Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century
Plate 1 Xu Bing: Ghost Pounding the Wall, 1990, mixed-media installation, 108 x 204 in. (274.3 x 609.6 cml, collection of the artist
The Great Wall is an English term; it is called "The Long Wall" (Changcheng) in Chinese. According to the author Arthur Waldron, the notion that a single Long Wall encircles China is nothing but a cultural myth. This myth began to dominate the historical imagination soon after the First Qin Emperor unified China in the third century BC. The emperor, who may have only repaired and connected some existing "long walls" from earlier periods, was instantly credited with the establishment of a Wanli Changcheng or a Ten-Thousand-Mile-Long Wall. The reason for such attribution seems transparent: prior to the unification various feudal lords built individual walls to defend themselves from their neighbors, yet only a single frontier wall was necessary to protect and identify the unified Chinese empire. Consequently, the concept of a single and superior Long Wall appeared. The second-century BC writer Jia Yi wrote that within this "wall of iron," the First Emperor "had established a rule that would be enjoyed by his descendants for ten thousand generations."
It is ironic, however, that when the Long Wall became a national symbol, the real Chinese people—those supposedly protected by the Wall—sensed little benefit from its construction. Indeed, none of the emperors, generals, and historians actually built the wall; the Qin and the Han dispatched several hundred thousand men to work on the frontier, and more people were engaged in building the Ming dynasty Long Wall in the fifteenth century. In historical records these men only formed an anonymous corveé labor force, but to individual laborers and their families the Long Wall was imbued with memories of endless suffering. Folk songs were created not long after the Long Wall myth began:
If a son is born, mind you don't raise him!
If a girl is born, feed her dried meat.
Don't you see just below the Long Wall.
Dead men's skeletons prop each other up.
A legend also circulated telling of an ordinary woman, Mengjiang, whose husband had been sent to the wall construction site. In winter, worrying about his welfare, she set out to take him warm clothes, only to learn after the long journey that she was too late: her husband had already perished and his body had been buried under the wall. Overcome, the woman knelt down and cried. Her grief miraculously caused the wall to break open and reveal her husband's bones (fig. 1.1). As this story gradually developed into one of the country's most popular tales, a folk tradition was invented in opposition to the official glorification of the Long Wall. Whereas the government continued to build and praise the Wall, Mengjiang and millions of men and women cried out for the wall's destruction.
Figure 1.1 Anonymous, The Story of Meng Jiang, wood-block iilustration, Jiaqing era (1522-66), Ming dynasty
Neither of these two traditions identified the Wall as an "intentional monument," however. The Long Wall finally became such a monument only during the modern era when it ceased to play any practical role. Its military significance vanished when bombers and battleships could cross the sky and oceans; its repair was intended to preserve the wall as a national treasure. From the early twentieth century on, the Long Wall was considered the prime symbol of China as an emerging modern nation-state. Sun Yat-sen, the Father of Modern China, claimed that the wall was a mighty creation of his people, which had preserved the Chinese race since the third century BC. On the other hand, he also took the wall as the monument of a future new China, a modern nation freed from foreign invasions and internal turmoil. His rhetorical use of the wall became an important part of nationalist and then communist propaganda. A song written during the Sino-Japanese War called upon all "who will not be slaves to take our own flesh and blood, to build a new Long Wall!" This song was adopted in 1949 as the national anthem of the People's Republic of China; the old myth of the Long Wall was thus sanctioned as an essential element of Chinese Communist ideology. The Wall became a favorite motif of paintings, photos, and Chairman Mao buttons during the Cultural Revolution. Every foreign leader who visits China is led to the wall to experience China's mighty power.
On the other hand, Mengjiang's legend never died, it was only updated. Even though Sun Yat-sen had affiliated the wall with the future new China, some critical writers, including the essayist Lu Xun, compared it to the enclosure of an enormous prison. The wall, he wrote in 1925, "surrounded and enclosed the living, and suffocated and killed them." It was composed of "both old and new bricks;" it stood for the Chinese nation at the expense of individuals; it was, in his words, "the mighty and accursed Great Wall."
Only by reviewing these two traditions can we understand a counter-movement in China around the mid-80s. In September of 1984 Deng Xiaoping launched a campaign: "Let us love our country and restore our Long Wall." The campaign involved both restoring the wall's national symbolism and its physical presence. Books and articles were published to trace the wall's glorious history, and scientists and archaeologists were sent to survey its present condition and to excavate its buried foundations. Experimental artists challenged this official effort. In 1988, they staged a series of large performances on the Long Wall, warpping their bodies and a whole section of the wall in white bandages (fig. 1.2). A young man wrapping himself with bandages became a recurrent image in the '85 Art New Wave movement. "We are injured, tied up by tradition;" an artist explained, "these are our true images."
Figure 1.2 Sheng Qi and others, Concept 21. Taiji, 1988, performance on the Great Wall, Beijing.
The same movement also produced Xu Bing's Ghosts Pounding the Wall, included in this exhibition (pl. 1). With a crew of students and peasants, he labored for twenty-four days to make ink rubbings from a thirty-meter-long section of the wall. The project was planned and conceived as a grand performance. Every stage of its process was meticulously documented, including the endless, monotonous sound and motion of "pounding the wall," which was recorded on film and video. The crew members wore special uniforms printed with characters from one of Xu Bing's previous works, the monumental Heavenly Book, also known as A Book from the Sky (1987), suggesting the intertextuality of the two projects (fig. 1.3).
Figure 1.3 Xu Bing and his team making rubbings from the Great Wall, 1990
Ironically, the connection between Xu Bing's two projects was finally sealed by a spokesman of the minister of culture, whose vicious attack on experimental art came out in an official newspaper two days before the first anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In his article he condemned Xu Bing's Heavenly Book (a "book" written with some two thousand "pseudo" characters) as gui da qiang, a folk idiom meaning a wall (qiang) built (da) by a ghost (gui) to encircle a night traveler. No matter how fast the traveler runs, he is actually going in circles within the wall's invisible confines. This analogy gave Xu Bing's ongoing Long Wall project a new significance. (When the article appeared, Xu Bing was working on a scaffold to make rubbings from the wall.) Because this project aimed to re-construct the Long Wall in ink-rubbings, it could be called da qiang (to build a wall). Alternatively, since the character da also means "to beat" or "to pound," the act of making rubbings, by repeatedly pounding an ink pad over a sheet of paper held on the wall, could be described as da qiang (to pound a wall). Such a realization then inspired Xu Bing to entitle his project Ghosts Pounding the Wall.
Approached in this context, this title has unmistakable political implications. "Ghost" was a political term in contemporary China; in particular, it was a common label for counter-revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution. Once declared an "ox-ghost" or a "snake-demon" (niu gui she shen), a person became an outcast from the "bright, confident people;" his identity as a political alien and creature of darkness became public knowledge. Growing up on the campus of Beijing University, Xu Bing had repeatedly witnessed such persecution. He knew too well its language, logic, and victims. When his turn seemed to have finally arrived (while calling his work "ghost pounding the wall," the official critique also condemned him as a representative of "anti-art," "anti-tradition," "anti-intellectual," and "anti-social" tendencies), he voluntarily named himself a "ghost" and went to "pound the wall."
Xu Bing was never able to show his paper Long Wall in China; it was first presented to a foreign audience after he emigrated to the United States in 1990. We may call it a "still life" of his Long Wall Project. Back in China, Xu Bing had described this project as a work whose significance "lies in transformation." He had belittled the significance of any possible final product, instead emphasizing the importance of the production process. (In his words: "I hope to experience the process of expending great effort for a 'meaningless' result'." ) To realize this idea, the "effort" was exaggerated and artistic creation was equated with an ascetic practice. The making of the rubbings concealed any trace of spontaneity, but took the form of a single motion endlessly repeated -- pounding the Great Wall a million times.
This primary meaning of the project becomes implicit when the paper Long Wall is shown in an art gallery. What we encounter now is the final consequence of a transformation: the solid brick-structure is transformed into its volumeless shadow; the national symbol is transformed into an installation by an individual artist; and the Long Wall—a prime monument of China—is transformed into a counter-monument. I call it a counter-monument because its violation of a conventional monument is still measured against the conventional monument, and because this violation has resulted in a new monumental form. Like his creator, this paper Long Wall has been dislocated; but its significance still lies in its juxtaposition with its origin. (pp. 30-35)