China has, in recent years, sent to the United States two kinds of art exhibits. There are, first of all, her propaganda pop shows. They tend to hymn the present, to show us happy peasants riding happy tractors or petting happy fish. And then there are her awesome archeological displays, whose ancient jades and bronzes and life-size terra cottas celebrate the past. The different sort of show that goes on view today at the National Geographic Society, 17th and M streets NW, falls somewhere in between.
It is called "Contemporary Paintings in the Traditional Manner From the People's Republic of China." Its 50 hanging scrolls are modern, but not very. They look like new antiques.
Done in ink on silk or paper fringed with silk brocade, they're traditional in style and traditional in subject, at least most of the time. Their brushwork calls to mind the 700-year-old "literati" style. There are many birds and flowers here, storks and geese and magpies, plum blossoms and bamboo leaves, and, of course, a dozen dizzying mountain gorges filled with rising mist.
But a bit of socialist realism sneaks in here and there. China's propagandists have come to love the panda, and there are a couple in this show. They are just as proud of their "barefoot doctors," and the cotton swabs and kerosene lantern of Wang Yujue's "Health Worker in a Mountain village" have been painted as painstakingly as her eyelashes and her hair.
Because written Chinese is in many ways a painting of the language, the poet and the painter there are often the same man. But Ya Ming's riverscape, "Having Sung of the Yangzi, I Turn Eastward," celebrates another's verse. The words are those of Zhou Enlai, the man the West once knew as Premier Chou En-Lai.
Other paintings here also bow, in subtle ways, to contemporary patriotism. Yang Deheng's handsome scene of cranes in flight above a misty field is titled, unexpectedly, "A Good Rice Crop." Pilgrims climb a thousand stairs in the mountain landscape that Zhang Shaowen calls "Mt. Hua"; this might be a scene from centuries ago. Jin Zhiyuan's peaks are just as high, his gorge is just as misty, but in the middle of his picture is a streamlined Chinese train. The riders who, on horseback, emerge from the mists in Ghen Zangji's hanging scroll wear Chinese army uniforms and carry modern rifles. The little but we see perched high above the river in another painting of the Jinggang Mountains was not put there, as one might guess, for contemplative pilgrims; it is, the label tells us, a post for Chinese guards.
Many of these paintings are completely apolitical. They show us peacocks, horses, lions, or geese swimming half-submerged, or drifting clouds, or pines, or branches in spring flower. While a number of the artists paint with great precision, Qi Baishi's easy brushwork -- he works in the xie-yi, or "write the meaning" style -- could not be more free.
In many ways, the pictures here are as interesting politically as they are esthetically. Since the Revolution, the Chinese have at times waged a kind of war on old chinese traditions. That battle may be ending. The artists in this show, most of them at least, have made peace with China's past. The exhibit was organized by the China Exhibition Agency: its U.S. tour is sponsored by the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association. It closes April 30.