Splendour of China:
Artworks and Letters by Revolutionaries of the 20th Century
29/10/2021 - 15/1/2022
The 20th century was a period of important transformations for China: the transition from a monarchy to a republic, the instability brought by separatist warlords, the power struggle between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party, the two-party cooperation against foreign aggressions and the subsequent confrontation between the parties across the strait. With ordeals and afflictions accumulated, the People’s Republic of China has made her way out not only tackling them one by one, but also achieving great progress and strengthening the country’s power, leading her to impress the world with her economic miracle in the 21st century. Over the last hundred years, a group of outstanding revolutionaries have risen and made immense contributions to the society in every difficulty and challenge. The handwritten scripts and artworks they left behind serve as a record of the social instabilities and changes of their era.
This exhibition captures the stories of these extraordinary individuals through an extensive display of their works including calligraphy, paintings, letters, manuscripts, poster, and seal, each representing their pioneering spirits and perseverance amid political turmoil and challenging times. Coinciding with the centennial year of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, this showcase offers an exciting opportunity for the public to explore the lives of these legendary revolutionaries.
Splendour of China
Whilst China possessed a vast territory and abundant resources in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), ordinary citizens were poverty-stricken and lived under extremely difficult circumstances. On the contrary, the monarchs enjoyed their extravagant lifestyle in the palace and their administrators also lived a cosy life. Although they were aware that their people would revolt if the economic hardship persisted, they continued to turn a blind eye to poverty and amassed as much wealth as they could for themselves. Consequently, the mass of Chinese struggled to make a living for generations to come.
Song dynasty prime minister Wang Anshi (1021–1086) believed that it is ideal for every bureaucracy in each dynasty to be staffed by outstanding individuals. However, most emperors saw themselves as the most outstanding sole superior and assumed that gifted job seekers would be naturally drawn to working for the civil service, yearning for the rewards attained from the imperial court. Wang reckoned that the sovereigns did not see the need to recruit intelligent personnel proactively for their government. Not only were rulers unaware of their own shortcomings, but they were also reluctant to enact requisite policies to nurture talents.
Emperor Kangxi was considered a great ruler who governed the empire diligently with benevolence; outstanding personnel were recruited to serve the imperial court during his reign. He laid a strong foundation for China to prosper considerably throughout the three reigns of Kangxi (1661–1722), Yongzheng (1722–1735) and Qianlong (1735–1796). Unfortunately, the successive monarchs failed to govern for the good of the people because of their political ineptitude while coincidentally, China was exploited and carved up by a number of foreign powers. The long-impoverished Chinese thereby suffered even more.
Since the Tang dynasty (618–907), a Chinese imperial examination system had been in place for selecting candidates for government posts. Nevertheless, when certain members of the bureaucracy seized power, they would fill their pockets through corrupt means. And when they experienced setbacks and career disappointments, they would withdraw from their court life and secluded themselves.
By the end of the late Qing dynasty, China was in jeopardy! At this critical moment, outstanding people did arise and they attempted a series of reforms to strengthen the nation. Unfortunately, they failed in the end. Eventually, Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) led a violent revolution and successfully overthrew China’s imperial rule. Sadly, what came afterwards was another phase of chaos; the Warlord Era and the struggle against the Japanese invasion. The Nationalist government failed to recruit genuine intellectuals with essential attributes to serve the country and the Chinese people were inevitably still living in abominable conditions.
Starting from the 20th century onwards, a turning point finally evolved for the long-suffering China. More and more Chinese received higher education at home and abroad, and they became the new generation of talents in various fields including education, arts and culture, and politics. Among them, many patriotic intellectuals joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under the CCP’s leadership, this group of people devoted themselves to national salvation movements and made a lot of sacrifices to help their compatriots. With tremendous efforts and dogged perseverance, they succeeded in rebuilding the once-fragmented China.
Indeed, being an outstanding person requires more than just talents. Both integrity and skills are essential qualities of an extraordinary member of a society. During the tumultuous 20th century, a number of intellectuals lacked virtue despite being highly educated. These were the most dangerous kind; they would harm the country especially if they gained authority because they had the power to perform evil deeds with their knowledge and talents combined. They were worse than those who neither had talent nor virtue and should be condemned for their wickedness.
From another perspective, extraordinary members of a society could be regarded as national heroes. According to Liu Shao (168~172–240~249) from the Wei State in the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), it takes both wisdom and courage to be a hero. Undoubtedly, no good plans can be realised without wisdom; no actions can be taken without courage. A true hero must have these two traits.
China’s national heroes in the 20th century are definitely the most eminent ones among the talented. Thanks to their pioneering spirits, the Chinese have triumphed in the construction of a new era. In the ancient past, China could neither find the best tactics nor select the most capable ones to govern her land. In the past hundred years, a group of genuinely outstanding people have risen and together they have successfully transformed the miserable China into a heaven on earth.
Today, the Chinese have been lifted out of poverty and enjoy a better quality of life. This is indeed a glorious achievement of the People’s Republic of China. Let us salute our national heroes for their supreme contributions to our country!
Yeung Chun Tong
Director, Sun Museum
Splendour of China (two volumes)
Editor: Claudia YU
2021, paperback, Chinese/English, 544 pages, 20 x 26 cm
A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue featuring 91 sets of artworks by Chinese revolutionaries of the 20th century, all selected from Kang Mu Xuan Collection.