Chinese artist He E is one of the country's most-celebrated female sculptors. In fact, her best-known public statue, Mother Yellow River, has been listed as a landmark in Lanzhou, a city in Northwest China's Gansu Province. "Sculpting is the blood in my heart … Let it flow freely. When it stops, it will clot and become eternal," says He.
He E was born in 1937 in Wuhan, the capital of Central China's Hubei Province. Her father named her He E, because "E" is the abbreviation?for Hubei. He's parents came from East China's Shanghai. During the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945), the Hes moved several times, and the family finally settled in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
"I developed a great interest in painting when I was young, as my father enjoyed collecting artists' paintings. I painted every day, and I dreamed about studying in a college of fine arts," He recalls.
When she was 15, He's father took her to visit a famous painter, Zhao Wangyun. Zhao praised He for her paintings, and Zhao wrote a letter of recommendation to help He gain admission to Northwest Art College (the predecessor of Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts).
After it received that letter, the college scheduled an exam for He, and the school asked her to create a painting, with the title Good Harvest. He integrated various elements related to a harvest, such as farmhouses, trees, farmers reaping wheat and a donkey pulling a cart carrying harvested wheat. In 1952, He was admitted to the college.
Of the three majors — painting, sculpting and craft making — of the college's Department of Fine Arts, He chose sculpting, and she became the school's only female sculpting student. "I was curious about sculpting. In addition, my hands are big, even bigger than some male students. So, I chose (sculpting)," says He.
She studied hard, and she mastered various sculpting techniques. In 1955, she graduated from the college, and her sculpture of Li Shizhen, a famous ancient Chinese medical scholar during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was exhibited at the Northwest Fine Arts Works Exhibition.
A short time after she graduated, He moved to Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Gansu Province, to work in Gansu Fine Art Store. Four years later, she was hired to teach at Lanzhou Academy of Arts.
Learning in Dunhuang
In 1962, He left Lanzhou for the Gobi Desert, where she worked for Dunhuang Academy. She was shocked after she arrived at the Mogao Caves, the shrine of Buddhist art treasures located 25 kilometers Southeast of downtown Dunhuang.
"I was very fortunate to be there. During the following 12 years, I observed, measured and copied the colorful statues in the Mogao Caves. I gradually learned about the outstanding and creative talents of ancient craftsmen who created the statues," says He.
"Their skills were superior. Moreover, they dedicated their lives to making the statues. Though their bodies no longer existed, their art works had become immortal," He adds.
While she was copying the statues, He gained an insight into the key of Dunhuang art. "It is creation. I realized that the ancient glory wasn't our glory, and the ancient creation didn't equal our creation," says He.
In 1979, He made a sculpture, named The Great Craftsman, in tribute to the ancient creators who had established the brilliant Dunhuang art culture. That sculpture won He first prize during a fine arts exhibition held in Gansu in the same year.
Mother Yellow River
One day after He returned to Lanzhou, she found a Japanese picture album of Dunhuang statues, and that album included four of her works (copied from the statues in the Mogao Caves).
"At first, I was glad to find my works in the album. However, I realized the statues were created by our ancestors, and I had just copied their creation. Where was my own creation? I felt disappointed, and I was determined to create my own works," He recalls.
During the early 1980s, He designed and made a clay sculpture, Mother Yellow River. The Yellow River has long been considered the mother river of Chinese civilization. "The sculpture helped express appreciation from Chinese to the Yellow River, as a mother nourishing generation after generation of Chinese people," says He.
The clay sculpture was rebuilt as a stone carving in 1986. Located in Lanzhou, on the southern bank of the Yellow River, the sculpture was carved from a huge piece of granite, which weighed more than 40 tons. The sculpture, which is 6 meters deep, 2.2 meters wide and 2.6 meters tall, depicts a mother and a baby.
The mother, with long hair and a lean body, lies floating on the river. She looks happy and kind. She is caressing a baby, which has a "naive smile."
The sculpture was widely acclaimed and earned He numerous prizes, both for its aesthetic and historic significance. "After I completed the sculpture, I visited it five times in a month, as I wanted to know what people said about it. I also collected all articles or poems about the sculpture published in newspapers."
Nowadays, Mother Yellow River is a landmark in Lanzhou. Chinese, from home and abroad, think of the statue as a spiritual link that shows respect to the Yellow River.
He created several sculptures after Mother Yellow River. Needlewoman (1989) and Stars of Hope (1994), both crude pottery, reflected He's interest in the traditional culture and folk arts in Northwest China.
In 1994, then-57-year-old He established a sculpture institute (named after her). "From the very beginning, we set the aim of promoting Chinese culture and creating quality sculptures," says He. The institute has completed more than 160 outdoor or indoor sculptures, which have been distributed all over the country.
Of those sculptures, a series of bronze sculptures of Genghis Khan, placed in Genghis Khan Square in Erdos, a city in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, received the award of the year during a public sculpture competition in 2006.
"They depict the legendary life of Genghis Khan, and they reflect the essence of Mongolian culture," He says. "Near 400 tons of bronze materials were used. More than 800 people participated in the construction."
"Maybe I was born to make sculptures, as my hands are wide and rough. I used my hands to make embroideries, and to hold my daughters, when I was young. But I used them much more often to knead the mud (to make sculptures)," says He.
During the past 60 years, He has never stopped creating sculptures. "We don't have a second life. If everyone can show his/her talent, just like the silkworm spins silk, the Chinese nation can achieve remarkable achievements," says He.
"A drop of water will dry soon after it leaves a river. But it will become immortal if it integrates into a river. Similarly, people can leave a name in the river of history by creating the best works," He adds.
In March, the All-China Women's Federation named He a National March 8th Red-banner Pacesetter. She was the oldest of the 10 pacesetters. When asked if she had thought about retirement, He replied, "I will continue making sculptures until the end of my life. In fact, there is no retirement in my life. I'm always on my way."
Most of the figures portrayed in He's sculptures are women. "I have a big plan, to select 60 outstanding women in the history of human beings, and then make sculptures of them. I want to hold a solo exhibition, with the theme The Eternity of Women in National Art Museum of China, within three years. It's my Chinese Dream."
(Executive Editor: YUAN KANG, Women of China English Monthly October 2016 Issue)
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