Second to None: Tong Zhengang, The Man and His Painting
Source:Artintern Author:Yang Wei Date: 2008-11-19 Size:
I have known Tong Zhengang for only a short time, some two years, yet early on our relationship was that of “old friends”.

I have known Tong Zhengang for only a short time, some two years, yet early on our relationship was that of “old friends”. Of course this is because Tong Zhengang's amiable personality. Unlike those artists whom I know who like to show little emotion, he is not only a casual character but also very generous. He likes to make friends with all kinds of people and to satisfy the wishes of his friends, trying to please them as far as possible. So his studio is always filled with friends and constant laughter and joyful conversation. His friends not only like his character, but also like his painting and the varied atmosphere that he creates for them. It is not strange that when his friends gather in his studio, no matter whether they are anxious or look upset, all these feelings will soon be cast aside and banished with a large bottle of beer. Perhaps for this reason I often visit Tong Zhengang's studio, sometimes not to appreciate his art, but just to have a drink there. From these frequent visits, we have become “old friends”, a relationship seemingly brewed by old wine.

I have often thought that Tong Zhengang's success in art is perhaps closely related to his attitude to people. Some people say that character determines one's fate. This is quite true. For example, in the creation of art, those who are mean are often find unable to create a masterpiece, whereas even a small simple art work will embody an extraordinary momentum for those who are generous. Returning to Tong Zhengang, aside from having a great many friends and an easier path to walk in life as a result of his being happy in doing good, such friendships from different fields enrich his art and enhance his knowledge and accomplishments. Therefore, his art is not dream-like or ethereal and although it does not document real life or consist of realistic paintings, there is certain exciting temperament and interest permeating his work from his living experience.

In Chinese traditional art, accomplishments beyond painting are especially valued. This is because the world beyond art is a spiritual soil which is able to enhance the sublimation of morality and cultivate the artistic imagination. Without moisture and watering of this fertile soil, art will have no foundation as “water without a source” and “trees without roots”. Therefore, in Chinese traditional art, there is a philosophy of “learning from nature (‘zao hua')”. The character “hua” here emphasizes the personal transformation of the artist. Only by dissolving themselves and their art into nature and everything in the world, can artists create luminous and beautiful colors, and a much richer space for the imagination. Why did Jin Nong, a member of “the eight eccentrics of Yangzhou”, inscribe his own painting: “when we close our eyes, even beside a pond, we can see rivers and lakes (the whole country)”? The reason is Jin Nong's extensive imagination. He was able to get beyond the limitation of the small pond and to seize on it to put over his ideas. Through art, he could have a dialogue with the huge world of rivers and lakes.

Entering the realm of art, Tong Zhengang followed the entirely traditional path of practising for many years from rubbings of stone inscriptions and has achieved a great mastery of calligraphy. Later, he was engaged in researching and practising ink painting. It is such traditional training and refinement which has provided him with a firm and deep foundation, which is not only reflected in his mature painting technique, but more importantly enabled him to philosophically approach the world as it is and have a natural and easygoing attitude. Just as he can often mitigate his friends' loneliness, his absorption of the principles of traditional art renders him more composed when confronting today's complex society. This is what is referred to as the boldness of a highly refined man. When the heart is filled, the outward manifestation will be much more relaxed and graceful.

Indeed, the innermost being of Tong Zhengang is the same as Jin Nong, as he also encompasses the vast world of rivers and lakes. However, Tong Zhengang, a man of the Central Plains who was born in today's Western Regions, is slightly different from Jin Nong, an ancient master of the Jiangnan region in the south. When Tong Zhengang returns from the sandy Western Regions to the Central Plains crisscrossed with rivers, what he is conscious of surpasses the rivers and lakes, in seeking the root of culture that carries wonderful fantasies and hope about his home. Rather than the ripples of bluish green waves of rivers and lakes becoming his boundless territory to ride through without restraint, they water his dusty memory and became a road he must travel as his cultural homeland. In the same way, Tong Zhengang is very fond of drawing beautiful ladies and envisioning them in their boudoirs and gardens. This does not mean that Tong Zhengang prefers beautiful ladies to landscape, but the cultural motif of tenderness embodied by beautiful ladies makes up for the worries of a man traveling far from home.

There is a significant interesting phenomenon which has various implications: in contemporary times, many Chinese artists have not hesitated to use dense ink and color to depict gentle and soft images of traditional ladies. Artists like Zhang Daqian, Lin Fengmian and others used beautiful women in many of their paintings, even Xu Beihong, Fu Baoshi and Li Keran and others in either large or small numbers of works used this subject matter. I always feel that the emergence of such large number of “warm pictures” is related to the breakdown of traditional Chinese culture and the search by artists to return to this cultural motif. Just as the obsession of traditional artists with rural landscapes is not merely because of the beauty created by such landscape but implies the importance of the unity of man with nature. During modern times, the high–pressured intervention of Western values has resulted in the destruction of the concept of unity and dispelled the idea of pastoral poetry of “picking chrysanthemum under the eastern hedge, the remote southern mountains could be seen”. Today's artists are probably not able to go back to painting rural landscapes because they no longer have this innermost core value. Therefore, returning to the portrayal of people, especially creating sweet tender and beautiful ladies, becomes a way of cultural healing to recover from the pain caused by the separation of artists and tradition.


Art is the crystalised reflection of the spirit of the times; it is the spark of feelings created by the colliding of the fortune of individuals with the fate of the time. Tong Zhengang's special trajectory of life, resulting from his parents relocating to take part in the development of the frontier, meant that he was born in remote Xinjiang and this distanced him in his childhood from the Han central culture. It also directly affected his initial study of art. Just as past artists such as Zhang Daqian and Lin Fengmian who lived in a period of cultural upheaval, Tong Zhengang possesses a strong sense of looking back to the core of culture. However, Tong Zhengang‘s “looking back” is not to go back to tradition, but is a kind of transformation and sublimation of tradition. Tong Zhengang spent his adolescent years with his parents in Xinjiang but afterwards returned to where his ancestors had lived. Changing attitudes caused by the changes in the environment around him enable him to appreciate his motherland from a distance. The art of Tong Zhengang is not really traditional, though he is indeed actually displaying his knowledge and point of view towards tradition. On maturing, Tong Zhengang has not continued along the traditional road in terms of artistic style; he has taken the new road for Chinese painting and new aesthetics initiated by Lin Fengmian and contemporary masters. With the new Chinese ink painting which broke through the conventional style and system, there is the opportunity to do as one pleases as regards the qualities of the work and the freedom to create and present the rich contents of the time. It also helps the expression of artistic concepts to approach the source of creation that “Tao is derived from nature”.

As early as two thousand years ago, we find in Confucius, the Chinese sage, the aesthetic thought of “traveling in art”. Speaking from a certain perspective, in the more recent stage of his art, Tong Zhengang has been recalling such ancient traditional aesthetics. Not only has he blended this tradition into his artistic creation, but also transformed it into his own character and gradually enlarged his outlook. Although he has moved far away from the realm of traditional culture, through encountering heart-stirring things in life constantly, Tong Zhengang has rebuilt a psychological bridge spanning tradition and present society.

This then is the ease that Tong Zhengang acquires from his art and life. With his composed spirit and creations of rich varieties, Tong Zhengang has affectionately demonstrated an artistic style of contemporary “traveling in the world”. Like those images by Tong Zhengang of beautiful ladies who always hide in their boudoir, what he has revealed is not carnal desire, but only deep love. Different from the style of “playing in the world” which was in vogue in recent years in the art field, to regard “travel” as of value is to get beyond the psychological morbidity of playing with others, playing with oneself and playing with society. Moreover, it is an aesthetic sublimation towards the complexity of the real environment.

In the present age, “counter-tradition” is the banner of the new contemporary Chinese art. The process of pursuit is a road with uncertain future. All the traces of tradition and the spirit of home have gone. Therefore, we can see more and more themes coming out such as withered reality, scarring of the spirit, constructing a bewildering, shattered cultural existence. This situation not only increases people's tiredness in aesthetic pursuit, but also brings the whole age to the stage of “bad old practices die hard”, moving far away from happy fantasies and expectations towards wonderful things. However, Tong Zhengang's appearance is an exception. The theme he expresses by his leisurely and free literati life style and subtle artistic manner is one of returning to tradition, and he makes use of the vivid, lively, valuable traditional culture for his present creations, which have stimulated the weary vision of modern people and also restored the fading traditions and appreciation of beauty little by little.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo