Zheng Shuang is a master of Chinese water-colour woodblock print, following such masters as Gu Yue, Li Hua and Huang Yougyu. As the niece of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor of China, Zheng Shuang has a unique background that has impacted greatly on her artistic direction and development. She lived through many tumultuous events in recent Chinese history. Despite this, she devotes her artistic skills to the expression of beauty, finding inspiration in nature, in particular, flowers and animals.
"I have myself experienced a great many days of hardship and have seen more than a few ugly things, yet despite all this, many beautiful things still remain in life. I may be able to give some happiness, no matter how little"
Zheng Shuang was born in 1936 in Manchuria and lived with her family at the court of the puppet Emperor of Manchukuo under Japanese occupation. Her uncle, Pu Yi, was the last Emperor of China, who had been deposed in the Republican revolution of 1911, briefly restored in 1917 and then enthroned by the Japanese as Emperor of their puppet state Man Chu Kuo in March 1934.
When Zheng Shuang was nine years old, the Second World War came to an end with the defeat of the Japanese and her uncle was captured by the Russians. Left behind without protection, her family decided to try to return to Beijing on foot. It took them two and a half years. On return, they tried to live in anonymity and Zheng Shuang was able to go to school.
During her school years, Zheng Shuang´s family history became, as she has said "a millstone around her neck". She wanted to be recognised for herself and consequently kept quiet about her background. Yet this reticence aroused even greater curiosity among her peers. Decades later, Zheng Shuang has now established herself in her own right. Now that her work is internationally recognised on artistic merit alone, Zheng Shuang feels able to speak more openly about the story of her life and history.
During her education at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Zheng Shuang witnessed many landmark events in recent Chinese history. During the Great Leap Forward, she worked in the mines but was also enlisted to teach workers in the local factories and mines how to paint. After university, she was sent to work in the Four Clean Ups movement, working barefoot in the fields harvesting grain and herding cattle.
On returning to teach art at the Academy her work was viewed, as she says, as "insufficiently weighty, the ideological content insufficiently strong". As a result, her work, despite its quality, was deemed unsuitable for official exhibitions. She experimented with weightier subject matters in works such as ´South China militia woman´, yet in recent years has returned to her own artistic instincts and to personal observations of nature, domestic interiors and animals. She explains, "There has been so little peace in China for the last hundred years and now people need something beautiful". Despite the hardships she has herself experienced, Zheng Shuang hopes that by means of beauty, she will provide some happiness to others who have suffered. She says, "The little things in nature and life always allow me to sense hope and beauty. By means of my work I want to communicate my feelings to people, I hope people are capable of sharing the beauty with me." Her works also reflect a dislike of the elaborate and the artificial and a love for simplicity.
Rosemary Simmons at the Chinese Fine Arts Department of the British Museum, London, has written about Zheng Shuang´s techniques:
"She chooses a variety of Chinese and some rough Japanese papers but prefers a very, textured thick paper made in Hang Zhou. This texture plays an important part in many of her prints giving all almost mezzotint-like pattern with very dry colour, For other prints which exploit a negative line, a very absorbent paper is used with more liquid pigment so that it bleeds into the fibrous surface of the paper giving a fuzzy edge which mimics a halftone or aquatint. Sometimes she will just lay the paper on the block and merely blow on it and lift it off again leaving the lightest of impressions. For heavier colour areas she uses a ´malian´ similar to the more familiar Japanese ´baren´ with maximum pressure; deep colours may need printing two or three times to build up density."
Simmons also discusses Zheng Shuang use of different pigments for different purposes: ´Water-colour straight from the tube is used for transparent colours, gouache for opaque colours and Chinese stick ink for black. She does not mix in starch paste as the Japanese do. Colours are applied to the dampened wood block by brushes of different sizes. White flowers can be depicted in many ways depending on the structure of the plant. A negative area can be cut so that the white of the paper is use. A frail petal may be suggested by white water-colour (Chinese zinc or titanium white all have different densities) printed over a light background whereas gouache over a deeper colour can suggest the waxy flower of a gardenia. She thinks this varied technique can still be developed further. The effects that can be achieved by, for example, printing a block with wettish colour an a dampened paper and then perhaps encouraging the pigment to spread by a gentle spray of water followed by printing the same block twice onto drier paper is extremely rich in the result. It is very labour intensive: an edition of 50, her usual size, does take a long time, but she says ´the process should be joyful´ and that is an essential part of the creative process.´
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts
Zheng Shang was born in 1936 in Manchuria and currently lives and works in Guangzhou, China. She studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and later taught as a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangdong Province, Southern China. She has been awarded two silver medals at the 6th National Art Exhibition in Beijing and a gold medal from the Spring Salon in Paris. As well as being Vice Chairman of the Guangdong Artist Association, Zheng Shuang is a member of the Standing Committee of Chinese Graphic Artist Association and of the Chinese Artist Association.
Exhibition / Installation,
1999–2002 UK tour of wood cut prints using Chinese inks, organised by Prof D Barker University of Ulster / Angela Petrie Associates and touring University of Ulster, Belfast; Museum of East Asian Art, Bath; Guinness Gallery, Dublin; Print Studio, Glasgow and Edinburgh, The Collyer-Bristow Gallery, London; Fermanagh County Museum, Northern Ireland; Armagh County Museum, Northern Ireland; Hossack Gallery, London
1982 Winner of Gold Medal at Spring Salon, Paris
Winner of Silver Medal at 6th National Art Exhibition in Beijing