Painter cannot go a day without picking up brush
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Aisin-gioro Song Shi, 68, is a renowned painter whose works can fetch more than 1 million yuan (HK$1.23 million) a piece. A descendant of Prince Cheng, the 11th son of the Qianlong emperor in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), Aisin-gioro is a Buddhist Lama who spent several years in Tibet. He was also persecuted twice as a political prisoner and spent 18 years in jail. But being behind bars for much of the 1960s and '70s didn't stop him from painting or doing calligraphy. And over the past two decades, he has wielded his brush for leading figures on the mainland, including late state leader Deng Xiaoping and former defence minister Chi Haotian . While Aisin-gioro loves depicting mountain scenery in his works, he specialises in painting horses.
When did you start learning how to paint?
I started painting when I was just a child, and I learned it from my father, who founded an art magazine called Hushe Monthly in the 1920s. I think this has something to do with our imperial family. During the Qing dynasty, all members of the family needed to learn Chinese culture, including music, playing chess, painting and calligraphy. Our father inherited these customs, and I always stood beside him when he was painting. I love portraying the beauty of the natural environment in my pictures. Also, I believe in Tibetan Buddhism, and I was regarded as the 12th transmigrated living Buddha by the Taklung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism when I was three. I was sent to Tibet at that time and practised Thang-ga - Tibetan scroll painting.
Why were you in prison for a total of 18 years?
I was sent to jail in 1959 after [spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama fled Tibet because I am a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, even though we are under different streams of Tibetan Buddhism. Many monks were also affected at that time. I went back home after I was released. However, two years later, I was sent to jail again because of the Cultural Revolution. This is probably because I said something politically wrong - I said the seizure of power by the Communist Party was brutal, in that many people were killed, and that the government should have done something good for the people after seizing power. I don't think anything bad would have happened to me if I did not say something like this.
Did you stop painting when you were in jail?
No. Nothing could stop me from painting. I feel uneasy if I don't pick up my brush for even one day. It feels like I haven't eaten for a day. Prison officials wanted someone to draw pictures for propaganda material at that time, and this allowed me to keep drawing. Painting and calligraphy are my favourite pastimes, especially several decades ago when there was no TV or radio. I still draw and do calligraphy for about four hours every day.
When did you become a professional painter?
I just took some temporary jobs after leaving jail to earn a living in the early 1980s. I met General Liu Shilun and I was set up to work as a painter at the Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, where state leaders would visit. I started painting for military officers first. I was not rewarded much at that time.
Why are you so fond of drawing horses?
I love horseback riding, and the Manchu people were originally pastoral nomads.
What is so special about your paintings?
I learned the painting style of Lang Shining, the Italian missionary [who moved to China in 1715 and while there changed his name from Giuseppe Castiglione] and was a painter for the Qianlong emperor. So my paintings also include Western elements, which means my paintings have more layers and dimensions.
What makes a good painting?
You have to commune with the objects you are painting. For example, when you paint a tree, just indulge yourself in believing you are a tree, and forget you are a painter. And you also have to familiarise yourself with the objects. I know the body structure of horses well, like how they stretch their muscles and the proportions of muscles and bones. That way I don't paint a horse whose body is not of the correct shape, or who has unnaturally long legs.