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Chinese bible: an installation of the past

Looking at the remnants of China’s Modern history

Art by Alan Zheng Art by Alan Zheng

In the Lowy, Gonski Gallery, where design reflects 19th century European style, is an installation highly contrasting to this architectural look. Upon entering the façade of this exhibition, the air of five decades of Chinese modern history overtakes all your senses.

Yang Zhichao’s massive art installation, Chinese bible, mimics a patchwork of a memory quilt, made up of  3000 diaries and notebooks from the first five decades of Communist China (1949-1999). This vast collection of radiantly coloured notebooks consists of books with political and non-political content, collected over a three-year period. The non-political notebooks contain a genuine account of the period, and are snapshots into the daily lives of the layperson in China. The extensive range of subjects include personal feelings of love and loss; elements related to daily life as commonplace as knitting patterns, recipes; and study notes connecting to history, literature and Chinese medical theory, as well as foreign languages and stock exchange information from the 1990s, when China started to adopt the Open-Door Policy.

According to Yang Zhichao, the Chinese bible has a double meaning. It alludes to the political worship that was going on in that era, and mocks and criticises that phenomenon. These two types of content are the true meaning of the Chinese bible.

The political aspects of some of the notebooks, especially those dated between 1950 to the 1970s, are evident in its historical and political account, when China experienced constant radical campaigns and movements. This is especially true of the decade long Cultural Revolution, where attempts were made to revive a revolutionary spirit, producing massive social, economic and political upheaval. Some of the political notebooks contain records from the communist party’s instructions.  The authors of the books had to write down their reflections, sometimes self-criticism or confessions and submit these to their supervisor for checking during the party-political study sessions and meetings. The Chinese bible is a gigantic memory quilt that presents a genuine account of the period, rather than a conventional history. It is also captivating in that the diaries belonged to individuals from all walks of life, contrasting well with the profuse historical account and context behind China’s modern history.

Paradoxically, this installation is juxtaposed by Yang’s 2009 digital video, ‘Washing’, an integral part of showing how Yang consciously recovered and cleaned the 3000 books by ritually washing the 3000 notebooks, cleaning them in preparation for the exhibition as well as removing the dirt from their pages. This act of ceremonially washing the notebooks appears

ironic as if trying to erase the painful and nostalgic past of China’s modern history. However, Yang claims that the act of washing allowed him to develop a sense of intimacy and reconcile with his past. China’s modern historical period, especially during the five decades between 1949-1999 was one of growth, change, political unrest, upheaval and turmoil. It forms present-day China. This installation encourages the audience to consider its significance in the present, but also acts as a reminder of the past as a force that shapes the present and future of China’s modernity.