TO LEARN CHINESE CULTURE, THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE
Today, exactly on my birthday, another, this time longer article appeared in the Chinese daily newspaper Guangming Ribao. It is an interview about my years in China, my studies in the academy, and my contributions to the cultural exchange between Austria and China. For the sake of simplicity, I used google-translate for the translation into English. (Lao Cai means “Old Cai”, my Chinese name).
Recently, taking advantage of the opportunity to record a video for this newspaper’s “Global New Year Couplets”, the reporter interviewed Austrian artist Friedrich Zettl. Zett’s Chinese friends call him “Lao Cai”. Walking into the living room of Lao Cai’s house is like walking into a palace of traditional Chinese culture: traditional Chinese landscape paintings and calligraphy works are hung on the walls and elegant mahogany cabinets. There are various kinds of Chinese artworks such as Buddha statues and ceramic ornaments. Among them is the artistic essence of Tibetan Buddhism-thangka, which is very special in Vienna, the capital of Western classical music.
Lao Cai can not only write good calligraphy but is also proficient in traditional Chinese freehand painting and seal cutting. Such characters are rare even in Europe. Lao Cai speaks fluent Chinese. He studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was the first Western student to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts after the “Cultural Revolution”. The front line has witnessed the growing prosperity of Chinese and Western cultural exchanges since China’s reform and opening up.
Lao Cai said that he had been interested in art, especially oil painting, since his youth, and later began to study Asian art, initially Japanese art, but in the process of learning, he discovered that Japanese painting and calligraphy originated in China, which prompted him to follow determined to learn Chinese. However, in the early 1970s, studying in China was still unthinkable. Until the end of the 1970s, with the help of the Austrian Embassy in China, Lao Cai got the opportunity to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. This experience also became a rich and colorful stroke in life. Lao Cai studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts for 5 years, allowing him to study calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting, seal cutting, and even Chinese medicine, poetry, and Peking opera. Lao Cai said that that period was a golden period for him to gain a deep understanding of Chinese culture. At that time, China’s reform and opening up had just begun. The teachers and classmates of the school were also eager to learn about Western culture and art. Although the material conditions were not rich, they seemed monotonous. Life also creates more opportunities for communication and discussion with Chinese teachers and classmates. Lao Cai said that although the leaders of the Central Academy of Fine Arts at that time did not have much experience in dealing with Western students, they were very friendly. What is more commendable is that the school often invites some famous teachers to teach in person, such as Li Keran, Lu Yanshao, Wang Zi Wu, Fan Zeng, etc., this has benefited Lao Cai a lot. When he was in China, Lao Cai also had a hobby of collecting Chinese antiques. In Beijing at that time, he often found antique calligraphy and painting, which opened the door for him to become an antique collector in the future.
In the last two years in China, Lao Cai served as the cultural commissioner of the embassy under the recommendation of the then Austrian ambassador to China Wolte, allowing him to give full play to his expertise in the field of Chinese culture. Lao Cai believes that cultural exchange is an important factor in shortening the distance between countries. He not only acted as the Chinese translator for the embassy but also participated in the introduction of the movie “Sissi” into China. This movie became known to many Chinese in the early days. More coincidentally, a friend of his happened to be the director of the Vienna Film Festival, so under the efforts of Lao Cai, Austria held the first Chinese film exhibition, from early silent films to Zhang Yimou’s new films, more than 40 Chinese films were to be shown to a western audience.
Speaking of the changes in China over the past few decades, Lao Cai said that when he was studying in China, many Chinese hadn’t even seen foreigners much, so that he was often pointed at by people saying “Marx is coming”. Since the reform and opening up, China has undergone earth-shaking changes in all aspects. The whole society is full of vitality. The ordinary people are friendly and polite, and the attitude toward dealing with problems is also very professional. This is even more than many Europeans. The changes in the social environment are also reflected in the rapid development in the field of culture and art, constantly introducing new ones. In contrast, Europe is more adherent to traditions. Although the spiritual heritage of Mozart and Beethoven has been inherited, in terms of cultural innovation, Lao Cai believes China is ahead.
Regarding the understanding of Chinese traditional culture, Lao Cai told reporters that he has been working in the cultural field all his life. If someone asks him which kind of culture is the most outstanding, he will answer without thinking: Chinese culture. The most important reason is that no culture can integrate literature, calligraphy, seal cutting, and even philosophy and religion so closely as traditional Chinese culture. For example, Chinese traditional Chinese painting cannot be separated from calligraphy, because the skill of using brushes is acquired through practice calligraphy. To learn Chinese painting, you must first practice calligraphy. Many famous Chinese art masters, such as Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi, are calligraphers and seal cutters, but their paintings are so famous that people know relatively little about their seal carving accomplishments. Furthermore, whether it is calligraphy or seal cutting, it is indispensable to traditional Chinese art, such as bells and dings, stone drums, and inscriptions. These traditional arts that have lasted for two to three thousand years have had a profound impact on modern art in terms of aesthetics. The impact is unique in the world.
Another reason is the beauty of Chinese art techniques. For the traditional Chinese painting that Lao Cai is best at, a simple combination of lines can express different content. This technique is introduced in the “Mustard Seed Garden Painting Book”. This combination of lines expresses the content and depth of the painting. Techniques are something that every learner of traditional Chinese painting must master. Another example is the art of seal cutting, which is inseparable from painting. No art form can show philosophy, history, design, and many other contents in such a small area.
Of course, the road to achieving artistic ideals is always full of hardships. Lao Cai said that learning Chinese traditional culture not only requires years of hard training but more importantly, is full of love. It is because of his love for Chinese culture that Lao Cai has held lectures, painting exhibitions, and published books many times after returning from his studies to show traditional Chinese culture to the world and made a positive contribution to the exchange of Chinese and Western cultures.
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