Professor shares his passion in CST art show

Artist He Qi was drawn to faith and artistic expression at a time when both were considered heresy.

He was attending middle school in Nanjing, China in 1966 when Chairman Mao launched his Cultural Revolution. The decade-long movement—aimed at ridding the country of creeping capitalism and lingering traditions threatening “true” Communist ideology—would ultimately cause the death, incarceration, impoverishment and suffering of millions of people.

Much of the revolution was undertaken by Red Guards, young people who became zealous soldiers in the war against all things “bourgeois.”

Up to that time, He Qi (pronounced her-chee) had his future mapped out for him. His father, a mathematics professor at Nanjing University, hoped young He, his third and most clever child, would follow in his footsteps. A neighbor, Lu Sibai, an art professor at Beijing Normal University, saw change in the wind, however.

One day as He was playing with his friends, Mr. Sibai beckoned, saying, “Please follow me. I’ll show you something interesting. 

 Mr. Sibai was a master of Chinese ink painting but had also studied in Paris, gaining renown for his western-style oil paintings with Chinese themes. He showed Mr. Qi his collection of landscapes, still lifes and portraits.

It wasn’t a good time to pursue mathematics, Mr. Sibai said. Did he want to learn how to paint? Mr. Qi was interested, and Mr. Sibai began teaching him the rudiments of painting.

Mr. Sibai’s warning was prescient. The university closed, and Mr. Qi’s father became a laborer. “He lost his dream,” Mr. Qi said.

His mother lost even more.

The middle school where she taught was closed and her job replaced with compulsory political study sessions. One day, she quarreled with the director. It was almost 6 o’clock and she wanted to go home and cook for her family. Though the director insisted the session continue, Mr. Qi’s mother gathered up her papers and notes. In doing so, she inadvertently knocked a book to the ground.

It was the Little Red Book, a collection of Mao’s quotes that served as a bible for the revolutionary movement. “How dare you drop Chairman Mao’s book!” the director shouted.

He Qi’s mother was branded a counter-revolutionary. She was ordered to kneel in front of Mao’s portrait in the public square twice-daily for a month, once at 6 a.m. and again at 6 p.m., begging for the Chairman’s forgiveness. The humiliation prompted a nervous breakdown, from which she never recovered.

He was sent away from home to a remote commune located in the north part of the city of Zhangshu. There, he engaged in backbreaking agricultural labor. The teen was just one of 17 million “intellectual youths” conscripted into the “up to the mountains and down to the farms” program. They are now called the Lost Generation.

Mr. Qi managed to get a hold of a couple art magazines. The cover of one featured a warm-hued paining of the Madonna and child by Renaissance master Raphael, “with the baby so smiling.” The teen was inspired and painted his rendition of the idyllic scene.

One day, an old schoolmate came to visit Mr. Qi. When he saw his friend’s painting, he said, “This is Christian.” It turned out he came from a Christian family, something he’d never discussed. Even before the Cultural Revolution, many viewed Christianity as a pernicious Western influence.

The boys talked aloud that night. Mr. Qi’s friend told him a bit about the religion and then sang a hymn. Listening to the refrain of “Hallelujah” while gazing at the starry sky had a strong impact on He.

Occasionally, Mr. Qi and a few other boys would return to the city, stowing away in a truck-bed full of pigs being transported to the city. He’d check in on his fractured family and learn more about painting from Mr. Sibai.

Mr. Qi was eager to learn more about Christianity. On his next visit to Nanjing Mr. Qi visited a famous local landmark, the gothic-styled St. Paul’s Cathedral.

To his surprise, the immense Episcopal church was filled with machinery. With the church turned into a factory and most others in the country destroyed, it would be years before Mr. Qi got the religious education he craved.  

In 1972, Chairman Mao suffered a stroke. The people of China had little love for the “Gang of Four,” a group that included Mao’s ruthless wife Jiang Qing and which attempted to fill the vacuum. Maoism was on the wane, and schools began to reopen.

Mr. Qi remained in the countryside for a couple more years, but eventually went on to study at Nanjing Normal University. By 1983, he was a professor at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, where he taught Medieval art.

He suddenly had full access to the Bible and religious courses. The more information he got, the more Christianity resonated with Mr. Qi.

“I was moved by faculty and students. I joined their worship,” he said. In 1989 he was baptized. He studied Medieval art in Hamburg, Germany, and toured extensively through Europe. There, Mr. Qi glimpsed artistic masterpieces ranging from gilded Byzantine icons to Picassos.

In 1992, he earned a doctorate in religious art from the Nanjing Art Institute. He now divides his time between the United States and China, bringing his artistic and theological knowledge to bear as a visiting professor or artist-in-residence.

Most recently he has been a professor-in-residence at Claremont School of Theology, a two-year post that will come to an end this February. Between now and then, you can visit the CST library to see giclée prints and original paintings by Mr. Qi as well as a couple of his works rendered in silk needlework by traditional Chinese artisans.

Mr. Qi’s biblical scenes meld influences ranging from Chinese folk art to cubism to fauvism. Each painting carries an atmosphere of devotion and a color palette as vivid as a stained-glass window. Mr. Qi’s use of color reflects his faith.

“In the Creation story in the Hebrew Bible, God said, ‘Let there be light,” he said.

His artwork has earned him growing fame, but that’s not what drives Mr. Qi.

The Cultural Revolution is over but the world is still enmeshed in chaos and violence. Mr. Qi prefers to confront society’s ills through his work.

“There is so much suffering around the world. As an artist, I am trying to assure a peaceful message. That’s important, sharing peace,” he said. “Even though we are not living in a peaceful world, when people worship in church, they say, ‘Peace be with you.”

—Sarah Torribio


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