I was astonished to learn of her past. An unassuming aquaintance, Fangfang Xu, recently published her family memoir, Galloping Horses: Artist Xu Beihong and His Family During Mao’s China. She did tell me her father was called the “father of modern Chinese art,” but I didn’t realize he was world famous, his work hanging in prestigious museums and selling for high dollars at auction. He is known particularly for his black ink paintings of spirited horses, hence the name of the memoir. It is said he was lucky to have died before the Cultural Revolution. His family struggled to preserve his art and his memory.
In her book, Fangfang exposes the harsh life under Chairman Mao from the unusual perspective of artists, musicians and teachers—intellectuals severely punished for being “reactionary bourgeois.” People lived in fear of the merciless young Red Guards and the country closed in on itself and moved backwards. Although the Xu family was privileged to know many influential people, including Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, that did not keep them, “the children of dogs,” from suffering along with others.
Fangfang filled Galloping Horses with incredible detail from much research, friend and family interviews, and notes she and her mother had kept. She spent six years doing research on the important events because “I want my book to have credibility for general readers as well as academic people.” Fangfang captures in story what went on during this time and explains the results and implications of the crackdowns affecting families, culture, universities, and the economy. I learned about Chinese art and teaching methods and about the art of music composition as Fangfang was an accomplished pianist at a young age. She made all of this easy to understand and the story line flows smoothly—I was surprised to see what an excellent writer she is, often poetic. I have read several books set during the Cultural Revolution, but nothing like this. I highly recommend this fascinating and poignant memoir for anyone interested in history and the arts or in a compelling story of survival.
I asked Fangfang how she remembered so much of her experiences. She said:
“As for the memory of my early life, I had written about some episodes in my compositions while in the music school. Even though I lost these compositions during the Cultural Revolution, I remember the content. It is an interesting journey to relive these formative years during my writing.”
You never know what incredible stories might be hiding in your friends.
For further information about Xu Beihong and to see examples of his work, see the Beihong China Arts website. Before reading Galloping Horses, those not familiar with Chinese pronunciation may want to learn the basic x and q sounds—and Fangfang is pronounced “Fahngfahng.”