The Mercury News (California, United States): Falun Gong dispute stirs interest in art

There's nothing like a political mystery to pique interest in high culture -- and human rights.

An admitted middle-brow, I was merely leaning toward seeing an exhibit of Qing dynasty and 20th century Chinese paintings, heretofore unseen on the West Coast, and rarely to public view at all until 2003. But you know, life is hectic.

Now that a San Francisco politician has suddenly declined to participate in the event through a cryptic press release, it's a must-see for me. Perhaps others, too.

The "National Treasures of China'' show, scheduled Sept. 2-11 at the Urbis Artium Gallery in San Francisco, had a sudden attention boost Tuesday when Supervisor Fiona Ma was a no-show at a news conference that had her support.

Perhaps it was too hot to handle that Mei-Ling Dai, the matriarch of an aristocratic Chinese-Australian family who owns the collection, practices Falun Gong. Practitioners of the Chinese [practice] system for spiritual and physical well-being have been denounced by the Chinese government as [...]

Dai is showing her family's extremely valuable collection to raise awareness of traditional Chinese culture -- and to plead for the release of the imprisoned granddaughter of one of the renowned artists.

Say what?

Meanwhile Ma has been unavailable since Wednesday when she issued this short statement: "As the daughter of an artist, I consistently support the arts and culture in San Francisco. It was my understanding that this exhibit was a priceless and rare collection that was never seen by the public. I thought this would be a great opportunity for San Franciscans and Bay Area residents. After knowledge of the past political history of the original collector, I have informed the sponsors that I will not play any further role in this exhibit.''

Those things are true. It is a great opportunity. Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Xu Beihong, Fu Baoshi and Wu Changshuo are all big names in 20th century Chinese painting, said Pauline Yao, the assistant curator of the Asian Art Museum. The museum has some of those artists in its own collection. In addition, the Dai family, who served as high officials in the Qing Dynasty, are showing original pieces from the 19th century imperial court.

So what "past political history of the original collector'' would Ma be referring to? What is controversial about scroll paintings of landscapes, birds and flowers, and Bodhisattva representations of Kuan Yin? These are the traditional subjects of Chinese brush painting for centuries.

Only that Mrs. Dai, who has been a strong supporter of the practice of Falun Gong since she survived a progressive disease called scleroderma, is showing the pieces as a way of alleviating the suffering of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners including Qi Bingshu, the artist granddaughter of Qi Baishi. She's been freely showing her priceless collection at private venues, said her son Tony Dai, rather than waiting for them to be shown at major museums, which need years of advance planning.

Meddling in America

Of 40 shows held from Korea to New York to Houston since 2003, this is the first in which an elected official withdrew her support. This elected official, however, was set to lead a delegation to China soon.

Show organizer Victor Yu, a host on the Mountain View-based Sound of Hope radio program, said the group respects Ma's decision. Yu said Ma told him and organizer Sherry Zhang that pressure from the Chinese government had caused her withdrawal. Sound of Hope, the New Tang Dynasty Television and the Epoch Times were sponsors of the show.

"I have significant concerns around the autonomy of local government," said fellow Supervisor Chris Daly. Daly, who unsuccessfully sponsored a local resolution condemning the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, was angered by the negative letters and phone calls he received from the Chinese consulate four years ago. Appearing at a news conference Thursday, Daly called "interference by an outside country'' as "a chilling thought.''

Makes you want to run right out to the art gallery and see what all the fuss is about.

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