Monday, February 3, 1997

A Quest for Dignity: Understanding China Through Its Art

By Jim Hoagland The Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Madeleine Albright is to go to China later this month on her first trip abroad as secretary of state. The best way she can prepare for Beijing would be to spend a quiet afternoon at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

A visit to the gallery's ''Splendors of Imperial China'' exhibition could provide Mrs. Albright with insights into fundamental cultural and political truths about China that do not surface in the closed-door briefings given by the usual China scholars and experts convoked by her predecessors.

The experts will tell Mrs. Albright things she already knows: how important the Chinese relationship is, how sensitive the Leninist oligarchy of the world's most populous nation is to criticism, how Washington must defer to Beijing's uncertain transition and emergence as a world power.

''The views of top American academics and policy experts on China are so monolithic and predictable that those seminars have become pointless,'' says a U.S. official who has observed the process with growing despair. ''It goes way beyond clientitis, or conventional wisdom.''

The Economist magazine recently echoed this view in an article that suggested the China experts also have an extraordinary record of being wrong. It pointed to the self-confessed ''sentimental Sinophilia'' of the late John Fairbank, ''the most famous Western pundit on China,'' who lived to regret his 1972 declaration that the Maoist revolution was ''the best thing'' that had happened to the Chinese people in many centuries.

Gerald Segal of the Institute for Strategic Studies, a dissident in the expert ranks, was quoted listing other dismal miscalculations by ''the priesthood'' about China's intervention in Korea, its murderous agricultural policies and the national devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution.

The treasures on display at the National Gallery survived that upheaval unscathed because they were brought from Beijing's Forbidden City to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek in 1948 and placed in the National Palace Museum.

Continuing rivalry between Taiwan and the mainland has nothing to do with the larger political truths that infuse this collection of 450 ink paintings and calligraphy, jades and bronzes, porcelains and landscape scrolls. It is the centrality and durability of art in Chinese life, and its role in governance, that is highlighted by these treasures.

On these scrolls Chinese art unfolds progressively, revealing an unending search for moral order in a chaotic universe. Calligraphy is both ''a revered art form'' and a political instrument for the Chinese, according to the exhibit's catalogue:

''One of the most significant outgrowths of the political unification of China'' 2,000 years ago ''was the standardization of the written language.'' Calligraphy became ''a key source of cultural identity.'' Skill in this visual poetry became an essential qualification of the scholar-officials who molded Chinese society.

China's bureaucrats, and some of its emperors, were also skilled artists and intellectuals. They made form as important as content, in poetry and politics. They helped create or embellish an art that exists outside the linear frames of Western painting - ''an art of space,'' in the phrase of Simon Leys, a former Belgian diplomat who served in Beijing.

''The Chinese actually possess one more art'' than does the West, Mr. Leys wrote last year in The New York Review of Books when this exhibition opened in New York. In Chinese history, ''the written word possessed the power of ordering the cosmos and of generating reality.'' This script conveys meaning beyond language.

A quest for order and for dignity, and a revulsion against corruption, are the central themes of the exhibition's works that I found most powerful. They echo in visual form the conversations I had with student demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

The students began those demonstrations seeking an apology from Deng Xiaoping's dictatorship for having maligned their patriotism in the official press. They gradually expanded their concerns to official corruption (which has skyrocketed since then) and the lack of democracy in China. But their essential demand remained a return to decency and dignity by their rulers.

Instead, the regime murdered many of the students and their supporters on June 4, 1989.

Even as astute an observer as former Secretary of Defense William Perry has let time obscure the true meaning of the demonstrations. When I asked him in a recent interview to describe what the demonstrations had been about, he responded by reciting (although not endorsing) the regime's claim that it had to crack down on dangerous revolutionaries.

These art treasures show that the students' values were more in keeping with traditional Chinese society than are those of Mr. Deng and his henchmen, who will soon play host to Mrs. Albright.

Visiting and understanding this exhibition will help her not be taken in by the experts who say that ''Asian values'' make democracy and commercial honesty unattainable options for Chinese society today. The National Gallery exhibit punctures those arguments.

Mrs. Albright took office promising to ''tell it like it is.'' She thus set for herself a high standard of truth-telling. But she promptly retreated behind a verbal smoke screen about ''multifaceted relationships'' the first time she was asked about China by the press. She owes the people of China and their traditional standards - as well as her own, recent self-proclaimed standard - better than that.