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Showcase of Artist's Talents
Who is the best-known living calligrapher in China?

If you randomly ask people on a Beijing street, the answer will probably be the same: Qi Gong.

To own a piece of calligraphy by Qi Gong, now 90, is the ambition of many of his admirers, let alone those sharp-eyed experts and other enthusiasts.

A few years ago, the authorities of Beijing Normal University reportedly had to post an official notice on his door declaring: "Mr Qi Gong is ill" in an effort to deter the endless stream of visitors asking for examples of his calligraphy. The callers had terribly interrupted the day-to-day life and work of the old man, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the school.

His calligraphy works are always best sellers in the local art market. Meanwhile, in shops in Beijing's Panjiayuan Antique Marketplace, vivid reproductions of Qi Gong's calligraphy, for sale at less than 100 yuan (US$12) each, are extremely popular.

"For people like me who cannot afford an original work by Qi Gong, reproductions will just do. They look pleasant on your walls and can be decent gifts for friends," said Zhang Han, a retired Beijing worker who has bought several such pieces at Panjiayuan.

Solo Retrospective

To the joy of Qi Gong's admirers, a grand, retrospective exhibition of more than 200 authentic works by the veteran artist is showing in Beijing. Besides calligraphy, a number of his traditional ink paintings are included, displaying a less well-known, but equally important, aspect of his artistic talents. Many of the poems on the calligraphy and paintings are by the artist himself.

The Exhibition of Calligraphy and Paintings by Qi Gong is being held at the newly established Oriental Art Gallery on the east of Tian'anmen Square, through to October 6. It forms part of the events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Beijing Normal University, as well as marking the 70th anniversary of Qi Gong's teaching career.

The valuable art works have been selected from the collections of the university, the Rongbaozhai Gallery, the Beijing Zhenmingge Cultural Development Center and some other organizations. Most of the works were created during the 1980s and 1990s, the highlight of his life as an artist.

Among the exhibits are major publications by Qi Gong and photographs documenting his life and work.

"The majority of exhibits have been created by Qi Gong while teaching at the Beijing Normal University, and are now in the collection of the university. The works best reflect his life, art and personality," said Zhong Binglin, president of the prestigious university.

Also known as Aisin-gioro Qi Gong, he was born into a Manchu family in Beijing in 1912. His childhood was steeped in memories of a declining aristocrat's family following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

One year after his birth, his father passed away and he was brought up by his grandfather, his mother and his aunt. When he was 10 years old, his grandfather died and the family fell into extreme poverty, forcing him to drop out of middle school.

But the harshness of life did not get in the way of the young man's burning ambition to pursue his love of art and knowledge. He developed a strong interest in painting and classical Chinese literature and managed to become a private student of Beijing scholars and painters Dai Suizhi, Jia Ximin and Wu Jingding. It was also at that time that he began to develop the eye of an art connoisseur by frequenting the Palace Museum. But, in order to support his family and buy books, he often had to sell his paintings and work as a tutor.

Qi Gong was better known as a painter than a calligrapher in his early years. In the 1930s, his own particular style in Chinese ink painting had already begun to mature. He was especially good at painting landscapes, bamboo and rocks. Primarily influenced by the traditional literati painting, his early works displayed an exceptional grasp of images, colors and brushwork.

"My desire to learn calligraphy was stimulated by a small incident when I was young. One day, a relative of mine asked me for a painting, but he would not let me add a colophon on it because he disliked my poor calligraphy.' I will ask your teacher to do it, ' he told me," Qi Gong once recalled. "Feeling a sense of shame, I have ever since worked hard to practice calligraphy."

For more than 30 years, since the early 1950s, because of his busy work as a college teacher, he spent most of his spare time on calligraphy and almost abandoned painting, which is more time-consuming. And it was not until the 1980s that he again picked up a paintbrush.

According to Fan Yi, assistant director of the Oriental Art Gallery, Qi Gong's painting and calligraphy of the later periods match very well and are characterized by the delicacy, elegance and cleanness, reminiscent of the traditional Chinese literati. "His art is a result of his profound knowledge as a scholar coupled with the creative, hard work of a true artist."

Artist as Scholar

It is true that Qi Gong is more famous as an artist. For many years, starting in 1981, he was Vice-Chairman and later Chairman of the Chinese Calligraphers' Association. An outstanding connoisseur of Chinese calligraphy and painting, he has served as Director of the National Relics Evaluation Committee. Together with other experts, he has appraised many precious relics in the collections of museums nationwide.

But Qi Gong accepts that what he values the most is his work as a teacher and for that he is deeply grateful to his mentor Chen Yuan (1880-1971), who led him towards a life-long career as a teacher and scholar.

Qi first met Chen, a scholar and educator of renown, in 1933 when Chen was president of the Fujen University in Beijing. Chen went on to become the president of Beijing Normal University when Fujen was merged into the normal university in 1952.

Impressed by the young Qi Gong's unusual talent, Chen recommended that he work as a Chinese teacher at the middle school attached to the Fujen University. Before long he was unemployed because the principal of the school believed it "unreasonable" to have a man who had not even completed middle school working as a teacher.

Again, Chen stepped in and recommended Qi Gong to the Fine Arts Department of the Fujen University as a teaching assistant. But within two years, he lost that job for the same reason. To the surprise of many, the "adamant" president Chen ended up employing Qi Gong as a full-time faculty teacher of Chinese literature at the university, a position Qi Gong has held ever since.

"Knowing his deficient educational background, Qi Gong realized that the only way to survive in the university was to work even harder and convince other people by his own academic achievements," said Hou Gang, his special assistant since the 1980s. "He is always ready to learn, from older generations of scholars and his contemporaries."

If in his early 30s, Qi Gong had established himself as an excellent artist, he became an accomplished scholar in his 50s when he began to publish a series of influential books on Chinese language, literature and art. A professor of classic Chinese language and literature, he has served as an advisor to Master's degree and Doctorate students, since the early 1980s. Even now, he still tutors six Doctorate students and eight studying for their Master's degree.

"Although he is a scholar with profound knowledge, his books are always easy to read and enlightening to the mind. His classes were always popular and filled with interesting, casual talks," said Zhao Rengui, a student of Qi Gong, now himself a professor at the university. "He is good at turning hard topics into light and easy ones."

At the age of 90, Qi Gong is still healthy and happy. Occasionally he still writes, paints and lectures. Since his wife Zhang Baochen passed away in 1975, he has lived alone in his home and studio on the university campus. The couple had no children.

Qi Gong once joked that he looked like a giant panda. The fact is this old man is a living, national treasure to admirers of his art, knowledge and personality.

(China Daily September 12, 2002)

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