The Scroll and the Story of the Three Gorges

By Spence, Jonathan | Art Journal, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Scroll and the Story of the Three Gorges


Spence, Jonathan, Art Journal


Through our contact with Mr. Ji, we found that he is in some respects a typical artist. His thinking is meticulous, he has a cultured and refined demeanor, he is not very verbal - yet people feel a strong affinity for him. This is also one of the reasons our collaboration was so pleasant.

Castleberry: You have a complex mission, as a "rare intangible property," as an educational center, as a group of artists and preservationists, and finally, as a business. What balance do you try to strike when and if internal goals conflict?

RBZ: The "national intangible cultural heritage" is thé highest-level designation given to specially protected cultural heritage in China. Woodblock prints can be traced back to one of the four great inventions of ancient China - printing from carved wooden blocks. More specifically, our mission is to keep passing down the art of making woodblock prints, building on the foundation which we have inherited. RBZ has already divided our woodblock making into two divisions, production and marketing. The role of the production division is to pass on this art, and it is the production division that worked with the Museum of Modern Art on this project.

We hope that through this collaboration, more artists and other interested parties in the West can come to know and appreciate HBZ and its unique woodblock prints. We also hope that through our efforts, we can work with more artists and institutions to re-create works of art.

It is possible to look at Chinese history - and there are some scholars who do this - as a tale of environmental battles. If you go into early Chinese society and politics, you'll find problems of overcoming the environment, as well as enormous feats of highly technical engineering, long before there were civilized societies in many parts of the world. One of die greatest cultural heroes in the early Chinese saga of its own history is a person who carved open the mountains and made way for the rivers. This was Yu the Great, not necessarily a historical figure, but one who stands in Chinese texts as somebody whose contribution to the countrywas tampering with and gouging out and rebending and reorganizing the spaces and the waters of China. The tumultuous rivers, their high siltation rates, the extraordinary dangers of navigating them - these have all been parts of China's long historical tradition.

In the right-hand corner of the Forbidden City palaces in Beijing stands one of the world's largest known pieces of jade. It weighed over five tons when it was discovered in far western Xinjiang, When this jade was shipped all the way from the far west to Beijing, and they tried to decide what to do with it, the Qianlong Emperor, the most powerful emperor in eighteenth-century China. decreed that this jade be kept whole, and from it be made a sculpture, a jade sculpture, of enormous size, depicting Yu taming the rivers. So symbolically this was kept as a major theme.

In the colophon in the calligraphy at the end of his scroll The Three Gorges Dam Migration (2009), Yun-Fei Ji has a brief introduction. He tells us there that since antiquity, rivers have flooded in China, and humans have sought to control them. Although this represents more than three millennia of work and passionate commitment by the Chinese, it remains true that the waters have caused trouble; and that theYangzi river, the "long river," the Chang Jiang, almost seemed to be untamable. He tells us t_hat it was the ongoing perils from theYangzi river waters that really led. in the early twentieth century, to the first thinking about damming the huge Three Gorges region, with the goal of cutting down floods in die east of China, and also of developing electricity and thermohydraulic power of various kinds. In the same colophon, he gives us two historical names to hold. onto. Ji tells us that Dr. SunYat-sen first broached the subject of building one of the world's most immense dams just beyond the Three Gorges on theYangzi, and that later this was followed up by Mao Zedong in discussions witli the Communist leadership. …

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