about why the event could have happened?"

Feng also picked up his painting brush again, earning fame for his works in "Modern Literati Style."

From writer to activist

Feng took up the mission to campaign for culture preservation in the country eight years ago, when Tianjin municipal government announced its plan to renovate the old city.

The announcement alarmed Feng and other scholars.

Born and brought up in Tianjin, Feng developed a love for his home city. His feelings for Tianjin are often infectious, especially when he tells stories of old buildings and jokes involving local dialects.

Tianjin, a harbor city near the shore of Bohai Bay in North China, has been a prosperous region since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

"The culture of Tianjin features strong and specific local color, formulated during its 800-year history," Feng said.

Meanwhile, the city also bore witness to influences of Western culture.

Foreign powers established their concessions in Tianjin after the Second Opium War (1856-60).

"Two kinds of cultures from the East and West met here," Feng said. "Both traditional temples and foreign churches found their places here. In the past, they belonged to different owners; however, at present, they belong to only one host - Tianjin.

"As indispensable parts of the city, they have great value in the local culture, history and aesthetics."

Famous Chinese playwright Cao Yu (1910-96) took Tianjin as the social background for his two drama masterpieces - The Thunderstorm and The Sunrise.

"However, people always think these stories happened in Shanghai," Feng said. "Why? Because lots of valuable old buildings have disappeared in Tianjin."

He started to write to the local government to explain why the old city should be preserved and, at the same time, he wrote articles in newspapers and magazines expounding his own views on the value of the old houses and the meaning of preserving them.

"Please show your mercy to your own culture," Feng appealed in one of his articles.

In this way, Feng was able to gather together scholars, including archaeologists, historians and architects, as well as photographers.

Together they began to comb through the city for its valuable old cultural and architectural relics.

They took pictures, noted down names of small allies and painted sketches. They also made lots of precious video material.

They walked through every alley and street of the old city and talked to people in search of background information on the old houses.

Feng didn't forget to lobby the city's administrators. After the survey, Feng carefully selected more than 2,000 pictures and compiled them into an album - Remaining Charm of the Old City.

Feng gave copies of the album to officials with such words on them as "this is our beloved city."

From 1997 to 1999, Feng sponsored campaigns appealing to protect old buildings in the concession area and a 600-year-old street - Guyi Street.

"Actually, the importance of preserving these buildings isn't only to protect some old houses but to tell people what is culture and history, and how to treat them," Feng stressed.

In time, Feng discovered campaigning for cultural preservation is a task more difficult than writing and painting.

During his crusades, Feng has met strong objections. Some developers and government officials suggested Feng should buy these old houses if he insists on preservation.

Feng said the suggestion has come from people who are not aware that lots of ordinary things - an old house, an old chair in it or a narrow alley - is an integral part of the traditional Chinese cultural fabric, alongside the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.

"They constitute the spirit and personality of a place, and should be protected," he said. "It's the culture that keeps the city living, and people should cherish and preserve their own culture."

To his pleasure, Feng's hard work has paid off.

In 1998, when Feng and other scholars got wind the city would develop the Dazhigu area, they immediately went to the city's archaeological bureau. They put forward the results of their research that the area possibly contains the remains of the Mazu Temple, which served as the evidence of the earliest inhabitation of Tianjin.

Mazu was worshiped as a sea-goddess for safeguarding seamen. Following Feng's appeal, the local government spent 32 million yuan (US$3.9 million) to buy the place from a local developer.

During the following archaeological research in 1998, relics of past dynasties were excavated. The local government decided to establish the Tianjin Relics Museum of Mazu Temple at the site. The museum, which is still under construction at present, is expected to open to public around the Spring Festival on February 12.

Feng said he was extremely happy that many local people in Tianjin have begun to tell Feng and his colleagues stories of their houses and take out old family relics for photographers to take pictures.

The old residents of the Guyi Street lobbied hard with banners in 2000 to persuade the local government to preserve the Guyi Street. Due to public pressure, the local government decided to retain the east part of the street.

However, Feng is still saddened by the demolition of the west part of the street, including the General Chamber of Tianjin.

"I couldn't help crying when I saw the dilapidated walls and scattered rubble of the building," Feng recalled.

The chamber was one of sites of the May 4 Movement (1919) in Tianjin, and where Chinese late premier Zhou Enlai (1903-76) organized revolutionary movements.

"It was entirely made of wood, of which the architectural design was delicate and its appearance beautiful," Feng said. "Such a building should have been protected as a State-class relic."

What made him feel relieved is that, to his credit, many old buildings have been preserved.

In 1996, Feng wrote an article about how foreign countries, such as France, Italy and Greece, preserve their cultural relics.

Feng claimed the government of Lingshi County in Shanxi Province revamped the famous Wangjia Dayuan (Courtyard of Wang Family) according to principles he introduced in the article.

Currently, Wangjia Dayuan, constructed during 1762-1811, is the largest and best preserved traditional residential architecture complex in North China.

Both the progress and failures have urged Feng to continue his crusade.

The whole country needs an urgent nationwide cultural investigation to enhance people's awareness of national treasures and love for culture, he said.

"The speed of economic development is faster than ever in China," Feng said, "and the speed of losing our culture is faster than ever too.

"The diversified appearances of the Chinese cities are being painted the same, with traditional buildings replaced by sparkling glass constructions.

"It's imperative for us to do something to stop such a spree, and it is my responsibility as a writer and artist with social consciousness."

(China Daily January 7, 2002)

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