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Young Chinese artist draws inspiration from ancient culture

A young Chinese artist became an overnight sensation when she presented a stunning contemporary adaptation of an ancient painting on a popular television show last weekend.

Photo by Ye Luying

The hit variety show National Treasure, which aired on China Central Television, introduced the ancient Chinese painting “Nymph of the Luo River” by Gu Kaizhi of the East Jin Dynasty (317-420) at the same time as Ye Luying's modern version in her picture book.

Her own cartoon-style “Nymph of the Luo River” amazed the audience along with the exhibited Song copy of Gu’s painting recommended by the Liaoning Provincial Museum. Many say that she perfectly combines the traditional art with modern features and has brought high-end art closer to ordinary people.

A picture from Ye Luying's picture book "Nymph of the Luo River." /Photo by Ye Luying

Gu’s painting was an inspired illustration of an essay written by Cao Zhi, a poet of China’s Three Kingdoms period (220-280), in which he depicted his imagined romantic encounter and separation with the Nymph of the Luo River. 

A talented calligrapher and painter, Gu Kaizhi is also known for his theories in Chinese painting that laid foundations for its new development, especially his emphasis on the eyes of the figures.

“The eyes were the spirit and the decisive factor in figure paintings,” Gu wrote down in his theoretical works.

Ye Luying (L) and Chen Xiao, Chinese actor, appear at the variety show "National Treasure". /Photo via Ye Luying

Ye Luying, 25, is one of the generation dubbed the “post-90s,” a reference to those who were born in the 1990s. After graduating from the Chinese Academy of Art and studying abroad, she now works as a teacher at the academy. 

While overseas she came to the conclusion that the country’s 5,000-year cultural heritage is rooted in her spirit. 

“I was so impressed by the Norse mythology that I couldn’t help wondering 'do we have such stories in China, and what are the aesthetic symbols of the Chinese',” said Ye.

The Song copy of Gu Kaizhi's painting "Nymph of the Luo River." /Photo via Liaoning Provincial Museum‍

She started to immerse herself in libraries after returning to her hometown in Hangzhou city, Zhejiang Province, until she came across with the Nymph of the Luo River again after graduation.

She said she was inspired not only by Gu Kaizhi’s painting, but also his theories of comparing lines in painting to silk. Cao Zhi’s depiction of the nymph in his essay has also provided her with numerous ideas.

From then on, Ye has dug deeper into the ancient Chinese literature and culture and was amazed by what she found out.

A picture from Ye Luying's picture book "Nymph of the Luo River." /Photo by Ye Luying

“The Chinese culture, with its long history and profound contents, is like a huge treasure to me. It has nourished my works and would continue to do so in my entire career life,” Ye said at the variety show. “I want to share the Oriental beauty with everyone.”

She spent half a year painting her picture book, which was based on the ancestors’ works but invigorated with her wild imagination.

The Song copy of Gu’s painting was 6.4 meters in length, and Ye’s manuscript is about 11 meters in general. She completed a large part of her painting on the computer.

A picture from Ye Luying's picture book "Nymph of the Luo River". /Photo by Ye Luying

“The computer has its advantage. For example, the colors would be more saturated, refreshing and are capable of presenting more layers of changes,” said Ye. “It’s an era of rapid development, with the technology leaping forward. 

“New elements should be infused into the classic artistic works.”  

Her picture book has become a rising star in the field of fine art, and has grabbed a handful of domestic awards. It was also exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair. 

A Ye Luying painting. /Photo by Ye Luying

Dong Baohou, painter and researcher of the Liaoning Provincial Museum, speaks highly of Ye’s painting. 

“The ‘Nymph of the Luo River’ is an important piece of work in the Chinese history of art, but it is still far away from the public. Ye has inherited the classical beauty from the ancient painting, and expressed it in a modern way, which is great,” said Dong. 

Ye’s picture book is scheduled to be published in April.