Han Meilin: “China is the root of my art”

Han Meilin is one of the most versatile and productive artists in today’s China. Active in various fields: ceramics, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, design etc. is most recognized for his creation of the Fuwa dolls for the 2008 Beijing olympics

Han Meilin

Confucius Institute Reporter,
Tu Yuanyuan
本刊记者 屠芫芫
Maybe you don’t know Han Meilin, but you definitely remember the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games mascots the “Fuwa” which brought happiness and friendship to people all over the world.

Maybe you didn’t see his paintings before, but if you have had the chance to take an Air China flight, you have definitely seen his beautiful phoenix logo design on the aircraft.

All these widely admired works of art are designed by Han Meilin. He is known affectionately as “Father of the Fuwa” and a creator of beauty. As one of the most versatile and productive artists in today’s China, he is active in various fields: ceramics, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, design etc. He loves life, even though he went through many hardships during his life and miraculously survived. He said that he is inspired by hardship and that China is the root of his artistic creation.

His work is widely admired and collected by people throughout the world. In 1980, he held art exhibitions of his ink-and-water paintings of animals in 21 cities in the U.S. including Boston and New York, which were very well received. The city of Manhattan even declared October 1, 1980 Han Meilin Day in honor of his great artistic achievement.

Han Meilin

Some people say that Han Meilin is the Chinese “Picasso”, but he says he is just Han Meilin of China, and both he and his artistic creation can not live without China.

The Han Meilin Gallery in the Eastern Suburb of Beijing is his home. In the gallery, there are vivid bull sculptures, many owl paintings, lovely cloth tigers, and much more. All his works of art are lively and interesting.

During the interview, Mr. Han showed us around his studio, read some of his works …… He talked to us so kindly and friendly as if we were old friends getting together again. As our talk continued, he became so excited that he started painting while humming a Northern Shaanxi folk song. In a few minutes, a lively dancing girl appeared on the paper; lifting his painting, he beamed a radiant smile. At that moment, in my eyes the 73-year-old man looked like an innocent child.

Mr. Han is forthright and sincere, speculative and witty, intelligent and open minded. He applies his years of thought and feelings to his artistic work. Through his work we can see him, and seeing him, we can better understand his work.

Han Meilin

Reporter: It is said you had some ups and downs in your life, but why is there mostly beauty depicted in your work?

Han Meilin: I never complain. No matter what bad things happen, I try to be optimistic. Life is short. Even if you can live 100 years, that is only 30 thousand days. What we have experienced becomes history; so, why not just let it pass and don’t think too much about it. A person should be optimistic and have a philosophical approach to life. That means people should think from the perspective of the future. When a baby is born, he cries because he will go through some hardships. We never hear of a baby born smiling. Life is short and not easy; so, we should look on the bright side of things.

During the Cultural Revolution, I had a very hard time. In those days without freedom, people generally fell into despair, but everyday I drew pictures on my worn-out pants with a chopstick broken into half. At that time, I loved life still that much! I looked at the spider weaving its web over my head; I caught insects and watched them hibernate and grow up… After that period, I found that everything was lovely. Even the ice-cream vendor was lovely. Young animals were surely lovelier. At that time, I was too soft-hearted to step on an ant. You asked me why my paintings were about beautiful things. My answer is that since living in the world is not easy and we have our own choices, then why don’t we choose to be happy? Well if there were no art, you would never know how beautiful the world is.

God has created so many lovely children, flowers, mountains and rivers, and they are all our friends. If people had nothing but money, and there were no trees, kittens, puppies and other things; would the world be as lovely as now? People should be well bred, and if they have proper upbringing, they should love nature and the earth. Now the air is becoming polluted and a lot of forests are disappearing. The forests that disappeared in the last century are 81 times as many as the total amount of the forests which disappeared in the last several centuries. What a pity. If we can leave something for our descendants, then we can be considered civilized.

Han Meilin
Mother and Son

Reporter: Your sculpture series “Mother and Son” are very vivid. Would you like to tell us why so much of your art is related to a mother’s love?

Han Meilin: Mother’s love is an eternal topic. The greatest topic under the sun is LOVE which also deserves praise the most in artistic creation. And the greatest of love is mother’s love because it is the most selfless love. That’s why I created many works about mother’s love. Now in China, most of the children are the only child of their family, and they take parental and grandparental love for granted. By displaying mother’s selfless love in my works, I want to inspire the modern “little emperors” to be filial to their parents because if you do not give proper honor to your parents, remember, one day you too will be old and you may have to face a son or daughter who do not respect you.

Han Meilin
Tiger

Reporter: In your “The Sealed Book”, you use Chinese characters as raw material. Could you tell us about your conception in detail? The foreign learners of Chinese will be very interested in it.

Han Meilin: “The Sealed Book” is like music without titles. I would compare it to a deaf beauty. My birthplace is Shandong, also that of Confucius. I started studying calligraphy at five, earlier than I started studying painting. When I was a child, a drug store Tongji Tang was located behind our home. There was a big round pan there on which were put some bones and tortoise shells with ancient characters inscribed on them. At that time, I had no idea that they were ancient inscriptions on tortoise shells. I thought they were drawings, so I copied them out of curiosity. Since then the ancient inscriptions have been engraved on my memory. Among the five ancient scripts in the world, only ancient Chinese characters have a continuous history; so, we should recognize their great importance. These ancient Chinese characters are so beautifully structured that I even thought that they were created by God. Even today the meanings of these ancient characters have not been well explained, that’s why I call it “The Sealed Book”.

Han Meilin
Cloth Tiger

Reporter: It’s said that you had been planning “The Sealed Book” for more than 30 years. Is it true?

Han Meilin: Before I finished “The Sealed Book”, I had spent 34 years collecting ancient Chinese characters, ranging from pottery shards, inscribed bamboo slips, wooden tablets, tortoise shells, rock pictures, carved stones, and inscriptions on various vessels to archaeology reports. Altogether I have collected more than 30 thousand ancient Chinese characters. All of them were ingeniously created and used by our ancestors though their real meanings have already been forgotten by history. You can call them calligraphy, paintings, or characters, whatever you want but these ancient Chinese characters are not cold fossils; instead they reflect great character and creativity. Although the meanings of the ancient characters in “The Sealed Book” can not be worked out by the archeologists yet, we should not discard them. They are the very origins of Chinese characters, ancient wisdom, and a world cultural heritage. Through thousands of years, they have never become obsolete.

Reporter: Much of your art is inspired by Chinese traditional elements such as Chinese characters, bronze ware, painted pottery, etc. How do these Chinese traditional cultural elements evoke your urge to create?

Han Meilin: In the past, art schools emphasized that the foundation of studying painting was absorption of Western elements like points, lines, surfaces and shadows. But these optical elements are just basic skills. Even though your painting looks exactly like the real object, it can not do better than a camera, and other modern technological devices. Therefore, purely realistic portrayal won’t do, but pure abstract painting without cultural elements won’t do either. I don’t study the computer. I never use a cell phone. I write something every day by hand because I am afraid I would do less well than before otherwise. There are calligraphy contents in my paintings. Chinese cha racters encompass various forms of beauty. Years ago I went to Helan Mountain and was very moved by the patterns in the rock pictures there. No pattern of ox horns, goat horns and facia l makeup was the same. It is clear that our ancient Chinese ancestors had already developed “cubism” several thousand years earlier than Picasso.

Han Meilin
Horse

Reporter: As you said, art has elements of national culture. Please tell us how the Olympic mascots Fuwa reflect these national characteristics?

Han Meilin: First , in China we have the philosophical theory of “wuxing”, the five fundamental elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, which represent the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. Second, there is the Chinese folk tradition of “wufu” (five blessings). In addition, the logo of the modern Olympic Games is five rings and the Olympic spirit is enjoyed throughout the five continents. Considering all these factors, I designed Fuwa.

Before we decided to use Fuwa as the Olympic mascots, another design, Longwa (a dragon child) caused controversy. Some people objected to the design because the dragon was the symbol of terror in foreign cultures. At that time, IOC President Jacques Rogge showed great understanding that the dragon symbolizes auspiciousness instead of terror in Chinese culture. Although we didn’t adopt the Longwa design, it helped us realize that there are a lot of traditional things in our culture which need to be introduced to the world and with the hope of their being accepted and identified by other peoples. For example, we transformed the symbol of Taiji into some sculptures which combined its key elements and appeared both modern and ancient reflecting its profound philosophy.

Han Meilin
Fuwa

Reporter: Where is the beauty of Chinese art? What are the differences between Western art and Chinese art with its 5,000-year-history? What is the vitality force of Chinese art?

Han Meilin: What has great influence on me is not just Chinese painting, but Chinese culture as well. Chinese culture includes literature, drama, music, dance and many other aspects. All through my life I studied other forms of art while I focused on painting. I am 73 years old now, but I can still sing and dance well. Traveling in Gansu, I can sing Huaer (the folksong style in Gansu); in Northern Shaanxi, I can sing Shaanxi folk songs; in Inner Mongolia, I think of the horse-head string instrument; and when I draw ballet dancers, I hum a tune from Swan Lake. I don’t do this for the sake of singing; rather, I just want to put my feelings in my work. Every nation has its characteristic, and every artistic form gives me a different inspiration. For example, 17th-century Italian art, 18th-century French art, 19th-century Russian art display three different styles, representing characteristics of three nations. And they are all worth studying.

I have a mania for folk art, especially Chinese traditional art, including rock pictures, bronze ware, and decorative patterns of 6,000 years ago. My lifelong creation is closely connected with the roots of Chinese culture.

Art is concerned with comprehensive qualities and artists are cultivated by various sets of knowledge and elements. But if art in the world became the same, art would decline and die out. So art can not become international and national culture characteristics should be highly valued. I have a mania for folk art, especially Chinese traditional art, including rock pictures, bronze ware, and decorative patterns of 6,000 years ago. My lifelong creation is closely connected with the roots of Chinese culture. If I hadn’t seen foreign arts, I will not truly understand the domestic local culture of our nation. It is to the local style that I will adhere all through my life. It is not advisable either to go one’s own way, or to follow others all the time.

Now globalization is highly emphasized in many fields like economy, finance, law… But art can not become internationalized, for art is concerned with independence, individuality, and national culture. Some people think that it is difficult for the art of one nation to be accepted by other nations, but as a matter of fact, it is appreciated when it is on exhibitions in foreign countries. If all the artwork in the world were the same, there wouldn’t be any fun in looking at it, would there? The reason many foreign friends like my paintings is that we have something in common, that is, we are all in pursuit of beauty. Of course there is something individual, something typical of Chinese characteristics.

Han Meilin

Reporter: You are born an talented artist, aren’t you?

Han Meilin: No one is a “born artist”. People become artists after years of hard work. Every day I spend four hours reading books and two hours practicing calligraphy; the rest of my time I paint. As a rule I wake up at five in the morning; I make plans and think things over. Then at seven o’clock I get up and start painting; I can’t stop once I start. I am so excited about painting that I once drew 400 bulls in a day and a half, none of which were the same. Another time, I drew 123 pictures in three hours and a half. My friends joke with me saying that I forget everything when I start painting. Even if a person is greatly talented, he should not just wait for good chances. Opportunities don’t just fall from the sky. I always feel short of time like a poor man short of money. So I believe inspiration only comes to you when you keep on working and working.

Han Meilin

BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF HAN MEILIN

Born in 1936 in Jinan, Shandong Province;

From 1985 to present, he has been:

  • Writer of the Creativity Research Section, Chinese Writers’ Association
  • National Class-A Artist
  • Honored with a State Council Special Allowance
  • Officer of the Central Research Institute of Culture and History, CPC
  • Chairman, Art Committee of Chinese Artists’ Association
  • Chairman, National Calligraphy and Painting Art Committee.

HIS MAJOR WORKS INCLUDE

  • Air China Logo, 1988;
  • “Five Dragon Clock Tower” statue for the 26th Olympic Games in Atlanta, 1996;
  • Painting collection: Owls, 2001;
  • Mascots for 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, 2005;
  • Calligraphy and painting collection: “The Sealed Book”.
Han Meilin
Flowers blooming all over the hill

Confucius Institute Magazine 9

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 9. Volume IV. July 2010.

View/Download the print issue in PDF

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