Heaven’s Course Is Constant

The Art of Yu Nancheng

Dr. Duan Jun 

Art Critics, Fine Art, Tsinghua University


Chinese culture is currently in the midst of a remarkable period of integration into the broader global culture. Today’s China sees foreign and indigenous cultural elements bound up in a steady process of influence and mutual adaptation,and yet broadly speaking, these foreign influences cannot yet be said to have been completely incorporated into the main body of Chinese culture. Indeed many of the most significant cultural turning points in Chinese history have themselves been predicated on the introduction of foreign cultural forms which, after having been fully processed and reinterpreted along native lines, came to foster the birth of new modes of civilisation. It took, for instance, the complete assimilation and naturalization of Buddhist thought on the part of Neo-Confucian thinkers for Chinese philosophical traditions to reach new heights of sophistication. So although in this day and age it is no longer possible or even desirable for Chinese artists to restrict their artistic vision to the perspective of a single people or nation, this does not prevent them from using China’s own indigenous artistic traditions as a foundation from which to seek to understand the world at large.


In the course of his forty years as a practicing artist, Yu Nancheng has long since internalised the lessons to be learnt from foreign artistic traditions, but he is equally aware of the inherent allure that traditional Chinese culture holds; much of his work therefore seeks to reinterpret this rich cultural heritage in light of the particular challenges of the modern age. The series entitled Tai Chi, within his larger series, China Red, is representative of this trend in his art. Although many westerners inevitably associate the term Tai Chi solely with the martial art of the same name, it is in fact a concept with much deeper philosophical significance and one which occupies a place at the very heart of Chinese civilisation. The term has been variously translated into English as “The Supreme Ultimate”, “The Supreme Polarity”, or, in Richard Wilhelm’s seminal translation of the Book of Chan ges, as ‘The Great Primal Beginning’, and it can be roughly equated with that principle from which all existence ultimately flows. In the Book of Changes it states: “Therefore there is in the Changes the Great Primal Beginning. This generates the two primary forces. The two primary forces generate the four images. The four images generate the eight trigrams.” From this passage it is evident that Tai Chi is born out of Change and it is through the mutual interactions and alternations between the primary forces of ‘hard and soft’ – the active and the quiescent – that the myriad changes arise and give manifestation to form in a ceaseless cycle of generation, disintegration and regeneration. Yu Nancheng’s art likewise moves from the simple into the complex, in the Tai Chi series for instance, he takes this principle of Change and seeks to give it concrete expression in the crowds of people engaged in the practice of Tai Chi. The canvas itself moves out of extreme simplicity into a great complex criss-cross of wheeling, roiling figures all practicing Tai Chi and while the very complex can often be viewed as being somehow limited, in the case of Yu’s works, any spatial limitations are central position. Because the subject matter he chooses to depict abounds in social significance, generally speaking it is with this Confucian strain in Chinese culture that Yu Nancheng’s artworks share the greatest affinity. It was Liang Qichao who once wrote ‘In China, Daoist and Mohist thinkers have always tended to view practical matters as possessing little investigative value, regarding them as being somewhat vulgar and beneath their concerns. The ideal for them then has always been to leave society in search of a place that transcends mundane reality, and although their approach may yet be a little more down-to-earth than those intellectuals who live their lives purely in their heads, they are still at a very far remove from the common concerns of daily life. It is only with the Confucians that we see an earnest attempt to take the substance of social life as the foundation for their philosophical principles, be it in cultivation of the self, or for the betterment of society.’


Perhaps it is in these principles of Change and Predetermination that Yu Nancheng seeks to ground his artistic philosophy, for his works are deeply imbued with a sense of time in its various guises; sometimes ancient, cyclic, still – almost a time without time – at other times suffused with something of the peculiar temporal rhythm of the festival; a brief recompense from the daily grind and staid routine. As the media is constantly reminding us, everything today is in a state of flux. Everything is changing at unprecedented speeds and as the whole of society hastens down the road towards modernity, we find there is never enough time. But the fact is that it is not that we have no time, but that the onus now rests with us to create our own time. In his works Yu Nancheng seeks to construct a kind of time that has a place for history and space for the concerns of the individual; and so the viewer, when confronted by Yu’s works, may think back to the words of the ancient Confucian philosopher Xunzi when he wrote: ‘Nature’s course is constant, to Emperor Yao’s virtue unheedful and to Emperor Jie’s wickedness inviolate.’ Society, like nature, will change, but in accordance with its own laws and along its own natural course and art too will evolve and flourish in its midst.