CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


Huang Miaozi and Yu Feng | China Heritage Quarterly

Yiyuan 藝緣 An Exhibition of Paintings and Calligraphy by Huang Miaozi and Yu Feng

Linda Jaivin

Fig.1 Exhibition catalogue (cover)

One day, some twenty years ago, I was visiting the artists and bon vivants Huang Miaozi 黄苗子 and Yu Feng 郁風 in their modest apartment in Beijing's Tuanjiehu. Miaozi told me he'd had some amazing news: 'I have gout!' he exclaimed in his excitable, Cantonese-inflected Mandarin. His tone was so gleeful, I feared I'd misunderstood. But no. He had lived through wartime. He'd been imprisoned for seven out of the ten years of Cultural Revolution. 'And still,' he declared proudly, 'I managed to get the disease of emperors!'

I recalled that conversation in September 2011 when, strolling through the home of emperors, the Forbidden City, I stumbled upon a poster advertising an exhibition of work by both Miaozi and Yu Feng in the gallery over the Gate of Divine Prowess 神武門. The exhibition was titled 'Yiyuan' 藝緣—a life in art, a fate bound up in art, a relationship through art—however you translate it, the title, lifted from calligraphy done by Miaozi that same year, seems apt.

Huang Miaozi was born in 1913 to a Cantonese family of means with connections in Hong Kong and close ties to the Kuomintang. He was given a traditional education, but also sent to Hong Kong to study. There, he came across the magazine Shanghai Cartoons (Shanghai manhua 上海漫畫) edited by Ye Qianyu 葉淺予. He determined to get to Shanghai and join the artistic community around Ye. His father prudently sent a telegram to the mayor of Shanghai, a friend, and asked him to look after his son. Connections got him a day job as a Kuomintang public servant, but Miaozi devoted his free time to bohemia and art.

A year after Miaozi moved to Shanghai, Yu Feng, three years younger, arrived there from Beiping (Beijing) with both her father, Yu Hua 郁華, a left-leaning magistrate who had used his influence to protect Tian Han 田漢, Liao Chengzhi 廖承志 and others, and her uncle Yu Dafu 郁達夫, a literary star and associate of both Tian Han and Guo Moruo 郭沫若. It may not have been an obvious match—Yu Feng's family sympathised with the Communists and Miaozi's with the Kuomintang, she was tall and he was short—but it was a brilliant one that lasted over sixty years until Yu Feng's death in 2007.

Fig.2 The Gate of Martial Prowess, the Palace Museum, Beijing. (Photograph: GRB)

The crowd of left-leaning artists, writers, cartoonists, translators and others with whom Huang Miaozi and Yu Feng ran in Shanghai was a stellar one. In addition to Ye Qianyu, there were the translator couple Gladys and Yang Hsien-yi (Yang Xianyi) 楊憲益, the playwright Wu Zuguang 吳祖光 and his opera singer wife Xin Fengxia 新鳳霞, the cartoonist Ding Cong 丁聰 and others. In the early 1940s, the group moved to Chongqing, where they gathered at the house of a wealthy Burmese Chinese Tang Yu 唐瑜 (1912-2010), known to his friends as A Lang 阿郎. As the editor of China Heritage Quarterly noted in the March 2011 issue of this journal:

On one occasion the unfailingly pro-Communist Party writer Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and Xu Bing 徐冰, the Chongqing-based Party United Front Department representative, visited Tang's artist-packed house; both men were shocked and bemused to find that many of its near one dozen denizens were still in bed. These 'cultural youth' were for the most part men and women involved in theatre and journalism; they slept late and rose even later. Guo used the slang term erliuzi 二流子 ('slouch', 'scoundrel', 'wastrel', 'ne'er-do-well', or 'slacker')—an expression from the Northern Shaanxi 陝北 Communist-base area that had recently become popular—to describe the unruly mob and the name stuck. Thereafter, Tang's house became known as Erliu Tang, The Layabouts Lodge. (See 'The People's Republic of Wine')

Guo would have written a calligraphic dedication for them but couldn't find proper paper or ink on the day. The moment passed but the name stuck, as did the friendships.

Fig.3 空山無人水流花開, a line in the calligraphy of Huang Miaozi, painting by Yu Feng. Source: exhibition catalogue

Miaozi and Yu Feng eventually moved to Beijing along with Wu Zuguang, Xin Fengxia and others, and the group, now calling themselves Erliutang, continued their creative collaborations and cross-fertilisation. Then came the purges of the 1950s, and later the Cultural Revolution. On 13 December 1967, a bold headline in the People's Daily proclaimed 'Smash the Chinese Petöfi Club, the "Layabouts Lodge"' (Fensui Zhongguode Peiduofei Julebu 'Erliu Tang' 粉碎中国的裴多菲俱乐部'二流堂'). Along with a number of their closest friends and associates, Miaozi and Yu Feng were 'struggled' and separately imprisoned, unable to know the other's fate.

Fig.4 A poem by Shangu Daoren (Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅) of the Song dynasty in the hand of Huang Miaozi. Source: exhibition catalogue

'Rehabilitated' after the Cultural Revolution, the pair, by now in their seventies, took up their brushes with renewed passion. Miaozi took part in a seminal and at the time highly controversial exhibition of 'modernist' calligraphy in the China Art Gallery in Beijing in 1985; their work has been exhibited broadly ever since. After 1989, they moved to Brisbane to join one of their sons and his family, returning later to China as Australian citizens.

It isn't difficult to perceive the artistic conversation between Yu Feng and Miaozi in the forty works on display at the Forbidden City: the playful interaction between painted image and calligraphic text, the traditional artistic grounding and modernist sensibility and the allusions, more or less subtle, to politics and history. Aside from a short, anodyne introduction to the pair's life, the exhibition provided no explanations beyond the title of the works, an indication of who did what (one was a collaborative effort), and sometimes the year in which they were made.

Curious to know how well the exhibition guards had been briefed, I approached one and asked if he could tell me what Miaozi's 1977 calligraphic scroll on the subject 'The Three Beatings of the White-Boned Demon' (San da baigujing 三打白骨精) was about. Po-faced, he craned his neck towards the piece, read the title and parroted, 'It's about the three beatings of the White-Boned Demon.' I pointed out the date and asked if that suggested anything. He stared blankly back at me. 'It was one year after the Cultural Revolution,' I hinted. Nothing. 'I think it's about Jiang Qing,' I said. He looked confused. 'I don't know,' he said. 'Jiang who?'

In the southern precinct of the Forbidden City, in the larger gallery above the Meridian Gate was another exhibition of painting and calligraphy, another vision of a lost literati world, the one described in Wang Xizhi's melancholic Preface to the Orchid Pavilion (Lanting jixu 蘭亭集序). To quote H.C. Chang's translation of its final passage: 'For men of a later age will look upon our time as we look upon earlier ages—a chastening reflection.' (See Duncan Campbell, 'Orchid Pavilion: An Anthology of Literary Representations', China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17, March 2009.)