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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Portraits of a Chinese Past
By Tom Nugent

Painter Hung Liu, M.F.A. ’86, uses old photographs as a way to re-explore her Chinese past.


Huai Rou, China. April, 1972

Her hands were blistered and her face was splotched with mud after 12 straight hours of hoeing corn on a communal farm at the height of China’s “Cultural Revolution.”

It was a blustery spring afternoon in 1972, and Hung Liu was feeling excited, almost joyful, in spite of her physical discomfort. The feisty and independent-minded 24-year-old from Manchuria had spent the past four years undergoing “compulsory reeducation” at the communal farm about 50 miles from Beijing, but today she had managed to hide a contraband pencil stub in the back pocket of her muddy jacket.

Liu had a pencil, and she was about to begin drawing a black-and-white portrait of a village elder named Mr. Wu.

An old man enjoys a hand-rolled cigarette at twilight. Mr. Wu’s craggy face was lined with age; his bent spine twisted by 70 years of working the stony fields. “He was just another old man nearing the end of his days in an obscure Chinese village,” Liu recalls.

Each evening at dusk, after their 12 hours of raking and hoeing came to an end, the farm workers from the collective would gather to talk and smoke and drink endless cups of tea. And the old man would sit alone at one of the wooden tables that flanked the communal tool shed. Moving slowly, hands trembling, he would light his cheap cigarette, and the pale blue smoke would drift past his squinting eyes.

Could she capture that timeless gaze on the scrap of paper she’d cut from a bag, earlier that day?

Yes! Now she sat at one end of the table, her eyes locked on his ancient face, while her hand raced over the paper. The pencil stub flashed, and the lines came swiftly together. “He was at the end of his life, and who would remember him?” Liu asks, more than three decades later. “He was like my grandmother, an old woman who’d spent her entire life working and struggling in obscurity. She lived, she died, then was gone forever. Who would remember that she had ever walked the earth?”

When Liu gave Mr. Wu the pencil-portrait, he stared at it for a while, then looked up and smiled. She did not forget that smile, it allowed her to dream again. Someday she would be able to make larger paintings, huge paintings of wonderful subjects like Mr. Wu.

That afternoon in rural China took place more than 34 years ago.

Today, after 20 years of artistic struggle in America, Hung Liu is one of this country’s most highly regarded and influential painters. “I want people to see the human suffering all around us,” she says. “The war, the famine, the struggle against disease and poverty. To grow old, and to lose your loved ones. The common tragedies we all share . . . I want to put those tragedies on the canvas, huge and burning, coming more alive with every stroke of my brush!”

Painting Trash At UCSD

On October 26, 1984, Liu boarded a China Air 747 and took off for a brand-new life in the United States. She was 36 years old, and she carried her life savings in her pocketbook— exactly $20. But she was also in possession of a letter that promised her a full scholarship at UCSD, where she’d been admitted as a master’s degree candidate by the Fine Arts Department.

Behind her lay four years of backbreaking labor at the Huai Rou “proletarian education farm,” one of the thousands of forced-labor settlements that had been operated by Mao Zedong at the height of China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

The daughter of a former captain in Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Army, the Kuomintang—ultimately defeated by Mao in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-1949—the Manchuria-born Liu had survived years of famine and chaotic violence before moving to Beijing at age 11 and becoming a top student and prizewinning high school graduate.

Arrested by the Red Guards because of her brilliant academic record at an experimental school for gifted students, Liu completed a four-year reeducation at the farm, then earned a degree in art education at Beijing Teachers’ College. By 1979, she was enrolled in Beijing’s famed Central Academy of Fine Arts, where the students were drilled relentlessly in the basics of drawing and painting—“Copy, copy, copy!”—then taught the Soviet-inspired style of Socialist Realism so they could become effective propagandists for the working class.

Liu survived it all, and then spent three years struggling to win a coveted passport that would allow her to study art in the West. Accepted at UCSD in 1981, she was refused the passport again and again. But each semester, the Visual Arts department renewed its offer of a scholarship. Then suddenly in 1984, she found herself climbing aboard a jumbo jet to California.

“I had never been in an airplane before, can you believe it? I was also struggling with the pain of saying goodbye to China—the world that had shaped me, and the only world I’d ever known,” Liu told @UCSD magazine during a recent interview.

She arrived in California with two huge suitcases, $20 in her pocket and no other money. “It was all very strange, very new for me,” she says.

Once settled on campus, she had to borrow the money to pay her first month’s rent, even as she struggled to assimilate Western ideas about the meaning of art. One of her first instructors was the legendary Allan Kaprow—a revolutionary figure (and the inventor of the 1960s-era performance art form known as a “Happening”). He quickly challenged the tightly wound social realist to loosen up and have some fun on the canvas.

“I signed up for his art seminar,” she recalls, “and one of the first things he did was to put several students in his truck and take us to a big trash dumpster near the campus. And he told us: ‘Today we are going to paint the trash!’

“I was completely lost! I had been trained so carefully at the Central Academy in Beijing, and I had been taught to take everything so seriously. I said, ‘What is this? Allan wants me to paint trash from the dumpster?’

“But I grabbed a board from the dumpster, and I began to splash paint on it. And all at once, I saw that art could be playful. Allan had liberated me from the ‘burden of expectation’ as an artist. For me, it was the beginning of a whole new way of seeing art. It was East meets West!”

When Allan Kaprow died at age 78 last April 5 (see obituary page 47), Liu flew down from Oakland—where she has been teaching art since 1990 at Mills College—to pay her respects to the legendary artist who had been her mentor.

“It was a wonderful event,” she said of the three-hour memorial service. “His friends read poems and sang songs and commented on his amazing career as an artist, and on his kindness as a friend. I was glad to be there, as a way of saying thanks—because Allan changed my artistic work, and he changed my life.”



UCSD's Department of Visual Arts

Hung Liu

Hung Liu's Paintings and the Polity of Immigrants

Full Circle: Revolutions in the Paintings of Hung Liu

Works & Conversations:

Conversation with Hung Liu

Called Home:  The painting (left) is based on a historical photograph of a tortured Chinese woman soldier and her comrade, in Japanese captivity.

“They are facing death, yet strong and calm,” says Liu, “as if they were going home. It’s a memorial piece to honor the many women who sacrificed their lives for their beliefs, regardless of which side they might be on."