Observation | Two Pursuits: Zhao Gang’s Highways and Zhang Hui’s Railways

China Eastern Railway

Time: 2020

Author: Long March Project



The completion of the China Eastern Railway in 1903 heralded the beginning of an immensely significant and unique period in the history of Harbin and wider Northeast China, which, at a time in the late-Qing when was just a village. A wide variety of immigrants arrived in the city, and the cities along the railroad would all within a short few years become locations of multi-ethnic interaction (see background section: “Railways, Diaspora, Architecture” for reference). Witnessing the rapid circulation and subsequent disappearance of a very specific cultural moment was a key motivation behind this exploration into cultural “rootlessness”, and brought us into a deeper understanding of the two artists’ own personal identities and their artistic pursuits.

Zhao Gang’s Highways

The pursuit of beauty is reflected in Zhao Gang’s art and in his everyday life, from the suits he wears to the kitchen implements he cooks with. But it is the idea of the endless road that perhaps fits to the core of Zhao Gang’s being, symbolising a yearning for boundless freedom. Starting from Beijing, he rode his motorbike through Xilinhot and Arxan (A’ershan), from there riding along the highways following closely along the western arm of the China Eastern Railway from Manzhouli and Qiqihar, rambling all the way to Harbin and Hengdaohezi. As an ethnic Manchurian born in Beijing, Beijing is the place where he grew up but Dongbei (Northeast China) always exercised a pull on him; the road between these two homelands is one he has travelled on countless times.

Zhao Gang was born in the 1960s in Beijing as a Manchurian. At the time, art seemed to open up a new avenue to the future. When he was young, he was tutored in painting and was admitted to the Children’s Palace and later enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and studied painting and art history and art theory in Europe and North America. After living in New York City for more than twenty years,  he returned to Beijing where he has spent more than ten years now. Zhao Gang’s personal and family history are interwoven into an identity that is difficult to affix or self-locate. After returning to China, he retained an extraordinary sensitivity to the historical disparities between East and West. For Zhao Gang, an existence of alienation both politically and in life, is a state of seeming rootless floating and simultaneously being pulled in by ‘rootedness’. One of Zhao Gang’s great-uncles was a soldier in Manchukuo, and when Zhao Gang’s grandfather died,  he would call this uncle ‘grandfather’. The starting point of his identity would be a sort of metaphorical medium for a feeling of nomadism. In Hengdaohezi, Zhao Gang remarked that, “nomadic peoples are constantly circling around a core question: go out and conquer or be conquered? This is a very simple  predicament. The China Eastern Railway very clearly created a fixed structure which in turn created a different form of nomadism, one that is much broader in scope”. The urban transformation and the mobility of the masses impelled on by modernisation therefore intersect with the imagined historical romanticisation of the region’s indigenous population.

As Zhao Gang has previously written in “The Khitans”, “The [Qing Imperial Family’s] art collection lacks a core, lacks a style, lacks a soul. In fact, the bulk of Qing culture was fabricated… perhaps their collection’s lack of a soul can be linked to their historical lack of a fixed homeland. Like the Khitans he depicted who were lost in the long flow of history, Zhao Gang’s new works were initiated in sketches of the landscape in which militaristic symbols, still lives and abstract lines repeatedly appear, like the international city of Harbin that gradually vanished, these reveal the fate of a disappearing nomadic world.

Zhang Hui’s Railways

Born in Qiqihar, Zhang Hui grew up with the railways. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the railways would take on a very different significance than what they held at the beginning of the 20th century. The railways symbolised productivity and progress built by the hands of the proletariat. On his journey from Lvshun to Harbin, Zhang Hui passed through the stations at Dalian, Anshan, Haicheng, Shenyang, Sujiatun, Siping, Dehui and other stops and headed further east towards Hengdaohezi, Mudanjiang and Suifenhe. At all the stops along the way, the construction and history of the railways and the railways’ impact on socio-cultural constructs were to focus of his attention.

Faced with the architectural sites along the southern branch of the China Eastern Railway (the South Manchuria Railway), Zhang Hui noted that the railway expresses “a sort of strategy, built upon a variety of self-administered, nearly complete systems which in the arrival of reality and a yearning for the future flattened out all sorts of detailed differences; in standardising propriety and scale and in the pursuit of a commonality that still retains difference, the architecture and private houses along the South Manchuria Railway retain a foreign flavour of the political strategies of worldbuilding.”

The eclecticism of South Manchuria during that time period created an amalgam of different architectural styles. Just as the region had to face the reality of ethnic complexity, Zhang Hui has a keen intuition for the kineticism behind such excavations of worldbuilding. After the founding of the People’s Republic, for those people who moved to Harbin and its surroundings from the rest of China to carry out construction work, their identity as people from “Dongbei” would always be placed above their previous identity that remained at their core and could never supplant it. The work they were involved with on the railways or in heavy industry likewise would take on a lofty, almost utopian colour of national idealism. As Zhang Hui remarked during the trip, “I particularly cherish Dongbei, because it is unadulterated by [China’s] five-thousand year history, representing a sort of ‘blank space’”.

“I had a plan to complete ‘Space’, ‘Object in Space’ to ‘Person in Space’ by the year before last. For these three big pieces of work, I used painting to construct my own visual structure, the past decade or so of my work forming a sort of ‘rudimentary science’. What I now wish to narrate is how to combine space, object, and human figures in the space of one painting. Returning to the current questions brought up by the China Eastern Railway, I would call it an overlapping of imagery, a mutual construction and interaction giving birth to a sense of spatial disjointedness; complex information becoming an indistinct realm, which originally was nothing but blank space. How will a person transform when placed within such a seemingly chemically-prepared space, where is the subjectivity? I come to realise how my relationship to the China Eastern Railway, to my hometown in Dongbei, to my father’s career comes to be placed within such a plane. I come to wonder about how behind this sort of indistinct overlapping imagery and multiplicity of relationships, a person or an object can construct a sufficiently powerful space.”