When the exhibition “Homecoming of a Heritage” under the auspices of China International Cultural Exchange Centre and Singapore China Friendship Association featuring Fan Chang Tien’s works opened in Beijing to commemorate the 29th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Singapore on 21 August 2019, it became a cultural exchange effort under China’s Belt-and-Road initiative. The exhibition which marked the 112th anniversary of Fan’s birth aptly fulfilled Mr Fan’s life-long wish for his art to return to the country of his birth. Present at the opening were some leaders of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, officials from Singapore’s embassy in China, family members of the late artist and guests from Beijing’s art circles.
Fan Chang Tien (1907-1987), a native of Jieyang County in Guangdong, also known as Cangtian, Yuanding and Yuanweng, was a renowned Singapore artist. He studied at the Xinhua Art Academy and Changming Fine Arts Academy in Shanghai under Wang Yiting, Zhu Wenyun, Wang Geyi, Pan Tianshou and others. He excelled in Chinese painting especially in the flower-and-bird and landscape categories. He adopted a rigorous approach to painting, maintaining that one must look at paintings and create works as much as possible if one wanted to be an honest and conscientious artist. Apart from artistic creations Fan persevered in his role as an educator all his life gaining a reputation as a teacher of artistic excellence and moral strength to numerous pupils who had followed him.
Fan Chang Tien was a pioneer in promoting Chinese culture and art overseas as well as a key representative of the Shanghai School who advanced the style abroad. The success of this exhibition was timely as it co-incided with the recent announcement of the vision and actions on jointly building the Silk Road economic belt and 21st century Maritime Silk Road, with the aim of building the One-belt-one-road together highlighting mankind’s pursuit of common ideals and world peace through international cooperation. In the interest of the exchange of humanities and civilizations, this exhibition is of significant and profound importance practically and historically.
As a key figure and pioneer in the spread of Chinese culture especially traditional visual art abroad Fan’s personal journey and experience in art education have also become part of the history of transmission, continuation and promotion of the literati painting heritage outside China. The success of the exhibition leaves us with many thoughts and insights as reflected in three aspects as follows.
First of all, artistic achievement as seen in Fan Chang Tien’s artworks.
Fan’s works are superior to those by other overseas artists of his time. He was directly descended from the great tradition of literati painting of Tang and Song dynasties whereby he integrated poetry, calligraphy painting and seal carving in one single practice, freely expressing visions, emotions and aspirations from his staunch cultural underpinnings of tradition. This is particularly evident in the three categories namely flower-and-bird, landscape and human figures where he displays his all-around comprehensive deep sources. In the categories of orchids, plum blossoms, bamboo and chrysanthemums he demonstrates solid foundation technique, skills and intellectual content. Renowned artist Zhang Daqian praises Fan’s art as “simple, elegant, clear, as wonderfully formed as Nature”. Indeed, his art does suggest a sense of crystal clear purity, showing a high level of achievement and aesthetic quality.
At the same time, his painting is indebted to, yet unfettered by ancient masters. He was able to create a completely fresh and distinctive outlook and style, injecting traditional subject matter with a new spirit and vitality particularly in the poems that he inscribed on his paintings expressing his deeply felt sentiments in phrases that flow so naturally with a sharp wit. For example, “The morning sun almost bursts upon the horizon, As though hanging from the clear blue sky. A flock of swallows suddenly sweep by, Forming an overcast in the cloudless air.” Lines such as these combine the subject in a traditional painting closely with a real-life situation, in a way never seen before bringing fresh nuances and moods that brighten up old themes. In his works, he is able to transcend what the ancients did by drawing from the vast wealth of his experiences as the foundation of his creations. Fan owes his success to his courageous spirit to innovate driving him to create within the enriching framework of Chinese culture. He used to grow orchids and bamboo all over his courtyard so that he could learn directly from Nature with the emphasis on his personal response to plant life.
Fan showed a true understanding of what Zhang Zao of Tang dynasty meant by “Learn from Nature to find the true source in the heart”. He “does not follow blindly the path taken by the ancients”, but learned further from Nature based on the foundation laid by them. In real life he experienced the relationship between Man and Nature, as his poem in the work Four Mynahs under the Willow Tree shows “The willows’ leaves scatter the land swept by wintry winds, With a fading scent to fend off the chilly air. The mynahs set their sight on nothing but food, Asking the sun while perched on the tree.” The natural ambiance of early autumn suggested in the poem is thoroughly distinct. The artist places a scene familiar to everyone in his painting by personifying the subject in order to accentuate the climatic sense of the season resulting in a boundless space for imagination and emotive power.
Second, Fan Chang Tien’s rigorous scholarship
On Fan’s seal stones one finds phrases such as “Not one to seek fame and fortune” and “Seeing beauty in simplicity”. They sum up a conscientious approach to the genuine, persistent pursuit of art without any regard for material gains which is a testament to his attitude to learning.
As we all know it takes extremely hard work to learn and master a culture steeped in old traditions. This applies equally to every learner and there are no shortcuts but the sheer determination with in-depth studies before one can find a way forward. Fan understood this fully as we see in the poem in Ink Tones of a Thousand Years: “One hears endless comments about what’s right and wrong, Who knows how difficult it is to grasp the ink tones of a thousand years?” That is how much Fan recognised the profound nature of traditional culture and the difficulty in mastering it. It is in Fan’s art that we can appreciate his mastery of traditional culture and the ability to apply it to full impact in his practice. To learn about art one needs to equip oneself with a comprehensive understanding of the traditional culture so that his art will ultimately be significant.
Third, Fan Chang Tien’s thoughts and methods in art education and their success
(1) Fan Chang Tien’s thoughts and methods in art education
As an artist accomplished in multiple art forms, Fan became a major influence for his students in the way they learned in terms of methods and contents leading to their fuller development. Although he never set out to teach them with “a comprehensive cultivation approach”, as a declared educational objective, his own artistic journey and experience must have no doubt impacted on his students’ contents and methods. If his students display the same or similar characteristics, it is only because of how his approach came to be realised in actual application. While he required his students to learn traditional culture, he was mindful at the same time how this approach would have formed a foundation without restricting their development in a monolithic fashion. This is something that is worth greater attention and emulation by educators in China.
(2) Fan Chang Tien’s art education methods
He stressed that students should first learn the fundamentals of art before seeking further development. He also taught students “not to inherit technique of others blindly”, urging them to observe life so that their artistic expressions would be nourished with real-life experiences and “to absorb anything and everything that is good”. In stressing the importance of observing life, he “integrated teaching into learning and learning into teaching, keeping a good measure of both”. Fan never imposed his own method and style on his students as Qi Baishi famously said, “Those who learn from me live but the art that ends up looking like mine will die.” This is where Fan’s view coincided with Qi’s, which shows Fan’s great insight in his thinking about art.
(3) Fan Chang Tien’s achievement in art education
There is no doubt that Fan’s work in education is a great success. Among students, he had taught are artists of national importance who are not only a major force in the Singapore art scene but also are themselves torch-bearers as art educators who would ensure the continuation of the tradition. In the ranks are Lim Kay Hiong, Nai Swee Leng, Tan Oe Pang, Chua Ek Kay, Henri Chen Kezhan, Lim Cher Eng, Lee Soo Chee, whose works are stylistically nothing like their teacher’s. This means the students succeeded in achieving the high distinction of learning from their teacher as well as breaking free from him, which is Fan’s key idea in art education.
Fourth, Reflections on Fan Chang Tien’s Exhibition Homecoming of A Heritage.
(1) It must have created some impact on the artists and art educators in China. In the forum at the exhibition Fan’s daughter, Mrs. Teresa Yao shared some personal anecdotes about her father, the artist whose legendary life and career in art and education are little known in China. The exhibition afforded a rare opportunity for us to understand him and his art better.
The story of Fan’s life and art is a typical example of how Chinese art came to be transmitted abroad. With his story, we can fill the gap in the narrative of “the spread of Chinese art and culture overseas”, as well as a gap in the narrative of art education in Singapore, adding a glorious chapter in the history of art education in both countries.
(2) What is more valuable is the fact that Fan had realized well before in his teaching that in learning art “one should not inherit other people’s technique blindly” and impose one’s style on one’s students. Instead one should elevate students’ aesthetic capability based on the study of tradition and classical poetry so that they would develop in an all-round direction each on their own. This method of teaching is especially beneficial for the artistic development of the students. In the Exhibition of Fan Chang Tien and His Students, we see in the catalogue Fan’s thinking on art education running through several generations of his students in the way that they have their distinctive individual style while being staunchly rooted in tradition. Some of them have evolved their own style on their traditional foundation while others are gradually forming their own style by absorbing elements from foreign cultures. There are yet others who are showing beginnings of styles that appear to be rich, eclectic and unique.
Looking at the actual state of art education especially in Chinese painting in China, do we see any good number of teachers able to break free from the entrenched mold of “monolithic and apprenticeship-type” of teaching? In reality teachers of traditional art generally find it difficult to overcome this problem, the solution of which would demand an exceptional caliber of the teacher.
In Fan Chang Tien, we undoubtedly see him resolving the problem successfully mainly through the practical application of his ideas in teaching art to his students who have developed to finally become artists distinguished by their own strengths and styles. Art teachers in China might find Fan’s experience worth emulating. Fan’s successful teaching method made him a great master in art education as well as a founder of the Shanghai school of painting in Singapore. Wu Yongliang, professor of China Art Academy, calls Fan “a shining pearl and ruby that is unfortunately left buried.”
In terms of art education, not much is known about how exactly Fan taught his students art particularly traditional Chinese painting. Information about art education and teaching method is still not systemically organised and much of it remains in random bits and pieces. Specific ideas and methods to be applied in education are still a mystery. The mystery might eventually be solved now that more details about Fan’s teaching have been unearthed and are being studied. This will no doubt be an impetus to the study of traditional culture and art in the development of art education in China.
(3) It is suggested that researchers on theories of art education in the tertiary institutions encourage their graduate students to research further into Fan’s thoughts and methods in their studies. Fan’s career as an art educator may be good material for those conducting research on “the transmission of Chinese art education abroad” to fill the gap in the existing academic studies and serve as reference for teachers learning about teaching methods.
(4) There are many aspects to the legacy that Fan left us. Not only was his artistic achievement of a high order, his disdain for fame and fortune led him to mount exhibitions to raise funds for culture and education. While he made historic contributions to the transmission of Chinese culture outside China, what he contributed to Singapore’s art education was enormous. It would therefore be deeply meaningful to promote the study of Fan’s life and art education as a means to improve good relations between China and Singapore.
It is therefore very timely that China International Cultural Exchange Centre and Singapore-China Friendship Association presented the exhibition Homecoming of a Heritage this year. It fulfilled Fan’s long-cherished wish to show his art in his country of birth, which would have brought comfort to his students and family members. This also reflects how much art and aesthetic education has been stressed since China’s economic reform and opening up. It is also clear that aesthetic education is also increasingly valued in our society as being beneficial in the development of people. We believe Fan Chang Tien’s role in the transmission of Chinese culture and historic contribution to art education would not simply end with the closing of the exhibition. They will instead be growing in importance as more materials such as his teaching notes and related artefacts are coming to light to facilitate further research activities.
May I dedicate this essay to those who have made historic contributions in the transmission of Chinese culture abroad.