‘A man needs three bamboo sticks to make his life complete. The first one is a brush for writing, and the other two are the chopsticks for dining.’ — Interview with Yang Jiechang

“I went into a fanciful world right upon my birth.”

“My father was in the committee of the Chinese Communist Party. We lived in Foshan, Guangdong next to the giant garden of Li Wentian, a Qing dynasty’s literati. Lo Bingzhang’s house was close to ours as well; he’s another literati of Qing’s Daoguang Era, who gave Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’s Shi Dakai his punishment. The kindergarten I went to was in an ancestral hall of Donghua Village in this lane.”

02_YangJiechang_Tale of the Eleventh Day- Green Earth_青土 © Courtesy of the artist Yang Jiechang

in 1957 when the Great Leap Forward was about to begin and the steelmaking plan was about to start, people rob things away for it. And one of the day they robbing things again, someone unknown gave me a gold ruyi during the chaos. I looked at the glittering ruyi. It was in 1957 when the Great Leap Forward was about to begin and the steelmaking plan was about to start.

Yang recalled his first impression of art and scenes of that era. At that time, China was undergoing the Great Leap Forward movement, with the Red Guards flooding the country. Traditional methods of steelmaking, burden-carrying were all common scenes. This part of history was not unfamiliar but vivid to many of today’s artists.

“I’ve been holding the brushes for nearly six decades. I know how they weigh.”

“Grandpa was my first calligraphy teacher. He said: ‘A man needs three bamboo sticks to make his life complete. The first one is a brush for writing, and the other two are the chopsticks for dining.’ He was a depressed landlord losing all his lands because of opium and gambling. He told me in an old age that opium was a good thing, and that frightened me.” Yang said.

“We were the Red Guards, so I thought he might be a bad guy. This had confused me for quite long. After many years, I knew that if he got land, then he might die in 1950.”

Exhibition View_1989 後的藝術與中國:世界劇場Art and China1989-2009 The Theatre of the World_2017紐約古根漢美術館聯展 © Courtesy of the artist Yang Jiechang

Among many of Yang Jiechang’s paintings, there’s a renowned but controversial work, “killing man” or “killing man and setting fires,” within which he seemly depicted the good and the evil. It was his graduation work with a scene of man-killing. His instructor disliked it, so he added another scene depicting fire-setting events. His instructor hated even more. At the time right after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, everything had to be sincere, goodwill, and beautiful,” Yang said. However, one of the fun facts is that after Yang was graduated from school, they ask him to stay as a teacher. “I still could not figure out the reason why this happen. ”

“There’s nothing good or bad between goodwill and evil.”

“The principles are acceptable, and they are not. That is the enduring and unchanging principle,” Yang re-structured the first sentence of Tao Te Ching* and gave it a new meaning like this. “Goodwill and evil can both be wronged.”

Tale of the Eleventh Day- Yellow Field 十一日談-黃田 
© Courtesy of the artist Yang Jiechang

“You ask me about goodwill and evil, for me in my life, I couldn’t tell since when I was a kid. ” Yang said.

“You have to figure out what’s deep down in your heart to answer the question about goodwill and evil to yourself. At last, in my opinion, artists should still pour themselves into the works as those good and bad are all by comparison only.”

We asked Mr Yang Jiechang straightforwardly: What drives him to do unimaginable things like painting a man-killing scene and copying student paintings for five years? Are artists adventurous or just being rebellious?

“People who create things like us are making mistakes every day. Unlike philosophers or politicians – they won’t be able to be the presidents if they had made mistakes – who dare not make mistakes, we artists are not afraid of that. We make mistakes every single day,” said Yang.

“The path no one has ever walked on should be yours to take.”

Exhibition View_隱蔽的花朵Underground Flowers_2010法國盧昂自然歷史博物館 © Courtesy of the artist Yang Jiechang

“If every single stroke of yours is a mistake but you can still balance them, then you’ll be fine. Find your balance. If you know how to do this, you would realize everything in your life applies the same logic, no matter socializing or being a president.” said Yang.

“We should admit that mistakes are good for we human beings. Many inventions begin with mistakes. In these days, we are trying to be correct in every single aspect, like being politically correct, so we are bound by rules. Fortunately, there’s an industry we called art, some people we called artists, those of which make the world more innovative.”

YangJiechang_These are still Flowers_96x69_1913-2013 © Courtesy of the artist Yang Jiechang

“I’m thankful for my grandfather who taught me how to write.”

According to Yang, he was immersed in Chinese culture in his childhood, and among his two other brothers, he’s the most mischievous but also the most adorable one. He said that his grandfather allow him to make mistake.

“For cultural education, all this time I have emphasized that if you can hold a brush to write, you are culturally-cultivated. If a child knows how to hold a brush at a young age, the child will definitely be a charming person.”

 “Actually, just take it easy to develop a cultural sense. It will follow you once you develop a skill for yourself. It will be formed by your characteristics and interests gradually, and it turns out forming your personal style as well. You will have your own personalities, and you will have your own ground among the crowds gradually.”

Yang shared his thoughts about Chinese culture and that in the face of China’s unique politics and history, art can still be flexible because of its nature of freedom and the uniqueness of Chinese culture. “No matter how the three thousands years dictatorship goes, artists could just hold your brush, and you should be confident enough. ”

“Art is great. Art is the future.” siad Yang Jiechang.

“No matter who dominates the world at this moment, there’s something deeply rooted in our minds that will never be taken away. I believe this part is changing the world now.”

*Translator’s note: The original sentence in Tao Te Ching is “the Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.” Translated by J. Legge, 1891, published in Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39.