Excerpt from An Interview With He Qi, Chinese Christian Artist
by Ian Groves

Dr. He Qi is a Doctor of Aesthetics and consultant to the Amity Christian Art Centre in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. He is a member of the Chinese Artists' Association and an executive board member of the Asian Christian Art Association. He has been teaching classes in Christian Art at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary since 1983. The ANS editor Ian Groves spoke with Dr. He about his background and his thoughts on the nature of Chinese Christian art at the current time.


How did you become a Christian?

During the Cultural Revolution, while I was a Middle School student, I was sent down to the countryside to do manual labour in the early 1970s. This was something which happened to most Middle School Students at that time. I didn't want to do heavy physical labour every day, so I found a way to get out of this. At that time there was a huge demand for portraits of Chairman Mao, since everyone wanted to hang his portrait in their home or workplace. So, I managed to spend my days painting, copying portraits of Chairman Mao, instead of labouring in the fields.

One day I happened to come across a very old copy of a magazine which contained a picture of the painting "Madonna and Child" by Raphael. I was extremely moved by this painting. At the time of the Cultural Revolution the atmosphere was one of struggle, of hatred, of criticism. All around you could only see images of struggle and criticism. It was hard to find any images of peace. So, you can imagine how I felt when I saw this picture, with the Madonna smiling and the little baby Jesus also smiling out at me. I was deeply moved and touched, and felt a great sense of peace. After this, I did portraits of Chairman Mao by day and then, late at night, I did some copies of the "Madonna and Child," both sketches and oil paintings. I gave some of these copies to friends to encourage them too. To this day I still keep one of those oil paintings and recently a famous woman writer who was my neighbour during those times told me that she still has one of the "Madonna and Child" sketches which I gave her.

Does "Chinese Christian Art" have to be produced by a Chinese person who is a believer, in your view? Can a non-Chinese or a non-believer produce "Chinese Christian Art"?

I think we have to be very open-minded on this point. Christianity has not played as big a role in Chinese history as it has in the West, and we do not have the same Christian cultural background as the West. If we find some painters who are not Christian but who are interested in producing works of art with Christian themes or motifs then we naturally welcome and encourage them to do this. Through their work with Christian art, some Chinese artists can come to approach and even accept the Christian faith, such as myself and some of my fellow-artists.

It doesn't depend so much on the background of the painter, whether he or she is of Chinese origin or whether he or she is a believer, so much as which style and technique is used. When Western missionaries spent a long time in China in the past and learned a lot about Chinese art techniques and then applied these to the creation of Christian art with Chinese characteristics, I think we can still call this "Chinese Christian art".

People are very busy these days, making money and doing other things. Therefore, it is very important to develop Chinese Christian art, as a work of visual art can convey a powerful and complex message very quickly and effectively to busy people. We need to produce Christian art in a Chinese indigenous way so that people will know the Gospel message also belongs to Chinese people, and not just to foreigners.

Many church buildings in China are built according to Western models, and inside these churches believers sing translations of Western hymns and hang classical Western Christian paintings on their walls. How do Chinese believers view Christian works of art with Chinese characteristics? Are Chinese believers open to your work and the work of other Chinese Christian artists?

This is a hard question to answer.

Recently some pastors visited me and wanted me to produce some works of art for their churches. I was happy to do this. But, when they asked me to do some copies of classical works by Leonardo DaVinci, then I refused. I wanted to do some of my own works with Chinese characteristics and showed them some examples. When they saw Jesus with a Chinese face they became nervous and feared their congregations would not accept such an image.

The older pastors in the church today were strongly influenced by Western missionaries in China before Liberation. After the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s and 60s, other parts of the world managed to distance themselves from Western influences in Christianity and developed their own understandings and expressions of the faith, such as with Liberation Theology in South America and with indigenous expressions of Christian faith in Africa. Even in Asia, we now have the Asian Christian Art Association, which looks at producing Christian art in an indigenous Asian way. But, in China, after 1949, we closed the door to the world, so these trends passed us by and we didn't know what was happening in the church outside of China. So, when the church reopened in China in the 1980s, many pastors and congregations still clung to old traditional Western expressions of faith, including seeing classical Renaissance artwork as the only valid expression of the Christian faith within art. It is difficult to change this kind of idea in older pastors. The problem is not with the church leadership, since people such as Bishop K.H.Ting and Dr. Wenzao Han have traveled a lot and seen a lot, so they know what has been happening in the outside world and they have a more open mind.

Older pastors at this time still have a strong psychological attachment to the ways and traditions instilled in them by Western missionaries. It is very difficult to change this. Therefore, it could be that we will not see a shift in attitude toward Chinese indigenous Christian art until the next generation, the next century. Since this is the case, I see my teaching among the students at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary as very important, as the students I teach will become the future pastors of the next generation. Our work is not so much for the present time but more a preparation for the future.

<extract from http://www.asianchristianart.org>


Some of He Qi's Artworks

Easter Morning

Escape to Egypt

Finding of Moses

Pilate Washing His Hands

Saul and David

The Dream of Jacob

The Samaritan Women