Kulangsu — home of the noblest and most elegant women.
She walked in graciously from the Xinzhuang Garden in her elegant cheongsam. Instantly you can feel a special aura around her — a typical oriental noble temperament. She is gentle, quiet, and elegant, just like Ms. Song Meiling that Americans got to know in the 1940s. Her name is Xu Manke, an incredibly talented painter from Kulangsu Island, and the woman who best reflects the energy of modern Kulangsu.
Xu Manke’s father is a professor at the Kulangsu Institute of Arts and Crafts, an institution that has earned a great reputation in China. Many outstanding painters and sculptors came from this institute, and today their art graces the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and the Hong Kong Chief Executive’s Office. Professor Man Wen’s father, professor Xu Wenhou, is a famous Chinese painter, and he specializes in bringing different characters to life in his paintings. For instance, his southern girl is very affectionate, the northwestern man is bold, and ancient Chinese poets and heroes are very specific. In the office of Cao Fang, the director of the Kulangsu Management Committee, I saw an interesting painting of a bell painted by her father, which, in Cao Fang’s words, signifies protection and blessing for Kulangsu. His paintings are very popular, especially Zhong Rong’s eyes, Zhong Rong being a ghost hero in ancient Chinese legends.
Manke lived in Kulangsu from an early age, in the campus of Kulangsu Institute of Arts and Craft. She says she appreciated the diversity of art and the vast ocean of knowledge the institute offers. The sketches and creations of teachers and students have influenced and shaped her style, while books of the institute library have broadened her horizons. The beauty of Kulangsu Island and the unique calmness and serenity it offers nourish her gentle and quiet character. Her elementary school, Kangtai Road Elementary School, used to be a Christian Church, representing unique European artistic influence. The Xiamen II, where she continued her education, was originally called Yinghua Middle School, which also used to be a religious facility. About twenty years ago, Mank passed through the quiet alleys of Kulangsu and walked onto her campus. Her noble temperament must have blended right in with the quiet alleys and the beautiful campus.
Innate Inspiration and Talent
After graduating high school, Mank was admitted to Xiamen University — hands-down the most beautiful university in China, which also happens to be where I work. The trio of the most recognized Chinese universities includes Peking University, Wuhan University, and finally, at the very top of the list — Xiamen University. What may come as a surprise is that Manke did not study art, but journalism. However, genes played a major role in her career choice, as her undeniable painting talent she inherited from her father made her gravitate towards art. At first, she started painting as a hobby at the university. Her painting of flowers and birds proved to be a turning point in her life, as fellow students were so impressed by it they organized an exhibition for her in the student activity center. This exhibition aroused the attention of many teachers and students at Xiamen University, especially Hong Huizhen, a postgraduate student and her teacher, who gave her father a call and praised her raw talent and impeccable style.
Mank is an outstanding representative of Chinese meticulous painting style. Her paintings are quiet and fresh, and the presentation of flowers and insects in her work is exquisite and delicate. Her work captures the beauty of life, her life experience, and her deepest ambitions. Master Yu Jigao, vice president of the Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Society, commented: “Xu Manke’s paintings portray pure aestheticism and focus on life in its rawest form. Her paintings are elegant, pure, and simply breathtaking”.
Most of Mank’s art was created in the privacy of her studio, as she never cared too much to promote herself. Whenever her friends mention all the awards and the exhibitions her art had been displayed in, she just smiles. Besides painting, Manke’s favorite activities include walking and reading. At a certain point in her life, she left Kulangsu for ten years. During this period, she went to the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and the Nanjing Art College to continue her studies and perfect her craft. When she returned to Kulangsu, she did not come empty-handed — she brought dozens of boxes loaded with books.
In her paintings, we don’t only recognize her incredible skill and technique, but also the elegance that radiates from her style. Her master student at the Nanjing Academy of Art, Jiang Hongwei, said: “Xu Manke’s vision has revolutionized the way the flowers and birds painted, portraying elements from nature in unique settings. She manages to create a specific context, reflecting emotions of the modern age, while including her own feelings and state of mind.”
Manke seems to draw most of her inspiration from nature, and her art often depicts themes such as elegant and colorful bouquets, lively insects on the leaves of flowers, and birds. These vivid portrayals of nature can create the illusion of wind howling, leaves rustling, or birds’ wings flapping.
Manke has her own artistic vision, as she believes that art and life have clear boundaries. Her art is stripped from life, as she’s pursuing her own illusory reality. She strongly believes in realizing the special purpose in every individual’s life, which is where art originates from. As far as she’s concerned words of the British writer Maug are words to live by: “Only when skill, deep emotions, and good fortune are combined, in an extremely rare situation, an artist, whether a poet or a painter, can create beauty”.
In Manke’s paintings, we can recognize the impact of Western culture and art on her, as well as the deeply-rooted Chinese culture.
Author: Pan William
Translation: Jiang Chaowei
In 1988, Pan William resigned as the vice president of the First Securities Company in the United States. He moved to Xiamen and started teaching at the MBA Center of the Xiamen University School of Management, where he has been teaching for 30 years. He was the first foreigner to settle in Xiamen, the first foreign permanent resident in Fujian Province, and one of the first foreign teachers to introduce an MBA program in Chinese universities. He received the National Foreign Experts Friendship Award, and was also named the Honorary Citizen of Fujian Province, Xiamen City.