Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The flags of Xiao Shufang

Xiao Shufang 萧淑芳 was an artist from Tianjin, born to a family which ancestrally hailed from Xiangshan County in the Chinese South, who specialised in classical paintings of flowers. She was born in August 1911, a mere two months before the Xinhai Revolution occurred, and died at the end of 2005. At the age of fifteen she went to study at the National School of Fine Arts in Beijing under instructors of painting representing both the Western tradition and the Chinese tradition; her own style fused the two. She combined the traditional composition and colour choices with a Western medium (oil on canvas), in much the same way her assassinated poetic contemporary Wen Yiduo 闻一多 used traditional lyric forms as a vehicle for poetry in the vernacular language. Xiao Shufang also studied at the National Central University (then in Nanjing) under the master ink painter Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿. Xiao Shufang was also an accomplished figure-skater, having won the first-place prize in a skating competition in Northeast China in 1935.

She went to the United Kingdom in 1937 at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she specialised in sculpture, chalk and woodblock painting. After she came back to China from the UK in 1939, she lived in Shanghai, where she met and married her fellow painter, Wu Zuoren 吴作人, who had also studied painting in Europe and had a stylistic preference similar to hers: being proficient in both Chinese ink painting styles and Western oils.

Xiao Shufang and Wu Zuoren

The marriage and professional partnership between Xiao and Wu was intense, prolific and mutually-enriching. It deserves mention here that Wu Zuoren was a painter with a political bent. Though he was born in Suzhou, his family hailed from Anhui Province, and as such he had a natural sympathy for the common rural folk of the poorer inland provinces as well as the minority peoples from there. His sympathies there led him to spend time in Qinghai Province and Inner Mongolia, where his subject matter tended toward yaks and caravans. His sympathy for inland Chinese and for the national minorities along the Silk and Tea Roads, and his quasi-narodnichestvo, bled over from his artwork into his politics – which were decidedly leftist. He became active in the circles of the China Democratic League, later in his life serving on the central committee of the party.

All this is to correctly situate and background the participation of Xiao Shufang in the contest for a national flag of the new People’s Republic of China in the wake of the Civil War in 1949. On the fourth of July, 1949, the Preparatory Committee issued a call for flag designs which was published in, among other outlets, the People’s Daily and the Guangming Daily. There were four requirements for submissions to be considered. First: it had to show Chinese characteristics, relating to gæography, history and culture. Second: it had to show power characteristics, relating to the alliance between the rural and urban working classes. Third: it had to be on a 3:2 rectangular background. And fourth: the main colour had to be bright red, as specified by Zhou Enlai 周恩来.

There were somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000 entries submitted in the latter half of July that year, and these were reviewed by the Political Consultative Conference throughout August and September. Among those who submitted flag designs were the Romantic poet Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and Singaporean businessman Chen Jiageng 陈嘉庚. However, the Political Consultative Conference managed to pare down the contest entries to a set of thirty-eight finalists. Among these finalists, two stand out in particular, and these are both the contributions of Xiao Shufang. Xiao Shufang’s flag designs both prominently feature Christian crosses – or, alternatively, the character tian 田 to represent agriculture and the peasantry. Proposal № 34 is: the red flag with a blue cross in white panel hoist, and Proposal № 35 is: the red flag with a white cross in blue panel hoist. The blue in the flag represents water, and the white represents light or hope – both of which Christ attributed to himself in the Gospel.

Finalist proposals for the PRC flag
Mme Xiao’s flags are on top row second from the right, and third row far right

To my knowledge, this is the first and only time that China has ever come close to having Christian imagery in any of their public symbols. That includes the Ming, Qing, Republican and Communist periods. Also, the nature of the competition was such that each and every symbol submitted on a flag was subjected to intense ideological scrutiny. Indeed, the reason that Mao Zedong’s 毛泽东 preferred flag ended up not being chosen, was because the horizontal yellow line through the middle, representing the Yellow River, was taken to represent a division of the country between north and south – and this was undesirable because the PCC wanted to emphasise the unity of the country.

And yet Xiao Shufang’s flags ended up as finalists, within the thirty-eight out of over three thousand that were seriously considered by the PCC to become the national flag of the new People’s Republic. Of course, it’s not possible to be ‘in the room’ with the PCC seventy-one years after the fact, but the implications are tantalising. Did Xiao herself understand the nature of the power characteristics of rural China, and the role of Christianity in rural reconstruction? Given her husband’s involvement in the China Democratic League, that’s not implausible. And clearly the PCC liked these flags enough to consider them as finalists. Did the Chinese Communists remember their intellectual and political debts to Christian œconomists like Richard Tawney and Christian social activists like Jimmy Yen 晏阳初? Given Mao’s own personal involvement in the Mass Education Movement, again, that’s not implausible.

At this point, one might look at the above, shake his head, and wonder: ‘This is all well and good, but the realities of Communist China were as far from Christian praxis as it’s possible to get.’ It is true that the Communist Party absolutely has been, and still is to a large degree anti-theistic. At the same time, though, the realities on the ground are messy – my wife comes from a family where a picture of Jesus Christ is on one wall of the same living room where a propaganda painting of Mao Zedong also hangs. Based on the example of Xiao Shufang’s flags, I would say that this strange and seemingly-incongruent messiness extends all the way to the top, and has extended a long way back.

Also, the point of bringing to light these historical eddies and byways, these instances of ‘may-have-been’ and ‘almost-was’, is to shed a certain degree of light on the present. Western observers would do well, in this case, not to presume too much, or to make too many stereotypical generalisations about Chinese public life even on the mainland. And Chinese people, particularly those of a nationalist bent, would do well to consider the complexities of their nation’s historical relationship to Christianity – which is not and never has been merely coterminous with the same nation’s relationship to the West. Christianity is a religion of the Silk Road. And the paintings of Wu Zuoyan and Xiao Shufang are by no means wholly Western.

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