From Mao to Moses
He reconnected with the woman who was to become his wife as he was working to restore temples in Tibet. And, while earning his doctorate in religious art from Nanjing University, he studied in Munich.
"If you want to become an artist, a painter, you have to learn art history first," his professor told him. "After you occupy the top of the whole art history mountain, you can [draw on] many different things to do your creation.'"
Now, with a rich art history background, He's own distinctive style has emerged. Hints of Raphael, Picasso, and medieval art also appear in his works (as in paintings from the Middle Ages, his Moses has horns). But those influences are subsumed in the Chinese style of He's Bible story portrayals.
This hasn't gained him acceptance as an artist in the Chinese church, however. "Many old pastors stopped [leading churches] to do missionary work," He said. "After the Cultural Revolution they went back to the church. But their ideas in thinking about Christianity, Christian art, were still linked with many years before, with Western missionaries who brought Western art to China. They think real Christian art is Italian Renaissance art."
Their conflation of European indigenous art and Christian art, says He, means they are interested in him as a prestigious artist but not interested in displaying his work.
"In 1998, there was a church very close to Shanghai, and the pastor came to visit Nanjing, to my private home. He asked me to do a wall painting, a mural for the new church as a decoration. And I recommend my painting, The Risen Lord. But the pastor looked at my painting, two minutes silent. Then suddenly he told me, 'No, it's too Chinese. We cannot use this image for our church. But we would like to invite you to make a copy of DaVinci's The Last Supper.' I [said], 'No. You can ask a student to make a copy.'"
He Qi tried to explain to the pastor that DaVinci's Last Supper wasn't more authentically Christian than his own. After all, he told the pastor, if all the models and all the architecture used in the painting were Florentine, how could it be better for a Chinese church in which the clothing and architecture were Chinese?
Rich Melheim, He Qi's friend and the founder of Faith Inkubators Project, says such conflicts were common.
"He was invited to make a design for a new church, and he did some sketches of this beautiful Chinese dove that would be seen from the sky, and they told him, 'No, no, too Chinese. We need a Gothic church,'" Melheim said.
But Melheim said He has found contemporary expressions of Christianity through art to be a bridge to students, professors, others who may not otherwise be open to the gospel. "He was able to use art and history and culture and everything as a mechanism to share the Christian stories and, especially, the peaceful nature of Christ," Melheim explained. He Qi says students in secular institutions have been remarkably receptive to both historical and contemporary Christian art.
He Qi sees his ideas about Chinese Christian art making headway among his students at Nanjing Theological Seminary, who will be the next leaders of churches in China. There are also likeminded artists, most of whom are, He Qi says, maintaining careers and creating their art on the side. "They're not coming out of the church; but they're coming out of the woodwork," Melheim said.
He Qi's wife and son now live with him in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Once his son completes his bachelor's degree, the family will return to Nanjing. But He Qi's increasing prominence will likely keep him traveling. He hopes that it will also gain his distinctive expression of Christianity acceptance by the Chinese church.
"The young generation," he said, "is still looking for a peaceful voice, a peaceful message."
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An slideshow of He Qi's art is also posted today.
Other articles on China are available in our full-coverage section.