A teenager at the launch of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese artist He Qi (pronounced huh chee) is fast gaining world recognition for his paintings, which are almost exclusively depictions of biblical events.
The witty, reverent paintings are full of the symbolism of Beijing Opera, medieval-style hidden messages, and modernist plays on perspective and time. And He is introducing a new idiom for biblical art, one influenced by, but not part of, the European traditions. His website says, "He hopes to help change the 'foreign image' of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and at the same time, to supplement Chinese art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times."
He's work is gaining more and more attention in the West. He has exhibited in the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong, as well as in mainland China. In 2006, Overseas Ministry Study Center collected his work in Look Toward the Heavens, and he is now working on an ambitious project: an illustrated Bible. It's an unlikely project for the son of a non-Christian mathematics professor.
"It's a long story," He begins. His father's university in Nanjing was shut down during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. As a teenager, He was sent by the Communist Party to a communal farm to undo the un-Communist effects of city life and his parents' intellectualism.
"The physical labor was very hard, very, very hard." He Qi said. "But I was a clever boy. I was looking for something to let me avoid such very hard farm work."
He saw an opportunity in the party's desire to make Mao Zedong's image ubiquitous. "In the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, people worshiped Chairman Mao. Even in the countryside, in the fields, they asked artists to paint portraits [of Mao]. Then there was a competition in the place where I was working there in the people's commune in a province in very poor countryside," He said. The winner would paint an official Mao portrait.
He needed help, so he turned to his neighbor, the dean of fine art at Nanjing Normal University. The man taught him the basics of sketching and oil painting, and sent him off to the farm with some old art magazines.
Raphael's Madonna and Child was the cover of one of the magazines. "She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart," said He Qi. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.
"During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna," he said.
He won the Mao portrait contest a ticket from fieldwork to a career in art.
The Cultural Revolution effectively forced churches to go underground. "If you came from a Christian family, your parents could be linked with Western missionaries, linked with imperialism," He said.
But for someone without family connections to a church, the risks and secrecy made it difficult to get connected to a Christian community. He remembers going to St. Paul's, a large Catholic church in Nanjing. "I was standing outside and looking through the windows. It looked like a factory," he said. The church had been filled with machines.
Since then, He Qi's art and faith have taken him in widening circles from Nanjing, and his portraits of Mao are long gone, destroyed amid China's rapid development.
He reconnected with the woman who was to become his wife as he was working to restore temples in Tibet. And, while earning his doctorate in religious art from Nanjing University, he studied in Munich.
"If you want to become an artist, a painter, you have to learn art history first," his professor told him. "After you occupy the top of the whole art history mountain, you can [draw on] many different things to do your creation.'"
Now, with a rich art history background, He's own distinctive style has emerged. Hints of Raphael, Picasso, and medieval art also appear in his works (as in paintings from the Middle Ages, his Moses has horns). But those influences are subsumed in the Chinese style of He's Bible story portrayals.
This hasn't gained him acceptance as an artist in the Chinese church, however. "Many old pastors stopped [leading churches] to do missionary work," He said. "After the Cultural Revolution they went back to the church. But their ideas in thinking about Christianity, Christian art, were still linked with many years before, with Western missionaries who brought Western art to China. They think real Christian art is Italian Renaissance art."
Their conflation of European indigenous art and Christian art, says He, means they are interested in him as a prestigious artist but not interested in displaying his work.
"In 1998, there was a church very close to Shanghai, and the pastor came to visit Nanjing, to my private home. He asked me to do a wall painting, a mural for the new church as a decoration. And I recommend my painting, The Risen Lord. But the pastor looked at my painting, two minutes silent. Then suddenly he told me, 'No, it's too Chinese. We cannot use this image for our church. But we would like to invite you to make a copy of DaVinci's The Last Supper.' I [said], 'No. You can ask a student to make a copy.'"
He Qi tried to explain to the pastor that DaVinci's Last Supper wasn't more authentically Christian than his own. After all, he told the pastor, if all the models and all the architecture used in the painting were Florentine, how could it be better for a Chinese church in which the clothing and architecture were Chinese?
Rich Melheim, He Qi's friend and the founder of Faith Inkubators Project, says such conflicts were common.
"He was invited to make a design for a new church, and he did some sketches of this beautiful Chinese dove that would be seen from the sky, and they told him, 'No, no, too Chinese. We need a Gothic church,'" Melheim said.
But Melheim said He has found contemporary expressions of Christianity through art to be a bridge to students, professors, others who may not otherwise be open to the gospel. "He was able to use art and history and culture and everything as a mechanism to share the Christian stories and, especially, the peaceful nature of Christ," Melheim explained. He Qi says students in secular institutions have been remarkably receptive to both historical and contemporary Christian art.
He Qi sees his ideas about Chinese Christian art making headway among his students at Nanjing Theological Seminary, who will be the next leaders of churches in China. There are also likeminded artists, most of whom are, He Qi says, maintaining careers and creating their art on the side. "They're not coming out of the church; but they're coming out of the woodwork," Melheim said.
He Qi's wife and son now live with him in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Once his son completes his bachelor's degree, the family will return to Nanjing. But He Qi's increasing prominence will likely keep him traveling. He hopes that it will also gain his distinctive expression of Christianity acceptance by the Chinese church.
"The young generation," he said, "is still looking for a peaceful voice, a peaceful message."
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An slideshow of He Qi's art is also posted today.
Other articles on China are available in our full-coverage section.