May 2014: Harpers Bazaar Art Hong Kong
Image credited from Harpers Bazaar Art Hong Kong
The Hidden Dragon - Huang Yao
While most artists live through their lives practicing only one form of art style, Picasso was one of the exceptions who was proficient in multiple art forms and continued to introduce new styles. Huang Yao was such a genius in China as well. His style of calligraphy was unique, his landscape paintings were lyrical, and his comics contained profound social reflections. He was indeed talented and he was once renowned, but how did he fade into obscurity? Had his daughter-in-law and Carolyn, his granddaughter not go through his belongings and pulled out all his paintings and manuscripts, as well as founded the Huang Yao Foundation, studied relevant literature and researched on his art history, this once prominent man would have been forgotten… that will be a real pity.
Huang Yao was trained since young and as such, he had a strong foundation in calligraphy. In 1933, he joined Shanghai Post at the young age of 16 and became a journalist. According to Carolyn, he was really passionate about being a journalist. He started off with editorial works on columns and commentaries, and then one year later, he started publishing his Niubizi comic series in the newspaper and only then he gradually revealed his skills and visions for art.
Niubizi – Anti-Japanese, Anti-Mickey
Huang Yao drew Niubizi to look like him, and added in some comical strokes. He is a Chinese gentleman who is courageous yet with a sense of humor. He speaks up for the ordinary people and became popular very quickly. The creation of Niubizi was partly in meeting the trend of “current affairs comics” in those days, and partly to encourage and inspire the Chinese people to have their own cartoon character as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Popeye were infiltrating the country.
In 1937, the country was seething with unrest. Japan invaded China, and Huang Yao started creating a lot of anti-Japanese comics and woodblock prints using Niubizi as the main character. The current debate on “Let art be art and politics be politics” was already in Huang Yao’s mind back then. He let his art take up part of the social responsibility and it was obvious that this worked. Niubizi attracted the attention of the Japanese army, so they came out with a fake Niubizi as part of their propaganda to win the hearts of the Chinese people and Huang Yao had to denounce that he had join the enemy in a press confrerence. It’s not hard to imagine how dangerous it was for him to fight the Japanese army with just a pen! After receiving death threats from the Japanese, he was forced to leave Shanghai, but he continued drawing his anti-Japanese comics till the end of the war.
In the ensuing days, while escaping the chaos caused by the wars, setting up art exhibitions, and spreading art and positive values to the masses, Huang Yao got married and his travels took him to Chongqing, Guiyang, Guilin, Vietnam, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and lastly Malaysia. His paintings reflected local lifestyles and customs everywhere he went. He also published a series of Niubizi comics in the newspapers while in Hong Kong, though the main themes were adjusted accordingly to the life there and included colonial consumerism, greed, poverty of the poor, etc.
Apart from comics, Huang Yao also “wrote” landscapes, human figures, flowers and birds. While he was in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, he “wrote” the landscapes of Nanyang using ink, and he even strongly believed that Chinese painting tools and techniques can be used to depict the entire nature landscape and not just those in Nanyang. In his book “Moyuan Suibi”, he said, “Cezanne mentioned that all things in nature can be treated as various conical shapes. This in fact is similar to Chinese calligraphy’s “Zhangcao”, “Jincao” or “Kuangcao” and hence the dots, lines and shades which form the basics of painting. The landscape in Nanyang consists mainly of coconut, palms, cane... We can use calligraphy strokes to write the attap hut, bamboo fences, coconut trunk ladder... Basically writing the landscape as the heart dictates and all the things in the painting will be formed as the brush moves. The supple brush adds a certain rhythm to the painting; doesn’t that makes it more interesting?”
Huang Yao truly lived up to his words and it was as if he had mastered some martial arts secret and he could “write” his drawings without extensive deliberation. He also has another gem known as “Yibihua” (one stroke painting), where the main part is completed with one major stroke and some minor details added on.
It’s said that Chinese calligraphy and painting share the same source, and Huang Yao also has a strong foundation in calligraphy. His father may have been a businessman but he was a very knowledgeable man. He taught Huang Yao calligraphy and painting, literature, etymology, history and philosophy. He trained Huang Yao to use pure rainwater and to practice his cursive script on a smooth stone slab, which helped him master the techniques of using the brush.
Huang Yao created “Chuyun Shu”, a style of writing from the bottom of the page up to the top that seems effortless and filled with childlike innocence. The name “Chuyun shu” is taken from a phrase in one of Tao Yuanming’s poems, “the clouds naturally emerged from the mountains.” Ancient Chinese characters were of incomparable beauty to him. In order to understand the origins and development of each Chinese character, he spent a long time researching on archaic pictograms, oracle bone inscriptions, Chinese scripts, and all sorts of rare texts.
In 1950s, China began simplifying Chinese characters, and Huang Yao was distressed because of this. He felt that not only was the beauty of the characters compromised, many lost their connection to the ancient pictograph roots. He created a series of Chinese character paintings to show the beauty of these characters and indirectly achieved a unique style of painting.
Inheritance of Animation Dream
Huang Yao was a legend in both the paths he has taken in art and life. In Vietnam, he operated a bank with his friends and in Malaysia he focused wholeheartedly for the cause of education. He lived in the golden age [in Shanghai], full of talented individuals and his friends included Xu Beihong (painter), Zhang Henshui (novelist), Zhang Leping (creator of Sanmao), Zhao Shaoang (Lingnan artist), Duanmu Hongliang (author), etc. However, he kept a low profile once he moved to South East Asia.
Carolyn recalled, “I knew my grandfather could write and draw. I would prepare the ink for him and he would guide me in my art homework. Sometimes he would draw something and I would fill in the colors. I never knew he was such an interesting figure. He often wrote and painted, and I thought all grandfathers do that!” Carolyn’s father would often get invitations to dinner, most likely because of his own father’s reputation, but he did not know about his father’s glorious past. Carolyn deliberated that it is possible he stayed low profile because he did not want too many people to know him as China went through several upheavals.
Huang passed away at the age of 70 years old in 1987 and his wife passed away in 1998. Carolyn sorted out the belongings of her grandparents and discovered the treasure left behind by her grandfather. She set up the Huang Yao Foundation to establish Huang Yao’s place in the art world and also started a scholarship and grants to for artists. All the historical materials and art works are filed and uploaded to the website http://huangyao.org so that we can remember the rich and wonderful life of this great artist.
At the same time, the Foundation is planning to launch a series of Niubizi animated shows in both English and Chinese, which they hope will promote some traditional Chinese values that are gradually fading. Huang Yao was very far-sighted; he was already thinking of the animation of Niubizi when he drew the comics. His dream shall now be carried out and achieved by the next generation.
Anti-Japanese Door God (woodblock print) in the image of Niubizi, distributed to the people and pasted on doors as part of anti-Japanese propaganda. The words written are "Defeat Japan, Revive China," and "Those with Money should Donate Money, those with Strength should give Strength".
Actual print of the Anti-Japanese Door God
Wenzihua – paintings infused with Chinese characters to draw the beauty of Chinese characters. Title of painting: “San Yang Kai Tai (Good Beginning)”
Chuyun Shu – the art of calligraphy written from bottom up
Huang Yao was trained in calligraphy and painting by his father since young
Huang Yao likes children and often uses them in his drawings. Title of painting: “Hero”
Huang Yao’s self portrait
Huang Yao in his younger days; resemblance with Niubizi
Niubizi “Granting Happiness” cover page. The cover is that of the God of Prosperity, wearing his banner, to bestow happiness. Under the cover, the God of prosperity’s banner says, there is no more happiness to bestow.