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Companions Across the Century: Remembering a Generation and Their Legacy of Thought and Art

During the winter from the end of 2022 to the beginning of 2023, Mr. Li Huaji, Mr. Hou Yimin, Mr. Zhong Han, Mr. Zhou Lingzhao, and Mr. Zhan Jianjun, who had all taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, passed away one after another. These artists had experienced turbulent historical currents and the ups and downs of life, shouldering the mission of their times closely linked to the fate of the country, and attempting to explore new paths and their own styles in the search for modernity, nationality, and personal style. Their problems and reflections on reality and life are not only preserved in their artistic works but also passed on to their education of later generations

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Professor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, former director of the mural department, and a famous mural artist and member of the Communist Party of China. Mr. Li Huaji passed away at 12:20 pm on December 29, 2022, at Taikang Yan Garden in Changping, at the age of 91.

“I delved deeply into the paintings of Matisse and Modigliani. They not only protrude large color blocks, but more importantly, they pursue changes within the large color blocks. This not only has the contrast of large color blocks but also pursues the expressive power of each color block itself. On the contrary, if a color block is completely painted to death, it becomes a craft and a pattern. Even though I am getting older and painting less, whenever I see the murals of Dunhuang, Western medieval paintings, and works of Western modern art, I feel particularly familiar and excited.”



A famous artist and art educator, one of the pioneers of the new China’s mural art, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, former vice president, the first president of the Chinese Mural Society, and a recipient of the “Lifetime Achievement Award in Chinese Art.” Mr. Hou Yimin passed away at 6:49 pm on January 1, 2023, at Taikang Yan Garden in Changping, Beijing, at the age of 92.
“I just hope that I am not a jack-of-all-trades. When I do something, I want to do it well and thoroughly. This is my standard. I don’t think being versatile and being specialized are contradictory. If a work is suitable for sculpture, I will do sculpture. If it is suitable for decoration, I will use decoration. I try to find what I can use between language and tools. This may be related to the fact that I have a wide range of exposure. Because I have been exposed to many things, I have more means to use. Of course, there is also a problem of being diligent. I urge myself to seek challenges and not to take the easy way out. I work hard, so I am not afraid to try new things. When I work on a large project, I must be creative. If there are no fresh ideas, I would rather think more.”

Zhong Han (1929-2023) was a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, an academic consultant at the Chinese Academy of Art Oil Painting Institute, a famous oil painter, and an art educator. He was also the former director of the Academic Committee of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and a member of the Communist Party of China. Mr. Zhong passed away on January 2, 2023, at 2:26 pm at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing at the age of 94.

“I am an old man who has grown up in the field of realistic oil painting. With my limited experience, I should see the historical rationality of this ecology in terms of reason and emotion. The general trend of art is to bring forth new ideas, but there is a lot to be done in terms of how to bring forth new ideas. Our own task is to promote the healthy growth of the field that belongs to us in the overall ecology. We should have a guideline: like a torch, let the realistic painting that has already taken root in China continue to be passed down, explore the development of modern innovation in Chinese oil painting with Chinese characteristics according to our national conditions and reference to the new trends in the world, and inject it into the humanistic cause of national rejuvenation as a major pillar of the conscious construction of the Chinese oil painting school.”

Zhou Lingzhao (1919-2023) was a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the “first person in new Chinese design,” a lifetime achievement artist of the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles, a famous Chinese artist, an art educator, the “most beautiful struggler” of the People’s Republic of China, and a member of the Communist Party of China. Mr. Zhou passed away peacefully at Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Beijing on January 3, 2023, at 3:06 pm at the age of 104.
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“I am already 100 years old. Our generation grew up in the era of war, but the country and the people have nurtured me throughout my life. I am willing to dedicate my greatest strength to the country and the nation. Plants will eventually become useful talents. My habit of being serious, diligent, and rigorous in art was inspired by the education I received from Principal Tao Xingzhi at Yucheng School when I was young. This influence has accompanied me throughout my life, and I am very willing to continue working to beautify the country and the people’s lives.”

  • Zhou Lingzhao

Zhan Jianjun (1931-2023) was a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, honorary chairman of the Chinese Oil Painting Society, academic advisor of the Oil Painting Academy of the Chinese Academy of Art, and a famous oil painter and art educator. Mr. Zhan Jianjun passed away in Beijing on January 11, 2023, at the age of 92.

“I always feel that my paintings have not fully expressed what I want to convey. I have been exploring and seeking better ways of expression, and I always feel that I have not reached my full potential in my expression. Our generation wasted a lot of time, and although we are old, our art may not necessarily be mature. I strive to do better in my lifetime.”

In 1953, Zhan Jianjun, who had just graduated from the Western Painting Department, was retained by the Central Academy of Fine Arts as a graduate student. According to the school’s allocation, he studied sketching with Mr. Dong Xiwen in his first year to train his basic skills, and was then assigned to the color ink department (later the Chinese painting department) at that time in his second year. The head of the department was Mr. Ye Qianyu, and Mr. Jiang Zhaohe taught watercolor sketching. Mr. Li Keran also taught there. Although the university education advocated “one specialty, multiple abilities,” Zhan Jianjun, who studied Western painting, was tasked with the mission of integrating Chinese painting with revolutionary reality themes in the color ink painting department, which was still a challenge at the time. Before graduation, Mr. Ye Qianyu led Zhan Jianjun, Liu Boshu, Wang Zhijie, and others to Dunhuang for research and returned to the school to hold an exhibition. However, shortly thereafter, at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture, Soviet expert Maximov came to China to host an “oil painting training class” and began to recruit cadres and staff from various art colleges or related positions in China. The school recommended four students to join the class, including the then head of the oil painting department, Feng Fasi, Hou Yimin, Zhan Jianjun who had just graduated, and Jin Shangyi.
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The appearance of the “Oil Painting Training Class” was influenced by both ideology and China’s own needs for the development of oil painting. At that time, there were “local oil paintings” in China, such as Hu Yichuan’s “Kai Lie”, which had expressiveness but did not emphasize rules; a group of artists who had returned from France emphasized form more, focusing on changes in light, tone, and spatial levels; and the Su-style painting brought a structural transformation to Chinese oil painting, especially in the technical composition, structural relationships, and modeling understanding of oil painting. For Zhan Jianjun, this was also a turning point for him to return to oil painting from traditional Chinese painting. For Hou Yimin, it was also an opportunity to explore the use of oil painting to express revolutionary historical themes. In 1946, 16-year-old Hou Yimin entered the Chinese painting department as the top student. Due to the internal struggle at that time, it was said that students in the Chinese painting department had to join the Kuomintang. As an active member of the underground party, Hou Yimin resolutely transferred to the Western painting department and studied under Xu Beihong. Later, as the secretary of the underground party branch, Hou Yimin also left a large number of artistic talents for the art school before the liberation. In 1949, Hou Yimin was transferred to become a teacher at the art school.

In 1957, Zhan Jianjun, Jin Shangyi, Hou Yimin and others who graduated from the Oil Painting Training Class encountered the Anti-Rightist Movement. At the same time, the Revolutionary History Museum (now the National Museum) that was being prepared needed a large number of revolutionary historical paintings to match the exhibition. It can be said that the creation of historical paintings provided a relatively “free” space for Chinese oil painters. Zhan Jianjun went to Langyashan, Yixian County, Hebei for a long time to create “The Five Heroes of Langya Mountain” (1959), but the drafts of the work were rejected several times. Because the picture emphasized the moment of conflict before the soldiers jumped off the cliff, but at that time, heroes had to be shown in battle. After several changes, the artist still insisted on respecting the feeling and proposition of creation, following the laws of art, and the work was finally affirmed by Cai Ruohong, the leader of the China Artists Association. When Hou Yimin created “Liu Shaoqi and the An Yuan Miners” (1961), the scene he observed was far from the historical reality of the large-scale strike of the An Yuan Road miners in 1922, so he went to a small local kiln for inspiration. Within this scope, Jin Shangyi, Wen Lipeng, Quan Shanshi, Du Jian, Zhong Han and other painters have created a number of large works with complete themes and forms. In 1959, after the establishment of the studio of the Oil Painting Department, Zhan Jianjun entered the “Third Studio” hosted by Dong Xiwen. In the same year, Li Huaji (who entered the Oil Painting Department in 1956) graduated and became Dong Xiwen’s assistant, and stayed at the school to enter Luo Gongliu’s oil painting research class.
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In 1963, a graduation photo of the oil research class was taken. The person standing in the back row, third from the right, is Li Huaji.

Zhong Han, Li Huaji, Wen Lipeng, Ma Changli, Tuomusi, and others were all classmates in the oil painting research class at that time. The three leaders of the oil painting department were Mr. Luo Gongliu, Mr. Wu Zuoren, and Mr. Dong Xiwen. At the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of New China, some works of the oil training class showed the expressive power of oil painting in the creation of revolutionary historical paintings. At that time, except for the old painters and the oil training class taught by Maximov, the strength of the oil painting team was not strong. In the autumn of 1959, it was decided to set up another oil painting research class and a sculpture class. The oil painting class that enrolled in March 1960 cultivated Zhong Han’s bold attempts in artistic creation. Before that, he studied in the architecture department of Tsinghua University. Later, due to his participation in the liberation revolution work, he returned to the academy at the age of 26. After being guided by Mr. Lin Gang, Mr. Luo Gongliu, Mr. Quan Shanshi, and others, Zhong Han created “Along the Yan River” (1963), which was published and reprinted in the four major newspapers in Beijing. Li Huaji created “Princess Wencheng”, which was the only deformed decorative painting in the graduation works. Although the above works experienced either “black painting” or too formalistic criticism during the Cultural Revolution, the short journey from the oil training class to the oil research class cultivated the third generation of oil painting masters for New China. At that time, the artists not only explored the individualized expression of artistic style, but also the collision and transformation of oil painting techniques and Chinese styles. Their persistence in the artistic path and thinking about the face of Chinese oil painting promoted the diversification of oil painting styles today.

Transitioning from revolutionary historical creation to the field of murals, Mr. Dong Xiwen was one of the earliest to recognize the importance of this issue. In September 1958, the Oil Painting Department underwent a brief reform in its teaching methods, moving its classrooms from the city center to the Shijingshan Model Mouth, which was closer to factories and rural areas. Fourth and fifth-grade students were divided into three studios: frame painting, New Year’s painting, and mural painting. Mr. Dong Xiwen was appointed as the director of the mural painting studio, with Jin Zhilin as his assistant, and students such as Zhong Han, Li Huaji, Dong Fuzhang, Xing Lian, and Zhang Li. At that time, the whole country was undergoing land reform and the Great Leap Forward, and “big mural painting” was also promoted in this context. However, Mr. Dong Xiwen not only accepted the modern influence of the Hangzhou Art College but also had long-term practice in copying and studying murals in Dunhuang. Therefore, his teaching was not limited to the current situation but advocated leading students to feel the simplicity of peasant paintings and see the prospects of social development. Later, when Mr. Dong Xiwen was in charge of teaching in the Third Studio, he also proposed to establish a mural research room. However, due to the emergence of the ideology of the Cultural Revolution, this idea was eventually aborted. During Mr. Dong Xiwen’s lectures on murals, especially his in-depth study of Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, Liu Bingjiang, Yao Zhonghua, Yuan Yunsheng, and others began to focus on large-scale art under his influence.

After the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee, economic construction developed rapidly, and in the atmosphere of reform and opening up, there was ideological openness and a need for development. A group of artists, including Hou Yimin, Zhou Lingzhao, Li Huaji, and Liang Yunqing, keenly captured the needs of national development and advocated the establishment of a mural profession. In 1978, the Oil Painting Department took the lead in establishing a mural research group, which was later changed to a mural research room the following year. In early 1979, the expanded Capital Airport began its mural creation project. Zhang Ding, the dean of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, was in charge, leading a group of artists including Yuan Yunfu, Zhu Danian, Yuan Yunsheng, Xiao Huixiang, and Zhang Guofan. Li Huaji and Quan Zhenghuan’s “The Legend of the White Snake” is one of the seven airport murals. It uses the modern painting technique of pointillism, combined with the traditional style and visual language of Dunhuang murals, to depict ancient folk themes with a decorative style. The Capital Airport murals were unprecedentedly open, and both in terms of subject matter and production techniques and materials, they boldly innovated and broke through the formal language of murals, bringing a new face to the Chinese art world at that time and having an impact internationally, opening a window for communication for the once-silent Chinese mural art. The exploration of modernity, nationalization, and personal style in the airport murals also became the starting point for Li Huaji’s subsequent mural creations.
Influenced by the art scene in Beijing, the “Mural Renaissance” movement entered an unprecedented period of prosperity. In 1979, Hou Yimin and Deng Shu were commissioned by the People’s Daily to create the first high-temperature ceramic underglaze colored mural work, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” which showcased traditional Chinese craftsmanship in contemporary mural art. After 1983, Li Huaji served as Mr. Wu Zuoren’s mural creation assistant and supervised the ceramic inlay mural “Six Arts” (1985) at the Queli Guesthouse in Qufu, Shandong, and the marble inlay mural “Mang Kunlun” (1990) at the Xi’an Xianyang Airport. In 1987, Hou Yimin and Deng Shu were commissioned by the National Library to create “The Silk Road.” In 1989, Li Huaji designed the silk weaving mural “Melody” for the Beijing Dance Academy. That same year, Hou Yimin used realism to create the epic scroll painting “The Great Wall of Flesh and Blood” for the Chinese People’s Revolutionary Military Museum. In 1984, the Mural Studio of the Central Academy of Fine Arts completed a mural project for the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan, Hubei, which included Zhou Lingzhao and Chen Ruoju’s “White Clouds and Yellow Crane” mural.
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In 1938, at the age of 19, Mr. Zhou Lingzhao joined the art department of the third political department in Wuhan, which was led by the Communist Party. During the propaganda campaign to defend Wuhan, he participated in the painting of the giant mural “National Resistance” on the city wall under the Yellow Crane Tower. The mural was about 50 meters long and 30 meters high, and could be seen from the Han Yang Gate in Wuchang. Although it existed for a short time, it greatly boosted the morale of the anti-Japanese military and civilians.

Afterwards, he went to Changsha, Guangzhou, and then to Shanghai Academy of Art to teach. In 1948, he was invited by Xu Beihong to join the practical art department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. In September 1949, Zhou Lingzhao was tasked with painting Chairman Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate Tower. In 1959, he created a large mural called “The Great Unity of People of All Countries in the World” for the Chinese Revolution History Museum. The content of this work was a huge challenge for the artist, but Zhou Lingzhao eventually completed this idealized theme with traditional Chinese decorative style.

In 1985, the Mural Art Committee of the Chinese Artists Association was established, and the Mural Department was also established. At the beginning, it implemented studio teaching, with three studios led by Hou Yimin, Zhou Lingzhao, and Li Huaji respectively. Each of them had the important mission of cultivating future mural creators, from the establishment of the department to the preparation of teaching materials, and then to the repeated research of theory and techniques.

The development of modern Chinese mural art can be said to have started from nothing in the mid-20th century. Now, it has become an important carrier of Chinese culture with new and diverse art forms. It is thanks to a group of outstanding artists who have devoted themselves to the revival of Chinese mural art, constantly exploring new artistic languages, that the mural art has flourished in China.
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The reform and opening up also brought new opportunities for Chinese oil painters. In the 1980s, Zhong Han began to study abroad and embarked on a true artistic career. Since the autumn of 1980, he was sent by the Ministry of Culture to study in Belgium for more than a year. In 1984, he went to Ghent University as a visiting scholar. For oil painter Zhong Han, studying abroad has become a “belated comprehensive remedial course” for his oil painting career. Abroad, he often went to art museums to copy under the guidance of Mr. Wu Zuoren, and often acted alone, recording his observations and feelings in his notes. In Paris, he would spend one or two weeks specifically visiting the famous museums of Impressionist paintings, concentrating on observing and taking notes during the day, and reading and summarizing his experiences at night. For Zhong Han, this approach has cultivated his unique insights into various schools of Western oil painting, as well as his profound cultural and historical knowledge. His numerous notes from the 1980s were eventually selected and compiled into the thick book “Corridor Pilgrimage”, which also reflects his constant pursuit of art. For Zhong Han, constantly seeking the origins of Western painting in art museums, while wandering in the mountains and rivers of northern China, enabled him to create works such as “Boatman at Dusk” (1983). However, even more than twenty years later, he is still reshaping and modifying this painting, pursuing new transformations in his creative process.

640 (9) “Silent Stone Forest Lake” by Zhan Jianjun, oil on canvas, 54cm×78cm, 1978.

Zhan Jianjun, as a conscious artist, has been exploring his own path between Chinese and Western cultures through his long-term practice. From his graduation work “Starting a Business” (1957) to works such as “Silent Stone Forest Lake” (1978) and “Tide” (1984), his paintings are all vivid and lively. The multiple influences he received from Chinese painting, Western painting, and the Soviet school during his studies made it an important issue for him to reflect the characteristics of the East in his painting language. He believes that the problem of “nationalizing oil painting” since the reform and opening up, as well as the so-called globalization problem today, can easily lead to a tendency towards Westernization. Therefore, it is necessary to draw on both Western and Chinese cultures, and consciously study Chinese traditional culture to form one’s own style. In fact, artists of all periods, whether in oil painting or mural creation, have to face the problem of localizing oil painting, and this transformation needs to be strengthened and made more distinct now. For Li Huaji, he believes that nationalization is more like a process. Oil painters need to practice a lot on the one hand, and on the other hand, they need to study, inherit, and experience the artistic spirit and aesthetic view of the nation. Only art with life, not just technique, can be truly nationalized.
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The painting “Tide” by Zhan Jianjun is an oil painting on canvas measuring 196cm x 177cm, created in 1984 and is now in the collection of the National Art Museum of China.

Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Lingzhao submitted and passed the design plan for the national emblem. Later in 1958, Hou Yimin and Deng Shu, together with Zhou Lingzhao, as members of the expert group, designed the third and fourth sets of RMB under the leadership of Luo Gongliu. Zhou Lingzhao was responsible for the composition, while Hou Yimin and Deng Shu were responsible for the small portraits. In order to depict the unity of the people of all ethnic groups in the country and to show the highest denomination of the working class, farmers, and intellectuals, they went to Yunnan, Guizhou, and other places to gather inspiration. As one of the main artists who participated in the construction of the new China’s national visual image, Zhou Lingzhao also served as the art designer for the National Day and May Day parade teams, and was the chief designer of the flag of the Communist Youth League of China, the “August 1st Medal” of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the “Independence and Freedom Medal,” and the “Liberation Medal.”

After retiring, Hou Yimin lived in the “Yiyuan” in the western suburbs of Beijing, which is adjacent to the Xishan Jietai Temple. He and his wife lived and worked there. Hou Yimin was very proud of the Beijing subway murals that he led the creation of. “Creating murals is a collective vision that requires a group of people to work together. The murals at the Qianmen Station were drafted by Deng Shu, and the 101-year-old Zhou Lingzhao was not idle, he was painting the Beijing entry ceremony at home.” Now, there are more than a hundred murals in the Beijing subway stations, each with its own characteristics, which is a public art that brings us closer to our daily lives.

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Life is not just about the prelude and the finale. Their lives have experienced the changes of the times and the ups and downs of life. They have also built a bridge for future generations to enter the past and the future. This generation experienced the turbulence and challenges of the 20th century and created precious ideological and artistic heritage for our era.