Perpetually Dazzled, an exhibit of paintings by Li Huai currently on display at the Chuang Archive and Learning Center includes eight pairs of portraits named with eight common surnames: Wang 王, Zhang 張, Zhou 周, Hu 胡, Cheng 程, Huang 黄, Liu 劉, and Zhao 趙. More names are given to works painstakingly produced in the style of religious icons, but in these peices, the space usually reserved for a sacred image is a murky field of blue and black. A series of “chandeliers” painted with Chinese ink, also features Chinese names, but this time they are written in Roman letters that form flecks of light emanating from a darkly luminous center. To better grasp this imagery, it is necessary to ponder the significance of Chinese surnames and the situation of the laobaixing 老百姓in modern China, the common people who are called the “old hundred surnames.”
Legendarily, the ancestor of all Chinese people, Huangdi 皇帝, the Yellow Emperor, gave 14 surnames to his sons, and these became the origin of surnames in China. Emperors honored loyal vassals and heroic generals by granting them prestigious names. Peasants often took the name of local rulers, and others adopted names of the places in which they lived. Some new names emerged when “barbarian” names were transliterated from non-Chinese languages. Sometimes people had to adopt new surnames because their ancestral names shared characters with the emperor’s name, which no one was allowed to utter. A surname could denote a sense of belonging to the Chinese empire, to a geographic region, or to a village, many of which were (and some still are) made up of people who all share one surname. Thus, names represent power, signifying who is connected to the emperor and who is connected to the land.
Today, the term laobaixing 老百姓 or “old hundred surnames” is a common term used to refer to common people. This phrase is derived from a Song Dynasty 宋朝 (960-1279 CE) text called “Old Hundred Surnames” 百家姓 that consists of 411 surnames composed into a rhyming poem, beginning with Zhao 趙, the Song emperors’ surname. Generations of young boys have memorized this text to learn basic Chinese characters. The text's name indicates that of all these names, 100 were by far the most common. Today, there are about 3,100 surnames in use, but 100 of them still account for 85% of the Chinese population. Thus, the term laobaixing is commonly used to indicate the “average Joe;” it distinguishes everyday citizens in contrast to the rich and powerful.
Conjuring an image of a simpler time when China could be reduced to a hundred families can be a unifying influence on Chinese society, but the term laobaixing also separates the average, everyday citizens from those in power. The granting of surnames is also a means of ordering and controlling the masses of laobaixing by tying them to a lineage, a class, and a location. The phrase laobaixing can indicate a simple, but wholesome “Joe Sixpack” or the unknown “John Doe,” but it also carries the connotation of dirty, unwashed, uneducated, and uncouth masses.
During the opening of Li Huai’s exhibit, a guest asked the artist why the faces in her work look dark and anguished, and the artist explained that they do not represent the well-groomed elites of Shanghai or Beijing, but the common laobaixing she met while traveling in rural Jiangxi 江西 Province. She also explained that the vacant icons covered in gold leaf represent the spiritual vacuum left by the decline of Maoism. Chairman Mao dominated the life of all mainland Chinese during Li’s youth, but now China has passed into a gilded age of materialism, and there is no single figure to fill the space in such icons, except perhaps oneself, or the gold one craves. Many visitors are surprised to see familiar Roman letters spelling out Chinese surnames on the chandeliers, and Li explained that she made this choice to represent the cosmopolitanism and modern aspirations prevalent among Chinese today, who study English, use English names, and love clothing festooned with Roman letters, just like Americans love Chinese character tattoos.
Li Huai captures names and images of the laobaixing in traditional Chinese ink, but in very nontraditional ways. Tying it all together is one black and white photograph of a doorway in a Chinese village. A scrap of propaganda art that still adheres to it is painted bright red. The work is entitled “There, there! 哪兒!哪兒!” evoking a tourist excitedly pointing out this nearly forgotten piece of history, a remnant of an era in which the laobaixing were simultaneously lionized rhetorically and victimized mercilessly. Today’s laobaixing are still struggling, but hopeful, irrevocably attached to the past, but inexorably striding into the future. 100 surnames still account for the vast majority of the Chinese populace, but what it means to be part of this mass is constantly changing.
Come see Li Huai’s art while you can! The exhibition closes on Dec. 6,2014.