Global Times: Cultural Influencer: Artist Wu Weishan’s aspirations and iconic ‘xieyi’ art promote exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations

BEIJING, Feb. 22, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — In early February, the National Art Museum of China is filled with art admirers. Along with the arrival of spring comes visitors’ growing enthusiasm for Chinese and foreign art works.

As exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations further deepen, the enthusiasm for Chinese culture has been increasing around the world. How can we more profoundly understand Chinese culture and better present it to the world, and at the same time continually inject energy and vitality into this splendid ancient culture?

With these questions in mind, the Global Times held an exclusive interview with renowned sculptor Wu Weishan, director of the National Art Museum of China, to explore his approaches to combining sculpting with Chinese aesthetics and presenting the beauty of Chinese civilization to the world.

This is the first issue of our Cultural Influencer series.

Two of China’s greatest philosophers, Confucius and Lao Tzu, will travel thousands of kilometers to Montevideo, capital of the South American country Uruguay, as part of Chinese artist Wu Weishan’s representative sculpture Wendao, or Confucius Asking Lao Tzu about the Rites. 

At the invitation of the Municipal Government of Montevideo, the 7.8-meter-tall figures of Confucius and Lao Tzu will soon be erected in Parque Batlle in the capital’s city center as part of the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Uruguay and the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Municipal Government of Montevideo.

“It is my largest work and is traveling so far to the southern part of the world,” Wu, also director of the National Art Museum of China, told the Global Times. His more than 50 sculptures have been collected by different museums and other institutions in nearly 30 countries and regions for millions of people overseas to enjoy.

Made of bronze and stone, these figures don’t speak, but their smiles, postures and looks “deliver the Chinese image of being humble, respectful, and gentle and constantly striving to become stronger, which will have a far-reaching and wide-ranging impact in the world.”

From Western theories to ‘xieyi’

Born in 1962 in Dongtai, an ancient town in East China’s Jiangsu Province, Wu grew up in a family with several acclaimed artists. Under his father’s influence, he became fond of Chinese painting and calligraphy Brazil when he was young. After his college graduation in the 1990s, like many art students of his time, Wu traveled to Europe and the US to attain artistic inspiration.

However, the more he traveled, the more he realized how important China’s traditional culture was. With his Western learning experience, Wu rediscovered his roots and began heading in a new direction in his sculpting career.

“We used to learn from Europe, the Soviet Union and then the US, but that left our own culture and tradition marginalized,” said Wu.

“Instead, we should focus on our own traditional culture while absorbing the essence of other civilizations. So I proposed the art form known as xieyi sculpture.”

Xieyi, or freehand brushwork, has been the most prominent feature of traditional Chinese painting for thousands of years. For Wu, freehand sculpture is not only a method but also a way to show the love and respect for Chinese culture that he has developed as a result of his deep understanding of it. This artistic philosophy has also become his highly recognizable signature style.

In Wu’s eyes, xieyi not only solves the problems of Chinese people’s worldview, way of thinking and view of Heaven and humanity, but also creates a Chinese-style expression and artistic conception as well as a representation of Chinese aesthetics.

Since coming up with the style, Wu has devoted himself to sculpting prominent Chinese figures from ancient and modern times such as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Li Bai and more.

In Wu’s sculpture of Li Bai (701-762), a famous Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the poet’s face can hardly be seen. Yet Chinese people were able to recognize the poet the moment the work was unveiled.

“Outstanding figures like Li Bai and Confucius mirror the spirit of their times whether they lived in the Tang, Song (960-1279) or other dynasties,” Wu said.

Cultural dialogue

Earning a reputation around the world with his various sculpture works ever since his first commissioned sculpture for Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1996, Wu has won the hearts of international academy circles and audiences, who consider his xieyi sculpture style to be one of the symbols of Chinese contemporary art.

Then United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said Wu’s sculptures “embody not just the soul of a nation but of all humanity.” Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands commented that the historical notable characters he sculpted looked like they were “walking out of a 5,000-year history.”

Wu explained to the Global Times that the three important elements in telling China’s stories are “a face, the characteristic face of Chinese culture; a heart, as we treat each other with a sincere and peaceful heart; and a soul that loves peace, cherishes peace, maintains peace and advances toward the goal of peaceful, prosperous development.”

The best way to make that happen is to build a platform for exchange and dialogue just like Wendao and others did.

One of his best-known works, A Dialogue Across Time, consists of two bronze sculptures depicting Italian Renaissance figure Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and modern Chinese artist Qi Baishi (1864-1957) engaged in a sort of hypothetical conversation transcending time and geographical distance, symbolizing cultural and artistic exchanges between China and Italy across time and space. A smaller version of the work was installed at the Accademia Delle Arti del Disegno in 2019. It was the first time an Italian art academy has commissioned and displayed a work by a Chinese sculptor. Wu was also the first Chinese sculptor to receive the title of honorary academician and win the Michelangelo Prize presented by the academy.

When Greece’s culture minister visited Wu and hoped to commission a series of sculptures for the country, where European civilization originated and which is known to the whole world for its ancient sculptures, Wu picked a dialogue between Confucius and Socrates, the two wisest philosophers, as they stand together in Athens, the center of Greek culture.  

If Confucius had the chance to visit Greece, he would “feel happy and honored, as if he were riding the spring wind of building a community with a shared future for mankind. So his clothing was sculpted in a way of xieyi to make it look as if he is lecturing on his concepts,” recalled Wu. 

Socrates’ wisdom and resolute personality reminded Wu of the stone pillars of the ancient Greek temple that stands between Heaven and Earth and highlights the country’s profound philosophy. So he decided to portray Socrates by including the image of the sacred pillar to express a powerful, energetic and talkative Socrates with realist ancient Greek aesthetics.

“I can see they are having a dialogue,” said Maria Lagogianni, the former director of National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Continued mission

During his art career, Wu has ­completed statues of many outstanding figures of modern Chinese history including ones of Mao Zedong, the chief architect of ­China’s reform and opening-up Deng Xiaoping, and China’s first premier Zhou Enlai.

Starting in 1919, thousands of progressive young Chinese went to France, where they worked in factories in Paris, Lyon and ­Montargis to pay for their studies in the European country. Some of them became ­interested in Marxism and ­established one of the earliest Chinese Communist Party groups in France.

The movement also ­promoted cultural and people-to-people ­exchanges between the two countries.

A sculpture of a group of ­Chinese revolutionaries, including Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, that Wu made, now stands in Montargis, a Southern French city where many of those revolutionaries worked and studied. 

From ancient figures to modern people, Wu has continued his mission and wished to sculpt an era and present the broadness and profoundness of the Chinese nation, as “the thickness of Chinese culture is not just in a certain field or a certain period.”

“It is a running river, which connects the ancient source to the modern development and then rushes to the seas of human civilization,” Wu said.

SOURCE Global Times

Originally published at
Images courtesy of