Yuan Yunsheng: “The Return of the Soul” by Taking China’s Own Path

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2021.5.8

In 1979, the completion of the huge mural “Water-Splashing Festival: An Ode to Life” in Beijing Capital International Airport led people to remember the name of Yuan Yunsheng. However, it did not just bring historical glory to Mr. Yuan Yunsheng—with a background in the early stage of reform and opening up in China, with the depiction of several naked women in the picture it also caused him to be criticized at the time.

When the controversy gradually subsided and people’s attention was taken away from whether the “naked women” were appropriate at that time, and returned to the artistic language and creative techniques of the work itself—the vigorous and active ethnic minorities, the impassioned festival atmosphere, and the characteristically decorative patterns and colors of the Dai nationality were finally noticed. 

All these elements have outlined a free, upward and enthusiastic picture on the life of ethnic minorities, which vividly embodies the artist’s creative method of stepping deep into life and experiencing life. The depiction and expression of the image of the Dai people in the picture could be traced back to 1978, when Yuan Yunsheng went to Xishuangbanna, Yunnan to produce a group of line drawings.

01 幸福的泼水节(第一张色彩稿)纸本水粉.jpg

Yuan Yunsheng, Draft of “Water-splashing Festival—An Ode to Life”, gouache on paper, 33.9×198.6cm, 1979

Image from Platform China Contemporary Art Institute Wechat Account

It is interesting to notice that in many interviews, people were curious about whether these works created in Yunnan were prepared by Yuan Yunsheng for the creation of the airport mural later. In response to this question, Yuan Yunsheng denied the association and said: “When creating Yunnan sketches, I did not know about the airport mural.” [1] In fact, for Yuan Yunsheng, the “airport mural incident” was only one part of his creative career. Beyond the halo and label given by history, we can see that in Yuan Yunsheng’s turbulent life, each stage of his creation has showcased different characteristics and was closely related to the environment he was in at that time. However, no matter what stage he is in, Yuan Yunsheng is always standing in line with nationality and the traditions of China, thus focusing and exploring the development of issues such as Chinese and Western art, traditional techniques and the spirit and modern social life, among others. 

“The Return of the Soul”: Sketching and Line Drawing

Exhibition View of “Regeneration: Yuan Yunsheng”, Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, 2021

In 1982, Yuan Yunsheng, who returned from research and sketching in the Northwest, wrote an article “Regeneration: Feelings of Traveling in Northwestern China”, that discussed what happened after the New Culture Movement in 1919 in China, the new idea of “science” that had also intervened in the field of Chinese art and art education, and introduced sketching in basic art training was a typical embodiment to  practice the idea of science in art educational circles. From studying the basics of European modeling to studying the basic education theory of the Soviet Union, however, Yuan Yunsheng saw the single art style that was derived from the single sketch method, and he said bluntly that “we cannot accept its rule.” [2] 

Yuan Yunsheng realized that the relationship between science and art in the Western world was not based on the excessive closeness and self-rigidity of scientific epistemology like Cheschakov’s sketch system. On the contrary, science and art intervene and promote each other. What was the most essential point at the time was that, the fundamental difference between the objective world of scientific research and the spiritual world of artistic expression were also keenly perceived by the Western world.

What is the essence of sketching? Yuan Yunsheng made his own response in the essay “Regeneration” which states “It is both a foundation and independent art. It may be rigorous training or the creation of symbols. It seems to be more essential and simple.” [3] It is in this explanation that Yuan Yunsheng introduced a discussion on the technique of line drawing, a traditional Chinese technique in ink paintings. He believed that the artistic conception of blanking, the mutual complementation of abandonment and imagination emphasized by this technique, is precisely a form of “pure sketch”.

 Exhibition View, “Regeneration: Yuan Yunsheng”, Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, 2021

Recently, the exhibition “Regeneration: Yuan Yunsheng” launched in Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, presents Yuan Yunsheng’s series of work featuring line drawings during his trip to northwestern China in the 1980s, which includes line drawings of stone carvings in Huo Qubing's Tomb from Western Han Dynasty and buddha statues from Northern Wei Dynasty, etc. By addressing a series of line drawings, the exhibition intends to introduce the artist Yuan Yunsheng and his creative process from another perspective apart from his prestigious work “Water-Splashing Festival: An Ode to Life” and his identity as a mural painter.

From his creations and what has been discussed in the article “Regeneration”, Yuan Yunsheng observed that although the stone carvings in Huo Qubing’s Tomb shared no unified creation rule, the structure of the main body is simple while the contour lines are fluent and concise. The stone carvings have given life, vitality and confidence with just a little carving, and every piece is full of energy and shows a strong personality. In his opinion, these ancient stone carvings reveal an “intrinsic power” that was missing in modern Chinese sculpture at the time [4].

09 霍去病墓老人与熊写生Sketch of the old man and the bear in Huo Qubing's tomb, 纸本水墨 50x80cm 1981.jpg

 Yuan Yunsheng, “Sketch of the Old Man and the Bear in Huo Qubing's Tomb”, ink on paper, 50×80cm, 1981

11 霍去病墓石牛侧面写生Side Sketch of Stone Cow in Huo Qubing's Tomb, 纸本水墨 65x93.5cm 1981.jpg

Yuan Yunsheng, “Side Sketch of Stone Cow in Huo Qubing's Tomb”, ink on paper, 65×93.5cm, 1981

12 霍去病墓石兽Sketch of Stone Beast in Huo Qubing's Tomb, 纸本水墨 83x67cm 1981.jpg

Yuan Yunsheng, “Sketch of Stone Carving in Huo Qubing's Tomb”,  ink on paper, 66×99cm, 1981

While the enlightenment brought up by the statues from the Northern Wei Dynasty firstly came to general consciousness, that is, the various parts of the statue were mutually influenced and formed, so that it could realize not only the formal but also the spiritual unity. The other inspiration was driven by its simplicity, which was reflected in the coordination and rhythm between the “mysterious smile” in various faces and other parts of the statues. Moreover, Yuan Yunsheng also discussed the ability of restraint in art: “As far as the capacity of the model is concerned, the more specific it is, the more unitary it could be; the more abstract it is, the deeper and richer (its meaning could contain and deliver). The only problem lies in the accuracy of the norms and the precise grasp of intentions.” [5] The statues of the Northern Wei Dynasty in Yuan Yunsheng’s eyes were a thorough interweaving of lines with perfect integration of line and body.14 麦积山双佛像白描Line drawing of Maiji Mountain double Buddha statues,138.5x69.5cm,宣纸水墨,1981.jpg

Yuan Yunsheng, “Line Drawing of Maiji Mountain double Buddha Statues”, 138.5×69.5cm, ink on Xuan paper, 1981

In the essay “Regeneration”, Yuan Yunsheng touched on the essence and representation of tradition more or less with his own feelings in sketching, and used this as an opportunity to merge and sort out his reflections in terms of sketching and line drawings, ancient and modern, traditional Chinese and Western thinking and practice. As scholar Yin Shuangxi once commented: “Yuan Yunsheng uses line drawing as a way of self-cultivation. He explores the most accurate line expression using irregular lines, so as to quickly achieve the inner consistency between the artist and the representative object.” [6]

“Memories of the Water Town”: The Restore and Recall of Memories

15 1962年 第三画室师生在中山公园举行毕业总结时留影(左起:董希文、许幸之、艾民有、袁运生、王路、颜铁铮、费正).jpg

Group Photo of No.3 Painting Studio’s teachers and students, taken after their graduation wrap-up meeting at the Zhongshan Park (From left to right: Dong Xiwen, Xu Xingzhi, Ai Minyou,Yuan Yunsheng, Wang Lu, Yan Tiezheng, Fei Zheng)

16《水乡的 记忆》(2020年修复后) 袁运生 243×245cm 1962 布面油彩 2021年艺术家捐赠中央美术学院美术馆.jpg

“Memories of the Water Town” (after restoration in 2020), 243×245cm, 1962, oil on canvas, donated by the artist to CAFAM in 2021

In fact, Yuan Yunsheng’s practice and persistence in line drawings can be traced back to the late 1950s. In Yuan Yunsheng’s memory, this choice also followed the call of his teacher Dong Xiwen’s ideals. [7] During this period, Yuan Yunsheng insisted on taking a different path from the teaching system in the Central Academy of Fine Arts at that time. In 1962, Yuan Yunsheng visited the Dunhuang Art Exhibition for ten days in Shanghai and was deeply touched. After returning to his hometown, he reproduced 48 pieces of Bo Gu Ye Zi by Chen Hongshou from the late Ming Dynasty; at the same time, he went to ancient towns such as Luzhi to sketch and has created a batch of brush sketches. When he returned to CAFA in March of that year, “Memories of the Water Town” was finally implemented as the theme of his graduation creation.

The work “Memories of the Water Town” shows a common lively market scene in Jiangnan, China. Before preparing for this creation, Yuan Yunsheng had already practiced line drawing over many months: “I could draw a lot of figures on a 25×10cm cotton paper, and on a paper slightly larger, I could draw a whole town. I put aside these practices, and let the figures appear in my mind naturally—the only thing I did was to organize them.” [8]

17《水乡的记忆》油画小稿 袁运生 23×29cm 1962 布面油彩 2021年艺术家捐赠中央美术学院美术馆.jpg

Draft of “Memories of the Water Town”, 23×29cm, oil on canvas, 2021, donated by the artist to CAFAM

After deciding on the theme for his graduation work, Yuan Yunsheng once again returned to his hometown, gathering and sketching in ancient towns of many places in the Jiangnan area to accumulate creative materials. In his creation, Yuan Yunsheng insisted on not using models, as he addressed: “I felt more at ease without models and I even put sketching aside. By doing so, it turned out to be closer to my feelings than sketching.” [9] This non-soviet style as a creative attempt has caused strong divergence and widespread “controversy” in the graduation grading at the time—Mr. Dong Xiwen praised the painting and thought it should get full marks, while some teachers thought it should fail.

The fate of the work “Memories of the Water Town” in history was turbulent, and after controversy, disappearance and restoration, in 2020, Mr. Yuan Yunsheng wrote to Fan Di’an, president of CAFA, proposing to donate the work. After restoration over more than three years, it was finally presented in the exhibition “The Restoration of Memory: Study of Yuan Yunsheng’s work ‘Memories of the Water Town’” held by CAFAM. The exhibition collected many drawings and notes from the creation process of the works, including small-scale sketches, targeted gouache character drafts, and notes for the creation plan were formulated for the finished work, etc. Using time as the clue, the exhibition tried to showcase the birth and development of this piece of work. [10]

展览现场 补.jpg

The Missing Draft of the WorkExhibition View of “The Restoration of Memory: Study of Yuan Yunsheng’s work ‘Memories of the Water Town’” , CAFAM, 2021

20《水乡的记忆》创 作素材之 1 袁运生 26.4×19cm 1962 纸本水彩 2021年艺术家捐赠中央美术学院美术馆.jpg

Footage No.1 for “Memories of the Water Town”, 26.4×19cm, 1962, gouache on paper, donated by the artist to CAFAM in 2021 

22《水乡的记忆》创 作素材之 19 袁运生 26.4×19.1cm 1962 纸本水彩 2021年艺术家捐赠中央美术学院美术馆.jpg

Footage No.19 for “Memories of the Water Town”, 26.4×19cm, 1962, gouache on paper, donated by the artist to CAFAM in 2021 

Looking back at the ups and downs of this work, Yuan Yunsheng, as a young student at the time, was already trying to express his understanding and feelings about the combination of Eastern and Western art. However, the fate of the artist and his work is often difficult to separate from the era and circumstances in which he or she lives. Through the review of the history of the work this time, the exhibition expects to explore the laws of artistic creation and the complex relationship between work and society, hoping to trigger some reflection from the spectators. [11]

24《水乡的记忆》创 作素材之 42 袁运生 8.5×18.8cm 1962 纸本墨笔 2021年艺术家捐赠中央美术学院美术馆.jpg

Footage No.42 for “Memories of the Water Town”, 8.5×18.8cm, 1962, ink on paper, donated by the artist to CAFAM in 2021 

Leaving the Motherland for a Foreign Country:

Looking at China from a distance while experiencing the West from up close

After graduating, Yuan Yunsheng was assigned to Northeastern China. Until 1978, he was in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan to complete a group of line drawing works that later became significant to the murals in Beijing Capital Airport. Yuan Yunsheng recalled that there was an ideal desire to regenerate Chinese art and culture in China at that time, and it was under such an ideal atmosphere that he carried out this serious practice. However, it has to be admitted that the “airport mural incident” in 1979 did hit him and interrupted Yuan Yunsheng’s enthusiastic and ideal dream for a mural movement. Following such a disappointment, in 1982, Yuan Yunsheng was invited to the United States as a visiting scholar. During his fourteen years in the United States, he was invited by different schools to create murals or give lectures.

27 傣女一般像,Portrait of the Dai girl Yiban, Ink on Xuan paper 毛笔宣纸,68x95cm,1978秋.jpg

“Portrait of the Dai Girl Yiban”, ink on xuan paper, 68×95cm, Autumn of 1978

27-1 袁运生-眺望西方 Looking west-纸本水墨 136x70cm-1991.JPG

 “Looking West”, ink on paper, 136×70cm, 1991

Leaving the domestic context and heading to the United States, Yuan Yunsheng was able to experience face-to-face exchanges with Western art and thoughts that he had been “viewing from a distance” before. During this period, he met expressionist artist Willem de Kooning and Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, etc. At the same time, based on the soil of Western society, Yuan Yunsheng began to look back at the East and “overlook” the traditional art and context. From a Western context, Yuan Yunsheng first deeply studied the ins and outs of Western art and culture, juxtaposed and compared with the artistic achievements that occurred in China. In the comparison between theory and practice, Yuan Yunsheng also conducted a wide range of attempts in style and artistic practices, both abstract and expressive. It was not deliberately to learn a certain genre or doctrine, but under the impact of the active wave of thought and art in the United States, Yuan Yunsheng's exploration and reflection never stopped, and gradually derived his own set of creative language:

“(I would) first pile up the ideas to be completely abstract, then start from here, expand its inclusiveness, seek a solid combination with appropriate concrete figures, so as to be free and unobstructed. I have been looking for something generous, broad and glorious.” [12]

28 .jpg

Yuan Yunsheng was at artist Willem de Kooning’s studio in 1982.

Image from Chinese Classical Sketches: Yuan Yunsheng Sketch Collection, P4


Yuan Yunsheng was at artist Robert Rauschenberg’s studio in 1983.

Image from Chinese Classical Sketches: Yuan Yunsheng Sketch Collection, P4.

In the spring of 1993, Yuan Yunsheng, who was in the United States, agreed to an exclusive interview with the journal Decoration during his short return to China. He talked about his observation and reflection when standing on the soil of the West and looking into the East. When he first arrived in the United States and faced modern Western art, Yuan Yunsheng realized that Western modern art must rely on a certain historical basis or knowledge to completely understand certain paintings. This makes it difficult for modern art to communicate with ordinary people: “The difference in culture produces a gap for intuitive art to deliver messages, and the concept becomes the background of a painting.” [13] This forced him to understand and learn the different contexts of the development of Chinese and Western art.

In close contact with Western culture, it is undoubtedly difficult to achieve individual independence. For Yuan Yunsheng, he did not evade “contents” brought from China, such as thoughts and experience, in a brand-new environment. Instead, he attempted to put the experience in China into his creation, and adjust his vision under the influence of a new environment and culture. It was at this time that Yuan Yunsheng’s creative vision expanded from focusing on China to focusing on the common destiny of mankind. The broadening of his horizons and the extension of his creative focus enabled Yuan Yunsheng to think in a more objective and free manner and to express the combination of spirit from Chinese tradition and modern art.

However, in the United States in the late 1980s, when painting and sculpture were declared dead, Yuan Yunsheng realized that this young country was affected by the theory of evolution and regarded the notion of “change” as the most fundamental factor. Under such changes and waves, Yuan Yunsheng once again deeply realized that China should not follow the Western modernist vein step by step, but ought to take its own path from the nation’s long-standing culture and traditional spirit. Therefore, at the invitation of Mr. Jin Shangyi, Yuan Yunsheng decided to return to China to teach in the fourth studio of the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1996. When he came back, his first speech focused on “taking China’s own road.”

In his subsequent teaching work, Yuan Yunsheng put forward the problems and reforms of art education. Through field inspections of ancient classic works from various places, many comparisons and selections, he finally proposed to use classic works in ancient Chinese bronzes, sculptures, calligraphy, and Chinese paintings as basic teaching materials in art education, thus trying to construct China’s own fine arts system. [14]

Exhibition View of “The Restoration of Memory: Study of Yuan Yunsheng’s work ‘Memories of the Water Town’” , CAFAM, 2021

In fact, in each stage of Mr. Yuan Yunsheng’s life and creation, instead of focusing on the integration and connection between Chinese and Western art, he placed more emphasis on how to trace and revive the spirit of Chinese culture in the context of local art development, and how to maintain the self-confidence and independence of national culture and connotation in the unpredictable modern art trends. In Yuan Yunsheng’s understanding, “the distance and difference between various cultures is the true platform and meaning of cultural exchanges... If cultural exchanges are all turning to the so-called ‘integration’, how can we grasp diversity then?” [15] China should have its own standards and aesthetics for judging art to solve its own problems in the development of local art. In this sense, the cultural identity that Yuan Yunsheng emphasized is still worthy of continuous attention and effort to develop its independence.

Exhibition View of “The Restoration of Memory: Study of Yuan Yunsheng’s work ‘Memories of the Water Town’” , CAFAM, 2021


[1] Ke Ping, “Taking China's Own Road—An Interview with Yuan Yunsheng”, Art Observation, P42, 2018.

[2]-[5] Yuan Yunsheng, “Regeneration: Feelings of Traveling in the Northwestern China”, Fine Arts, P4-7, 1982.

[6] Yin Shuangxi, “Eternal Smile—Research Notes on Yuan Yunsheng’s Art”, Art Research, P8, 2017.

[7] Liu Yan, “Regeneration: From the Standpoint of Chinese Culture—An Interview with Mr. Yuan Yunsheng”, Art Research, P6, 2004.

[8]-[9]Yuan Yunsheng, “My Mural Dream”, 1980, quoted from exhibition materials, CAFAM, 2021.

[10]-[11] Edited from Exhibition Materials, CAFAM, 2021.

[12] Yuan Yunsheng, “Self  Preface”, Chinese Classical Sketches: Yuan Yunsheng Sketch Collection, P6, 1998.

[13] Zou Wen, “Looking at the East in the West: Mr. Yuan Yunsheng Talking about Art”, Decoration, 1993.

[14] Ke Ping, “Taking China's Own Road—An Interview with Yuan Yunsheng”, Art Observation, P42, 2018.

[15] Liu Yan, “Regeneration: From the Standpoint of Chinese Culture—An Interview with Mr. Yuan Yunsheng”, Art Research, P4, 2004.


[1] Zhu Yeqing, “That Day That Year”, Joint Publishing, 2005.

[2] Exhibition Texts of “Regeneration: Yuan Yunsheng”, Platform China Contemporary Art Institute, 2021.

[3] Exhibition Texts of “The Restoration of Memory: Study of Yuan Yunsheng’s work ‘Memories of the Water Town’”, CAFAM, 2021.

Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou and edited by Sue.

View of the exhibition in CAFAM by Hu Sichen

Image courtesy of CAFAM and Platform China Contemporary Art Institute