Winds from Fusang (2017), a mural by artists Zheng Shengtian and Sun Jingbo, stretches across twelve metres. Fusang, a word dating back two thousand years, is often used in Chinese poetry and folklore to refer to distant lands in the Americas, which some believe to be located in modern-day Mexico. The work of art is an homage to the influence of Latin America, particularly that of Mexican artists, on the development of modern Chinese art. Featuring portraits of fifty people – from David Alfaro Siqueiros to Lu Xun, Frida Kahlo, Li Cheng, José Venturelli, and Zheng and Sun themselves – the mural recovers a rich historical dialogue between the peoples of these distant lands.
This six-panel mural is featured in Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s dossier no. 51, Looking Towards China: Multipolarity as an Opportunity for the Latin American People, which explores China’s recent economic and geopolitical rise and its impact on the peoples and nations of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Contrasted with the political interventions, hybrid warfare, and financialisation that the United States empire has imposed upon the LAC region, China’s involvement there has taken on a different character of cooperation and political non-interference. However, this does not come without its own set of contradictions: although there is an increasing trade deficit between LAC and China, the country accounted for 34 per cent of LAC’s extractive exports and 20 per cent of agricultural exports in 2021, highlighted by vast soy production in ecologically sensitive regions like the Amazon. However, as our dossier notes, ‘China’s re-emergence minimises the space for unipolarity to advance and opens up windows of possibility for the world’s periphery’. This possibility, afforded by the shifting global configuration, also has a cultural dimension. Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research interviewed Zheng Shengtian, who spoke to us from his home in Vancouver, Canada about his life’s work, Winds from Fusang, and about Chinese-Latin American cultural exchanges dating back to the 1950s, propelled by the Bandung Conference.
In 1956, a year after the Bandung Conference gathered 29 newly and nearly independent African and Asian countries, a non-aligned Third World Project was being born and, with it, new possibilities for cultural ideas and exchanges. Artists and cultural workers like Zheng, who was in his third year of university at the time, were eager to help build the nation. In the catalogue of his exhibition at the Long March Space gallery in Beijing, I Was Supposed to Go to Mexico (2021), he recalls what it meant to be an artist back then: ‘Almost every day there was nothing to eat in the canteen but Chinese cabbage. … But in terms of our spiritual life, we felt unprecedently rich. … [W]e couldn’t stop thinking about and discussing the future of Chinese culture’. However, in the still young People’s Republic of China (PRC), the art that was officially condoned and available to these painters and the general public was made in the Soviet style of socialist realism.
‘We loved good Russian art, but I didn’t believe we should copy it because China was completely different from Russia’, Zheng says of the artists’ debates at the time. However, in 1956, ‘suddenly we saw a very large exhibition from Mexico. … [T]hat left the biggest impact, especially on the younger generation of artists’. Organised by left-wing organisations, the show brought the works of great Mexican muralists to China. ‘All of the artists in the show – Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco – were socialists. They talked about anti-imperialism, pride of the nation, praise of the working class. So, the content was politically correct for China, but all of these artists took on a different style’. Zheng calls this moment a turning point in Chinese contemporary art, and one that defined his personal life too; he has spent the six decades since unearthing these lesser-known histories of Chinese and Latin American artistic exchanges and creating new bridges.
The exhibition coincided with the visit of the renowned muralist and communist David Alfaro Siqueiros and writer Angélica Arenal Bastar, who arrived in Beijing in October 1956. Siqueiros was welcomed by senior Chinese leaders, including the premier at the time, Zhou Enlai, who sat down with him for a two-hour conversation spanning topics from the Bandung Conference to common battles against colonialism and imperialism. Siqueiros exchanged ideas about art with the foremost cultural theorist and Party leader Zhou Yang, who concluded that ‘realism cannot be in any way a recipe, a formula, something immobile, but [it is] a fact in perennial change, according to the transformation and development of the corresponding society’.
In his month-long stay in Beijing, Siqueiros gave two talks to the Chinese Artists’ Association and visited ancient Chinese cultural and historical sites that left a lasting impression on him. Jing Cao, a translator and scholar on contemporary Chinese art, writes on the importance of this exchange that ‘Siqueiros’s 1956 dialogues with Chinese artists represent a significant and previously neglected moment of cultural exchange between postwar peripheries, marked on both sides by intense curiosity and the promise of a nonaligned network of Third World nations connected by aesthetic discourse as well as political interests’. For the first time, the young artists saw that it was possible to express socialist content through forms other than Soviet style socialist realism. These artists looked for the possibility of multipolarity, both in politics and in culture.
Zheng and Sun pay homage to this artistic turning point, centring – quite literally – a reproduction of Siqueiros’s Nuestra Imagen Actual (‘Our Present Image’, 1947) above the portraits of Zhou and Siqueiros in their mural. In this mural, the faceless figure who is the subject of Siqueiros’s painting appears to offer the ‘winds from Fusang’ with its outstretched hands. The figure’s head, made of stone, suggests the possibility of a new human being, still in the process of becoming, its form yet to be carved.
Left: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Nuestra Imagen Actual (‘Our Present Image’), 1947.
Right: Detail of Zheng Shengtian and Sun Jingbo, Winds from Fusang, 2017.
Zheng tells us about another one of his great inspirations: the Chilean artist José Venturelli. In 1962, Venturelli returned from Cuba to China, where he was living, bringing news from the young revolutionary state as well as photographs and trace-paper sketches of his work there. He had just finished a mural in memory of the guerrilla leader Camilo Cienfuegos, the first of three murals that Che Guevara invited him to paint in Havana.
This visit took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis at the same time as mass demonstrations in solidarity with Cuba were taking place in Beijing. In a conference presentation entitled Chile, China, Cuba, A Mural and Beyond (2020), Zheng remarked, ‘I was marching with students of the Central Academy of Fine Arts to the Cuban Embassy, holding high the portrait of Fidel Castro and anti-US imperialism slogans, shouting loudly “Cuba Sí, Yankee No!”’. During our interview, he showed us a poster he made for the demonstration featuring a central figure resembling Cienfuegos, with his signature wide-brimmed cowboy hat, flanked by an African man and Asian woman. The poster reads: ‘Resolutely support the just struggle of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America against US imperialism’.
Back in Chile, when he was 16 years old, Venturelli had worked as Siqueiros’s assistant, to whom he was introduced by fellow Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. Together, Neruda and Venturelli participated in several World Peace Council gatherings and became key figures in constructing the Asia-Pacific wing of the global anti-war campaign. Over the course of a decade, Venturelli spent significant time in China, where he raised his daughter, Paz Venturelli, and was given a studio in the centre of Beijing. In an era when no Latin American countries had formal diplomatic ties with the PRC, Venturelli became a cultural ambassador and built bridges with left-wing Latin American intellectuals. It was thanks to Venturelli that Siqueiros visited China and that a generation of young Chinese artists came to know the stories and artwork of people’s struggles in the distant lands of Fusang.
After the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), during which Zheng stopped painting and went to work alongside peasants in the countryside, he went on to study, teach, and travel to many countries, bringing art from each place home to inspire a younger generation of Chinese artists before eventually settling in Canada with his family in 1990. ‘Th[e] mural of Cienfuegos left an impression on my memory’, he told us, leading him on a journey to Cuba to look for the mural. Nearly half a century after first seeing Venturelli’s sketches, Zheng finally had a chance to go to Cuba, but no one seemed to recall the mural or its location. Zheng left the island disappointed. It would be many years and connections later before he visited the home of Venturelli’s daughter, Paz, in Santiago, Chile who told him the mural’s exact location – in a meeting room in Cuba’s Ministry of Health.
When Zheng returned to Cuba for the second time, he received special permission to see the mural with a delegation of Chinese artists and even met Venturelli’s assistant who helped paint it. He was pleased to see that the mural was in good condition, standing five metres tall and twenty metres long. From left to right, the three-part mural tells the story of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra; Cienfuegos leading the revolutionary army to the plains; and, finally, a march of Latin American peoples, representing revolution on the continent. The mural features fifty people – the same number of people that Zheng and Sun’s painted in their own mural 55 years later. In his 2020 conference speech, Zheng remarked how Venturelli ‘implemented the formal vocabulary of modern art: distortion, exaggeration, and methods of symbolism and constructivism…
and it opened the eyes of Chinese artists’.
Zheng has lived through some of the great transformations of the twentieth century across the Global South, witnessing first-hand the solidarity between peoples struggling for national liberation and socialism, a battle in culture as much as in politics. To recall this history is to look beyond nostalgia of an earlier time and beyond the Cold War binaries of East versus West, capitalism versus socialism, Western modernism versus Soviet socialist realism. In his foreword to Winds from Fusang – Artistic Dialogue between Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, Zheng writes: ‘Some art historians inherited the historiography of the two camps – the East and West – from the Cold War period and considered Western modernism and revolutionary realism as the two major trends in the development of Chinese art in the 20th century… Such a view is too simplistic. To a large extent, they ignore that there were alternative trends and practices between these two currents’.
The history that Zheng traces, connecting China to Mexico, Chile, and Cuba, helps us recover these other practices and a long tradition of exchange between governments as well as the peoples of China and Latin America. Since Venturelli’s time, 24 of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries have established diplomatic relations with China. Many have developed strategic partnerships, primarily in trade and investment, with ‘increasing equitable cultural exchange’ as one of the state goals that China put forward in the 2018 China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States meeting held in Chile. As the authors of our dossier write, ‘Ultimately, leaving behind the path of Western capitalist development requires a different form of globalisation and a break with Western notions of modernity. It requires a globalisation based on multipolarity, cooperation, and planning’.
After his trip seven decades ago, Siqueiros addressed his Chinese hosts in a reflection that continues to be relevant today:
To all [people] of Latin America, you will tell us how you have made the miracle that an entire nation of 600 million inhabitants is now building a new society, always singing and laughing, even without the violence before enemies that seemed inevitable in all social transformations of magnitude. … It is your responsibility, in short, to tell us how you have been able to make of your country, of your ‘Chinese misery’… a place that is walking with gigantic steps towards modernity, progress and peace.
Perhaps today, as the ‘winds from Fusang’ blow towards China, the peoples of Latin America will also look towards China in search of other possibilities and a multipolar world with a multipolar culture that defends the interests of developing nations and its people.