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Much Fanfare at Meridian

by Gail Sullivan

In the United States, a paper fan is a cheap souvenir. In China, it is a form of art, an expression of intimacy and a cultural medium that embodies creative expression ranging from the ancient to the abstract.

In June, the Meridian International Center in partnership with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries organized an exhibit featuring 44 paper fans painted by artists from China’s National Academy of Painting. Meridian hosted the two-day exhibit at its headquarters in D.C.

I walked into the grand historic mansion that houses the Meridian Center expecting lotuses and cranes, and there was some of that, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of works featuring modern reinterpretations of traditional Chinese subject matter.

Photos: Joyce Boghosian
From left, Chen Ping, a professor from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts; Madam Li Xiaolin; president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries; Ambassador of China Cui Tiankai; Ambassador Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of Meridian International
Center; and Dr. Curtis Sandberg, Meridian’s vice president for arts and cultural programs, display the calligraphy work of Chen Ping.

Brush strokes resembling shards of colored glass from afar revealed upon closer inspection a group of friends mid-toast, while another fan depicted a herd of buffalo.

A particularly striking fan featured a modern landscape with a Japanese cherry tree in front of rolling hills formed by the bodies of reclining female nudes. It was surprised to see nudity in a government-curated exhibit given that just last year, Chinese state television caught flak for pixelating the naughty bits of Michelangelo’s statue of David-Apollo, which was on display in China’s National Museum at the time.

While it would be unexpected for an exhibit assembled by the Chinese government to include subversive political commentary, some of the imagery was ambiguously dark. I wondered, for example, if the black clouds above a rural landscape reflected the artist’s view of the Chinese government’s forced urbanization of rural Chinese towns. While the artist may have had something very different in mind, the meaning is open to interpretation. The power of art lies in its subjectivity.

From left, Ambassador of China Cui Tiankai; Chairman of the Meridian International Center Jim Blanchard; Madam Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries; President and CEO of the Meridian Center Stuart Holliday; and Ahmet C. Bozer, president of Coca-Cola International, attend the exhibit “Beautiful China: Fan Paintings from the National Academy of Painting” at the Meridian International Center.

Whatever the intention of the artists, the delicate, elegantly rendered fans were beautiful artifacts of a Chinese cultural tradition. Paper fan painting is a unique genre of Chinese art that became popular in the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 AD) and matured during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), according to an event press release. Other sources claim painted fans made from other materials, including feathers and bamboo, date back ever further, to the 2nd century BC.

Brought to Europe by Portuguese traders in the 15th century, hand-held fans became a coveted fashion accessory. They were popularized by Catherine de Medici, whose dowry included fans when she married King Henry II of France in 1533, according to Colin Lawton Johnson of the Fan Association of North America.

The paper fan is one example where form and function are in complete harmony. In addition to being an object of beauty, fans kept people cool for centuries before air conditioning became the norm. Paper fans have also been used in religious rituals, served as fly swatters, and employed as a coquettish accessory to a flirtatious glance, among other things.

In modern China, you might paint a fan for someone as a symbol of friendship or appreciation, according to Susan Fok, a master’s candidate at the George Washington University’s Museum Studies Program interning at Meridian this summer. Fan painting can be a serious work of art or an everyday activity. Friends gather to paint fans much like young Americans might go to a friend’s house to bake cookies or watch a movie together.

The exhibit was unveiled with much fanfare on June 18 at a private reception attended by a number of Chinese diplomats, including Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai and Madam Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

“I sincerely hope our exhibition can serve as a bridge to bring our art and souls closer, and add more delightful colors for our bilateral relations,” Madam Li said, addressing guests at the reception. “I firmly believe that cultural exchange could be an effective channel to deepen our friendship and mutual understanding.”

The event included a calligraphy demonstration by Chen Ping, a professor from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, who wrote his message on a large fabric banner that he gave to Ambassador Stuart Holliday, president and CEO of the Meridian International Center, as a gesture of appreciation.

The exhibit was celebrating the eighth “Say It As It Is” delegation, an initiative led by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries that arranges for ordinary Chinese people, including farmers, students, businessmen and scholars, to visit Congress and discuss China-U.S. relations. Since 2002, six groups have visited the United States.

This exhibit is part of Meridian’s American-Chinese Cultural Initiative, a public-private partnership between government entities, U.S. and Chinese businesses and nonprofit cultural organizations focused on strengthening the relationship between the United States and China. The initiative encourages cultural exchange through art, music, film, food and other media.

Gail Sullivan is a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.




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