A Seminal Masterpiece from Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series – Lotus Kick
“Have you seen a lotus waving in the wind? It stands, completely still, at the tip of the stem, gracious, elegant and detached from everything else. Fearless and free from all restrains, it nonetheless remains part of the cosmos, its contours humble and respectful, as always. Endlessly, it exchanges mutual admiration with the spirits of nature: the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the water, the wind… It makes no demand, or promise, yet achieves a complete beauty, from which a natural sentiment emanates.”
- Ju Ming
Modern art has introduced a new landscape to the world of Chinese painting, whilst welcoming traditional craftsmanship into the domain of fine arts. In his 1977 solo exhibition in Tokyo, Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series
became an international sensation. With the above quote on his work Lotus Kick
, the artist offers an interpretation of the philosophical ideas behind the piece, the idea that human and natural can interact in harmony. This is a seminal piece created by Ju Ming during his journey to establish himself as a modern master, as well as a milestone in modern Chinese sculpture on its way into the global art world.The Aesthetics of Martial Arts
Lotus Kick is one of the very few Tai Chi movements that demand the display of explosive power and speed. In preparation for the strike, the martial artist places both arms in front of the body to form an oval shape, with one leg as the pivot of the movement. The other foot pushes against the ground, and within an instant, the martial artist lifts the leg, turns and kicks upwards simultaneously for a sudden attack. The swooping action was decisive and swift, like a falcon aiming for a rabbit as soon as the prey comes in sight. Maximum strength in the muscles is gathered through a relaxed and focused state, the body poised with an elastic tension for the rapid assault, like an archer shooting his arrow or a lightning strike. The explosive movement contrasts with the next move, “Single Whip”, when the martial artist lowers his center of gravity to wait for the best opportunity to strike again. Although the history of Chinese martial arts is long and a vast range of different styles and forms had been developed, Taoist philosophy began to form the basis of an “internal” martial arts from as far back as the ancient Warring States period and Eastern Han Dynasty, during which different methods of induction, or meditation to guide the body’s energy to circulate along its “jing mai” (meridian), were developed. These practices place a strong emphasis on the idea of human and nature becoming one, as well as the force of the universe as a source of one’s own strength. Such holistic forms of martial arts focus on both health cultivation and combat training. Tai Chi is a form of martial arts originated from these philosophies, whilst Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series
draws inspirations from the aesthetics of martial arts. Ju’s Lotus Kick
not only offers a study of the aesthetics of the human form, but also allows the viewer to gain an appreciation for forces that exist in nature through such a study.
From the 1970s, Ju Ming began studying Tai Chi, which later turned into as a source of inspiration for his work when the artist’s creations departed from rustic, local themes on the countryside, and began tackling more complex subjects within a broader scope of Chinese traditions and cultures. His works are highly influential within the Chinese society as well as other parts of the world. Johnson Chang from Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong had the following analysis: “One could argue that Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series is a sacred statue of super natural power for the new age. Despite the slow pace of Tai Chi movements, they are as smooth as the drifting cloud and the flowing water. It strengthens one’s health, by following the natural law of the human body to increase energy flow along the body’s ‘jing mai’ (meridian). The laws of movements within individual systems, or ‘micro-universe’ in nature, are further integrated into the larger system of the universe, or ‘macro-universe’. Tai Chi itself already offers great appeal, as an exemplification of the Chinese culture and by finding his own creative expressions through Tai Chi, Ju Ming simultaneously inherits a well-developed theory on his cultural identity and positioning. This is both fortuitous and a pleasure to see.
” Forgetting form and creating form
Since the times of the Greeks and Romans, artists in the West have followed a long tradition built around the expression of individuality as well as a reverence for the beauty of the body and muscle expressed through their art works including sculpture. In the East, it is commonly believed that the body is a part of the universe. Tai Chi draws energy that already exists from the natural environment, to fill each stance with an abundance of vitality and energy. The unadorned and rustic image of Ju Ming’s Lotus Kick
conveys exactly such a state. The martial artist holds both arms in front of the body to form an oval, signifying the continuous growth cycles in nature, a concept also embodied in the circular Tai Chi symbol. In this sculpture, the oval shape of this Tai Chi stance also makes good use the material’s natural form. This agrees with the Taoist pursuit to leave the external embellishments behind and return to the natural states. It also offers an insight into Ju Ming’s creative transformation from “complex” forms towards simplicity. One could compare Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series
with Antoine Bourdelle’s Hercules the Archer
, to find many fascinating differences between Eastern and Western arts. Ju Ming studied traditional carving from a young age, and acquired highly proficient techniques in realistic representation. Nevertheless, when he made the decision to go into fine arts, he went through another thinking process in which he eventually grasped the essence of “letting go”. His first mentor and teacher Yuyu Yang once described Ju Ming’s transformation: “Given the extensive training in folk art and carving, Ju Ming is extremely skilled at realistic representation, and it would have been easy to just carry on. Yet it was also possible to make a radical attempt in letting go and the pursuit of simplicity. So we started a series of experiments: when an artist is working on a sculpture, slithers of woodchips are chiseled from the rough wooden form with each cut from the blade. An artist should also allow his techniques to be set free with each pass of the blade. The natural quality of wood and the primitive spirit in the form will then slowly emerge.
In pursuing such creative philosophy, the marks left by the artist’s tools are made permanent with each pass of the blade. This eventually led Ju Ming to invent a unique and intuitive artistic language, in place of the more literal approach that strictly adheres to realistic forms. It also provided excellent training in a sculpting style that works with the nature of the material, which became part of his personal signature. In 1983, Ju Ming’s solo exhibition was held at the Max Hutchinson Gallery, where scholar R. Scott Lloyd commented, “In none of his work does Ju Ming try to cosmeticize his working process. In all of the six series shown there is evidence of the material and the making. Ju Ming understands well that he cannot control everything that happens in sculptures so he works with the inevitable changes as much as possible.
Among different art materials, timber is the one with which Ju Ming has the strongest affinity, although it is also a highly unpredictable material. During the creative process, the artist endeavors to retain the grain and texture as well as the evidence of natural aging processes caused by years of exposure to the elements. It is also these very qualities which make each piece uniquely appealing as well as valuable. Lotus Kick
makes optimal use of the material by preserving the original bark on the face which represents the back and arms of the figure. For the left leg which is the pivot of this Tai Chi movement, one can see the natural contour of the wood grain at the bend of the left limb. The lines follow along the joints onto the raised right leg, so that the weight of the sculpture is supported by the natural strength of the material, and the flow of energy and movement appears even more organic. In traditional jade and stone carving, the craftsmen would design according to the specific qualities of their precious materials including the colours, using carving techniques that date back to as far as the Shang Dynasty. Ju Ming has clearly demonstrated his skills as a master craftsman but his fusion of traditional carving with modern sculpture makes his work all the more satisfying.Fashions and Classics
Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series
stems from his personal experience as well as the popularity of Chinese Kung Fu at the time. National defense depends on military weapons, whilst self-defense is enabled by Martial Arts. In the development of China’s national identity, Martial Arts carried a double symbolic meaning, both as an acknowledgement of cultural traditions and a means of defending against foreign invasion, and hence the reason Dr. Sun Yet-
Sen called it the “National Arts”. During the Republic of China period, China as a nation was significantly weaker than the powerful countries in the West, yet within the society, generations of distinguished Martial Arts masters continued to emerge. As a result, Martial Arts was a symbol of self-respect and self-efficacy, and eventually became widely mystified and romanticized. During the post-war peace time, Martial Arts evolved into a Chinese cultural symbol, disseminated across the world through the media. Actor Kwan Tak Hing’s Wong Fei Hung series on the Martial Arts hero, and King Hu’s martial arts film series had become Chinese cinema classics; and of course Bruce Lee’s international stardom brought the Kung Fu culture to a whole new level of frenzy, rejuvenating the image of a Chinese person through his unparalleled mastery of the traditional art.
Arguably, Ju Ming learned Tai Chi because Martial Arts was fashionable at the time. His Tai Chi Series
, on the other hand, captured an image of this period with the timeless creation of sculptures, through his individual vision as an artist. Tai Chi cultivates the skills to deflect huge forces with a fraction of the opponent’s power. Such philosophy subverts Western boxing theories which emphasize on the enormous force of a boxer’s blow. Tai Chi’s philosophical core is aptly exemplified in Ju Ming’s technique of hewing large pieces from the wood block to create his sculptures. Interestingly, this coincides with one of Bruce Lee’s rare comments about art: “An artist cannot add new pieces of bricks and mortar to a sculpture. In fact, the nonessentials are hacked off in the process of creating a sculpture.
” Chinese Martial Arts have grown into a widely popular discipline of great diversity, whilst Ju Ming’s Tai Chi Series
also entered the collections of museums worldwide. Lotus Kick
is an outstanding piece representative of its period, and through the test of time, it is now also a classic masterpiece of modern days.