Lot 29
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Xu Beihong 1895-1953

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  • Xu Beihong
  • Put Down Your Whip
  • Oil on canvas, framed
Signed in Chinese: Well respected heroine, Wang Yin; October 1939, Singapore, by Beihong.


Ipoh of Malaysia, Hung Kung Association of Jalan Sultan Idris Shah, Charity Exhibition of Xu Beihong, 1 March 1931
Singapore, Victoria Memorial, The Fifth Annual Exhibition of the Association of Chinese Art Study, 19 December, 1940


Catalogue Note

- By Ouyang Xinyi

In 1983, thirty years after the death of Xu Beihong, Liu Kang, an old friend his, began a search for a new owner of "Put Down your Whip - Portrait of Wang Yin".

The painting was one of the gifts which Xu Beihong gave to Huang Menggui, a close friend of the artist. When Xu Beihong was about to leave for America for an exhibition in 1942, Huang Menggui and his younger brother Huang Manshi were both given one horse painting. The only difference was that while Manshi got a painting of ten horses, Huang Menggui got one of eleven. It's obvious how important Huang Menggui was to Xu Beihong.

After being rejected by a museum, Liu Kang turned to Chen Zhichu as the only possible collector. After examining the painting, Chen Zhichu agreed to sign the contract three days later. However, when Lui Kang and others were waiting outside Chen's office that day, they were told that Chen Zhichu had already passed away in the hospital.

Two years later in his apartment in Singapore, Liu Kang recalled this memory while showing me the paintings Xu Beihong had left behind in Singapore. Liu Kang told how he had helped to repair and clean "Put Down your Whip" and remembered how he, Huang Menggui and Chen Zhichu were Xu Beihong's best friends in Singapore. When mentioning Chen Zhichu's sudden death, Lui Kang expressed his sorrow for not being able to find a home for the painting.

On 29 September 1953, three days after Xu Beihong's death, Singapore's 'The New Paper' published "Put Down your Whip" along with other five paintings and Xu Beihong's photos on its front page.

When I received the image of the painting in July 1985 from Huang Baofang, another old friend of Xu Beihong, I was told the story behind that painting: Wang Yin, the lady portrayed, arrived in Singapore along with other members of the theatre group. They stayed in the ruins of the Nanqiao normal school. This quiet school building was the property of Li Guangqian and made a spacious studio for Xu Beihong. Xu Beihong came to the school and asked Wang Yin to pose for him. He then began sketching. Starting from Wang's head, Xu Beihong didn't make a single quick painting. Instead, he focused on Wang Yin herself and finished the background and the clothing details afterward in Huang Manggui's home.

The painting, finished on 27th October 1939, Xu signed "Well respected heroine Wang Yang, October 28', Singapore, by Beihong"

Wang Yin started her acting career on stage and the silver screen in the 1930's. After her one year study stay in Japan in 1934, she made herself famous by playing leading roles in various movies and dramas, including "God of Freedom" (1935) and "Sai Jin Hua" (1936). When Wang Yin won the leading role in "Sai Jin Hua" over Lan Pin (Jiang Qing), she must not have been aware that this episode would eventually lead to her tragic death in prison during the Cultural Revolution.

When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, Wang Yin toured around fifteen provinces in China with her theatre group and founded the "Theatre of the Rescue of China" on a money raising tour to Hong Kong and South-East Asia. She was both the actress and vice-chair of the theatre group. "Put Down your Whip" was on the play list.

Wang Yin, together with three other theatre members, arrived in Singapore at 30 September 1939 and first stayed in Nantian Hotel. Among the group of journalists attracted by the star, Yu Dafu, a well-known Chinese writer who worked in Sin Chew Daily at the time interviewed her and published an article titled "To See Wang Yin Again".

Wang Yin's legendary life was a hot topic for the inrushing media. Born in Anhwei and brought up in Nanjing, Wang Yin received her education in several well-known institutions, including Fudan University, Jinan University and the School of China. Stories circulated in the Singaporean press about how she left her acting career become a student in Japan, and how she took up theatre again as a patriotic actress. One of the newspapers described the beloved Wang Yin as a lady with a slightly round face, a pair of twinkling big eyes and a polite voice. Her images in "Sai Jin Hua" and "God of Freedom" were basically consistent with her portrait in "Put Down your Whip".

"Put Down your Whip" is a street drama about the exile of Lady Shang and her father after the Japanese invasion in 1931. The pair was forced to make a living by performing on the street. However, Lady Shang failed to perform one day and Father got angry about it. He beat his daughter with his whip which greatly roused the onlookers' pity. They all urged the father to put down the whip. Finally the father woke up and said, "Oh, I am crazy, my God, I use my whip to beat my daughter!" In return, Lady Shang said, "I don't blame you, my father. It was not you who beat me, it was all those foreign devils." The simple plot is moving enough for audiences to shed tears. Acting in the most popular street drama to urge people to fight against the Japan invasion, Wang Yin's striking performance earned her fame both in Malaya and Singapore. She was so well-received in South East Asia that she was dubbed "Lover of Malaya".

After a successful fund-raising exhibition, Xu Beihong found himself busy catering to the orders that kept flooding in, including portrait orders from the Governor and bankers. However, Xu still managed to attend Wang Yin's performances. Before Xu Beihong confirmed his trip to India, "Put Down your Whip" was already visualized in his mind. He then postponed his trip for two weeks to 18 November so as to finish the painting before leaving. He also made a donation of two thousand dollars to the Chinese army.

As a close friend of Xu Beihong, Huang Menggui expressed his appreciation of "Put Down your Whip" by writing "Two poems for Ms Wang's portrait". The poems were published with a note in the Sin Chew Daily on 15th November 1939, "(Wang Yin) founded the theatre group and traveled around China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to save the country. Within two years, she acted seven hundred and fifty-one times. The poems above are for the appreciation of her effort and patriotism as well as to my friend's painting. I am writing this to let the coming generation know how this painting was created."

Other poets followed suit and sang the painting's praise. "Put Down your Whip" thus became a hot topic in Singapore even after Xu left for India shortly after.

In Singapore, Xu Beihong has become legendary as an artist who survived the World War II in South East Asia. It was Huang Menggui who introduced Xu Beihong to Singapore. During his final days in hospital in 1965, Huang Menggui told his daughter the stories of Xu Beihong and himself.

When Huang Menggui was travelling around Europe after gaining his Master's degree from the University of Columbia, he was introduced to Xu Beihong by Zhao Songnan, the consul general of the Chinese Embassy in Paris. They had a nice chat in a caf¨¦ for four hours and decided to meet again at Xu Beihong's home to talk about art.

In fact, Xu Beihong was suffering financially because public funding was terminated after his six years stay in France. Not being able to find a job in Paris to earn a return ticket to China, when he met Hunag Menggui, he was actually trying to find out the reason of termination of his funding.

On the other hand, Huang Menggui received twenty pounds every month from his relatives and the head of the China & South Sea Bank who sponsored his study trip. Huang Menggui used to be able to save money for his wife in China. However, after meeting Xu Beihong, Huang Menggui was unable to send any more money to his wife. The Huang couple always ended up laughing when later recalling such details.

Concerned about Xu's life, Huang Menggui sent a letter to his younger brother Huang Manshi before heading back to China. Huang Manshi was the General Manager of Nanyang Brothers Tobacco and got to know a lot of people through this position. He spoke a number of languages and loved to collect works of calligraphy and antiques. Receiving his brother's letter, Huang Manshi wrote to invite Xu Beihong to Singapore and intended to introduce him to some influential Chinese in South East Asia for portrait services. Thus, Xu Beihong, with Huang Menggui's letter in pocket, came all the way to Singapore from Paris.

In autumn 1925, Xu Beihong, who was thirty years old, arrived in Singapore on a steamer. By that time he was not totally unfamiliar with this country.

Before the May Fourth Movement, Xu Beihong received public funding to study in France. Leaving Shanghai for Singapore at that time, Xu Beihong probably was not aware of the impact that this tiny island was going to have on his life.

On his way to Singapore, the images of his miserable past life kept spinning in his mind, the overthrow of imperial Qing, the perpetual changing of military governments, and eventually the termination of his funding. In addition to the economic downturn, he found it hard to make a living in France. He had worked as a display window decorator and illustrator and his wife had worked as an embroidery worker, but they could hardly make both ends meet. Xu Beihong remarked on his sketch "Xu Beihong's most difficult time in Europe" and "It's my poorest season in Europe, who dare to complain?" And there was this similar note, "In Paris, penniless", signed on Xu Beihong's own name card. On the steamer, he was wondering whether Huang Menggui's letter could save him from poverty.

Huang Manshi did not disappoint him. Huang introduced regional tycoons, including Chen Jiageng, to him for portrait services. It enabled Xu Beihong to make several thousands dollars within months before he left for Shanghai in 1926.

His third visit to Singapore was made when he passed through on a trip to Paris. Unfortunately, he again ended up in poverty after eight months in Paris. In 1927, Xu Beihong left his wife in Paris and went to Singapore again to earn money by sketching portraits for the Chinese businessman, Lian Chiyi and his family members. Forced to send money to his wife in Paris so that she could return to China, Xu Beihong decided to end his eight-year stay in Paris.

In 1933, Xu Beihong passed by Singapore for the fifth time, when he travelled to Europe for an exhibition of Chinese modern painting. By then he had become a professor of the art department of the Central University.

It's fair to say that without the Huang brothers' financial assistance, such a profound artist would have been left unremarked in art history. If Xu had not made a sixth trip to Singapore in 1939, there would not have been so many remarkable works that marked his career's peak. In such a case, the Asian and Chinese art histories could well have been rewritten, so would Xu's personal history.

With the help of Huang Menggui, Xu Beihong became a very important icon in Asian art history. The Association of Quan Zhang of Bandar Maharani in Malaya asked Xu Beihong for a horse painting when it was founded in 1941. Xu Beihong returned the painting with a signature: I once changed my name to Huang Fu, meeting the Huang brothers led my life to betterment. Xu saw the Huang brothers as "the most intimate friends in life", calling them "big brother" and "second brother" respectively.

In 1938, despairing over his own failed marriage and the country's fate, Xu Beihong decided to accept Tagore's invitation to visit India. By using the few hundred dollars he earned by selling his art works, Xu Beihong came to Hong Kong and Singapore before going on to India. It is worth noting that he also carried out fund raising exhibitions in these two cities.

Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, Xu Beihong arrived in Sinapore for the sixth time on 9 January, 1939 with a thousand of his most important works and his fine collection of Western and Chinese paintings and antiques. (Later, before his final departure in 1942, he also paid visits to India and Malaya islands etc.)

In Singapore, Huang Menggui reserved a small living room for Xu Beihong as a studio at his own house where he also provided accommodation for Xu during his stay in Singapore.

As usual, Xu Beihong would start painting in the morning. It was in Huang Menggui's house that Xu Beihong's numerous ink paintings of fine horses and other important works were born. The governor of the colony was also once a model for Xu Beihong.

On 14 March, one hundred and seventy-one paintings of Xu Beihong were exhibited in the Victoria Memorial and the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce. The exhibition, organized by several tycoons in Malaya, was titled as Xu Beihong's solo show with twenty pieces of paintings from other Chinese painters, Ren Bainian, Qi Baishi, and Ju Chao among many others. The exhibition attracted a lot of media including Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Daily's full page feature. The charisma of Xu Beihong became irresistible to every Singaporean. One of every twenty Singaporeans attended the exhibition, from the Governor to the students. Such a large-scale exhibition raised a huge amount of money, and this record-breaking exhibition produced a great impact in Singapore's art circle. Xu Beihong's record remained unchallenged for years to come.

After the exhibition, while busy finishing his customers' orders, Xu Beihong had to postpone his trip to India to mid-November, after "Put Down your Whip" was finished. In India, Xu Beihong also held several exhibitions. He also managed to climb the Himalayas which he regarded as one of the most enjoyable moments in his life.

Returning to Singapore on 13 December of 1940, Xu Beihong joined the fifth annual exhibition of the Association of Chinese Art Study with his works: "Put Down your Whip", "Tagore", "Eagle" and "Horse". The exhibition was scheduled to open on 19th December at 9 am, Xu Beihong, of course, didn't miss the crowd.

Back in 1939, Xu Beihong had urged the Singaporeans to build their own art museum. He spread his belief of reflecting real life and influencing society with the help of realism. He achieved it by actively joining the functions held by the Association of Chinese Art Study and Nanyang Art School. He also brought up a lot of young artists who later became activists on the Singapore art scene.

Apart from successfully raising money for his motherland in Singapore, Xu Beihong also managed to bring his career to a new height. From 1939 to 1942, Xu created over one thousand paintings within only one thousand and one hundred days.

By merging western technique and eastern traditions, he opened a new scene for Chinese art, then largely dominated by traditional thoughts. Achieving a new height of Chinese ink painting, Xu Beihong, in artistic maturity, also created some of the best pieces in his life.

As most of his works were done for fund raising purposes, portraits and colour ink paintings took up a major proportion of his paintings at that period. Thus, it's not hard to explain why thematic oil paintings such as "Yu Gong Yi Shan" and "Put Down your Whip" are such precious treasures.

Xu certainly didn't expect such a huge success from his stay in Singapore, for he had originally planned to stay in South-East Asia for only two to three months. The joy of success freed him from the pain of a failed marriage and his despair over the fate of China. The pleasure of painting and the respect he received extended his stay to more than three years. At that time, he was even engaged to be married once again and brought along all his collection with him to Singapore, which was intended to be exhibited in China's art museums. It's clearly that he had planned to make Singapore his home.

However, Japanese bombs again changed the path of his life, which eventually brought him back to China in 1942.

Families of Xu and Huang, by Huang Meiyi
Writings from Huang Manshi, by The South Seas Society

About Ouyang Xinyi
Ouyang Xingyi is a permanent member of Singapore Art Society and currently lives in Singapore. He published "Beihong in Singapore" in 1999. He had spent several months to visit those who knew Xu Beihong.  The book describes Xu Beihong's several trips to Singapore since 1925. It also reveals how Xu Beihong interacted with Singapore art scene.

Singapore is a watershed for Xu Beihong's career as an artist. Ouyang Xinyi's writing provides precious information for everyone who wants to study the artist.


After Xu Beihong was admitted to the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts of France) in 1920, he first received training in sketching before studying under Paul Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929) and Francois Flameng (1856-1923). Under the influence of these two great Realists, Xu Beihong became an advocate of Realism in China. "I think to save today's Chinese art, we'll have to resort to Realism. If the different schools of art are to prosper, we have to rely on classicism. For painting, we have to be attentive to detailed craftsmanship."

The September-18 Incident in 1931 marked the beginning of a decade of social upheaval in China. Heroes in hard times grow, and this period saw Xu's art reach its prime. Projecting his patriotism into many of his art pieces, Xu Beihong gave birth to lots of large scale paintings in this period. "Five Hundred Men of Tian Heng", "Xi Wo Hou", "Yu Gong moving the Mountain" and "Put Down your Whip" are among the most significant.

"Five Hundred Men of Tian Heng" was painted between 1928 and 1930. Inspired by the historical writing "Shi Ji", which narrates early Chinese history, Xu Beihong depicted the story of Tian Heng, the king of Qi. When asked to surrender to the newly established Han Dynasty, Tian Heng refused. He and his five hundred soldiers chose to kill themselves instead. The painting depicts this history in great detail so as to declare that the Chinese, even under the threat of Japanese force, was invincible and full of pride.

"Xi Wo Hou" and "Yu Gong Moves the Mountain" are also works of patriotism against the backdrop of foreign invasion. "Xi Wo Hou", painted from 1930 to1933, is based on "Shang Shu", a book which records the early history of China. "Yu Gong Moves the Mountain" retells a popular Chinese fable. Through "Xi Wo Hou", Xu Beihong expressed his sympathy for the unfortunate Chinese during the war. With "Yu Gong Moves the Mountain", painted in 1940 in Singapore, he greatly heightened the Chinese people's patriotism.

The above three works are some of the most important and representative works. They demonstrated how Xu Beihong expressed his concern over the country's fate and how he managed to encourage the people to fight for themselves at a time of war. Thus, ancient events serve as vehicles for Xu Beihong to speak for the present. Such a style became Xu Beihong's signature for a period of time.

"Put Down your Whip" was painted in 1939, when Xu Beihong visited Sinapore for the sixth time. During his stay, his actress friend, Wang Yin, came to Singapore along with her theatre group to raise money for China. After watching her performance, Xu Beihong was deeply moved by Wang Yin's portrait of Lady Shang in "Put Down your Whip". He was so proud of Wang Yin, so proud of having such a distinctive dramatist in China. He then used his brush to capture and record Wang's portrait of Lady Shang, and this work took about ten days to finish.

Huang Shulin wrote of the painting in LianHe ZaoBao, a Singapore newspaper: "Such a patriotic artist finally met 'Put Down your Whip' at the corner of the street. The anger of the play became his own anger; the passion of the crowd became his own passion. Wang Yin's impressive portrait triggered Xu Beihong's will to search for the play's soul. He then put Wang Yin in the painting and the crowd behind so as to finish this remarkable painting, 'Put Dow your Whip'."

As an active advocate of realism, Xu Beihong's solid painting skill was built up through numerous hours of sketch training which emphasized the preciseness and the classical beauty of the human body. "Put Down your Whip" is 144cm high and 90 cm wide. In the photo taken shortly after the painting was finished, Xu Beihong and Wang Yin are standing on either side with the painting in the middle. We can see that Wang Yin and the painting are in nearly 1:1 scale. So when we see Wang Yin dressing in white clothes, holding a red scarf and dancing in the painting, we are impressed by the details illustrated in such a way that they nearly come to life in front of our eyes. By adding the viewing crowd of different classes of people like the old man and child holding hands and the armed soldiers, Xu Beihong, who was so attentive to detail, captured the spirit of the Chinese people against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and made the painting simply timeless.

"The Chinese who can afford to have their home in South East Asia are usually wealthy. However, being remotely located, they cannot gain immediate access to news from their motherland. After a series of promotion, and having raised large sums of money, some of these Chinese people decided to go back to their country to serve in the army. Patriotism is widely spread, allowing us to earn sympathy from the South East Asian governments and people." "Put Down your Whip" is unique among Xu Beihong's works in that it abandons Xu's signature style of retelling ancient stories. Instead, he chose a current event to illustrate how flamingly patriotic the people can be at that particular moment in Chinese history.

The motive, date of painting, theme, historical backdrop and the epic -- all of these mark the painting as Xu Beihong's most impressive work. His friendship with Wang Yin and the symbolic and historical meaning of the drama reflects the unique importance of this work in Xu Beihong's entire artistic life. This picture is one of the few important pieces in Chinese modern art that directly refers to a current issue. So, it's not hard to conclude that the work is the most important work in the modern Chinese oil-painting.

"Put Down your Whip" was exhibited a number of times even when Xu Beihong was still living. However, it had disappeared from public view since 1954. This also explains why all picture published are in black and white only. Having been absent for over half a century, "Put Down your Whip" is once again under the spotlight.