Age no barrier for dream-chasing Hangzhou artist

At 80, when others look forward to a relaxing retired life, Chen Jialing is unwilling to lock away his paint box. Instead, he continues to create and dazzle a nation.  
Ti Gong

Chen Jialing visits the city of Zunyi in Guizhou Province.

Chen Jialing, at the age of 80, is still chasing many dreams.

His solo exhibition of ink-wash paintings and calligraphy work, along with a series of art derivatives varying from silk scarves to furniture, porcelain wares and costumes, is underway at the National Museum of China in Beijing until October 15.

“Four years ago, I was invited by Lu Zhangshen (director of the museum) to hold a solo exhibition here. Now I have made it,” Chen said excitedly at the opening of the exhibition, without showing any stress and fatigue. “I have worked (on the show) for four years. I feel fortunate that I was born in such a great era!”

Chen expressed his feelings for his motherland with masterful brushstrokes on rice paper, whether the massive landscape featuring the West Lake or famous mountains. All of them reflect his vitality and energy for art.

He also donated 10 large works to the National Museum of China.

Born in Hangzhou in 1937, Chen rose to fame in the late 1980s, first gaining attention for the “Lotus” series, which fused traditional ink-wash techniques with modern flourishes. 

Chen is an innovator when it comes to applying impressionist and abstract techniques to traditional Chinese ink-wash painting.

Lotus flowers have long been a stock subject among Chinese artists, but Chen’s depiction of them in light hues and smooth curves has distinguished him from his peers.

“I prefer the lotus flowers because their beauty is born out of mud,” Chen says. “A famous Chinese essay says, ‘Lotus is unsullied by the mud it's grown from and remains plainly charming after washing in clean water’.”

Ti Gong

Lotus flower is one of Chen Jialing's favorite subjects.

Unlike other artists, Chen is not willing to limit himself in subjects.

“I don’t like to be stereotyped or just repeat what I have painted, that’s too boring,” he says. “I like to take challenges.”

In fact, the elegance and beauty of his lotus flowers form a striking contrast to the bold and splendid depiction of mountains.

Different from the somewhat modest lotus paintings that launched his career, Chen’s epic mountain landscapes exude power and gravitas at this exhibition.

“In my eyes, a mountain is akin to a person. The knack for this project is to grasp the character of each peak. Usually at my age, many would sit and relax at home, but that’s not me,” he says. 

“Life is too short. I feel I can even countdown my days. But I still have many things on my to-do list. Luckily I was born with a strong body, so it is not difficult for me to climb mountains or create big work.”

Over the past two decades, Chen has made some crossover attempts in blending ink patterns with porcelain, silk clothing and rosewood furniture. He has opened a kiln to create his own ceramics and paints on qipao dresses and scarves.

“I like to try new things. Some people say I still have an ‘amusing’ heart.” 

Three years ago, Chen appeared on the red carpet at the opening of the Rome Film Festival for the premiere of the eponymously titled documentary “Chen Jialing,” produced by award-winning filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It reflects changes in Chinese society as seen through the life of Chen.

The film is one of only a handful of Chinese documentaries that focused on the life of a single contemporary artist, and an even smaller number to be screened at international film festivals.

Being shown at the exhibition, the film recounts how Chen, in his 70s, went to 12 famous mountains over a three-year period to work on new paintings.

“That was a wonderful experience for me,” Chen recalls. “Just imagine a Chinese artist stepping on the red carpet of an international film festival surrounded by flicks and flashes. I designed the silk robe I wore on the red carpet because I thought it was a golden opportunity to not only introduce myself, but also to show the image of Chinese artists.”

In 2016, Chen was honored the “cultural ambassador” at the 35th Hawaii Film Festival.

Ti Gong

Chen Jialing sketches on the Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province.

Ti Gong

“Taihang Mountain” by Chen Jialing

Many are amazed by Chen’s energy and liveliness despite his advanced age. He insists he has not followed any particular regimen or physical activities to stay fit.

“Don’t ask me if I have any secret regimen. I am a wayward person. At my age, I hate to be bonded by food or any physical practice.”

But there is one particular activity that Chen would never consider giving up — playing mahjong.

He says even while working he never missed a chance to indulge in his favorite pastime.

“Mahjong is the pinnacle of Oriental philosophy,” he says. “You never know what you will have in your hands at the beginning, and you never know what you will have at the next step. You have to adjust what you have based on what kind of pieces you pick up. It’s just like life — nothing can be planned at the beginning. You just follow the trends, either of life or of society. When I was born, the bombs of the Japanese invaders were all over my hometown. But now, I am here at the National Museum of China! It happens that my fate flourishes with my country.”

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