How I was Ruined for Tourist Art

My family and I recently made a spur-of-the-moment trip to Beijing. My wife and I met in Beijing and spent several years living there. We still have a number of friends there. In fact, they’re probably the closest we have. Close enough that when we texted them on Saturday morning to let them know we were in town they all met us for dinner on Saturday night.

One of our friends in Beijing is a painter. Yang Jinchuan 杨金川 paints in the Chinese style of ink-painting. He paints mainly flowers, birds, and bamboo–one of the traditional “genres” of Chinese painting–and he single-handedly ruined my enjoyment of the paintings typically sold to tourists here in China.

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Yang Jinchuan is not a native Beijinger. He was born in a small, mountainous town in what was then Sichuan province, but is now part of the Chongqing independent municipality. I like to claim him as a Sichuan-ite, and even though he doesn’t paint mountains, I like to think that the Sichuan scenery inspired him when he was young. He began his studies of painting with a painter from the same town, and still considers that man his real teacher. He eventually went to college and got a degree in art education, which is how he ended up at the same Beijing high school where my wife was teaching when I met her.

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He and I hit it off fairly quickly. He has a irreverent sense of humor and an inability to take much besides painting seriously. Underneath that exterior, however, he is the kind of friend you know would drop everything to help you if you needed him. For years he was one of two people in the world with whom I would smoke a single cigarette whenever we got together–just for the sake of friendship. Fortunately, he finally gave them up, so that’s not an issue any longer.

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His wife is also one of our old friends, and the fact that we can see the two of them together is probably one of the reasons we’ve remained so close over the years. Every time we visit Beijing we spend at least part of the trip living in their apartment, which is usually inhabited by themselves, their son, and one to three miscellaneous relatives.

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Although he’s not a household name, Yang Jinchuan has come a long way in his career. Three collections of his painting have been published. He’s been in numerous exhibitions both in China and abroad, and he’s even been featured on Chinese television. It goes to show that good artists can flourish if there’s an infrastructure there to support them.

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When we get together Yang Jinchuan and I talk about all sorts of nonsense, but he never says much to me about the details of painting. I suspect that he thinks I wouldn’t understand, and I suspect he’s right–particularly since he speaks with a relatively thick Sichuan accent. We do talk occasionally about the spirit behind paintings or the subtleties of color–the sort of things a philistine like myself can comprehend–but even those conversations aren’t frequent. Nevertheless, I feel like I’ve received a quiet education in Chinese painting just by being around him as he paints and seeing so many of his paintings over the years: hanging all over his workspace, his house, and–thanks to his generosity–our house.

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I’m no painter, as I confessed in an earlier post, but through my friend’s work I’ve learned to recognize and appreciate more subtle brushwork, more sophisticated use of color, and better composition. It’s one of the gifts he has given me–a lot of really good tea being the other one. However, like all gifts, it came with a price. I’ve come to appreciate a level of artistry that I can’t afford to purchase. Nowadays, I almost never find a Chinese painting that I both really like and can really afford to buy, and if it weren’t for Yang Jinchuan’s generosity, our walls might be very bare indeed.

As a final note, the photos in this post are just my photos of reproductions of his paintings from one of his published books. The quality is less than perfect, but I hope it still captures the spirit and beauty of his work.

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