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Master Xu Xiutang

Master Xu Xiutang is the soul of the modern art of Yixing clay. His unparalleled talents are fully demonstrated in his creations, and his art, a superb combination of calligraphy, painting, ceramics carving, teapots, sculpture and cultural theories, has not only integrated Yixing clay carving closely with the development of teapots but has also elevated the status of Yixing clay carving to that of teapots. Xu has produced “The Eighteen Arhats (Luohan)” and others which are creations with traditional motifs, and works like “Eight Drinking Immortals” with inspirations from poetry. There are also works of complete innovations, such as “Eight sitting eccentrics” that has been awarded the First Class Prize in the National Exhibition of Ceramic Art. He is undeniably the leading figure of the art of Yixing clay, as he has not only nurtured many juniors who have become famous later but has also further developed the essence of the art.

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       In April 1990, Xu Xiutang’s set of “The Eighteen Arhats (Luohan)” was displayed at the Second Exhibition of Chinese Art of Yixing Clay. The artist, with experiences accumulated over decades, and at the peak of his life of art, obtained his inspiration from the images of deities with a multitude of Buddhist worshippers and produced this realistic set of works expressing humanity and mentality of the contemporary world.

       Xu’s “The Eighteen Arhats” are completely different from those produced previously. Each of his arhats has his own facial expression, poise and personality. With consideration of displaying the eighteen figures in a concerted array and packing them away with ease, they, as one set, are arranged at three different levels – upper, middle and lower – supported by frames. With long arms and legs extending over the frames, more delights are added to the overall composition.

       The long-arm luohan is receiving books from Shenlongtuo at the lower level, while the long-leg luohan, with short arms and long legs, has an amusing countenance as his arms are not long enough to handle his itchy feet licked by little beasts. The middle-aged luohan in the centre, waving his arms and speaking loudly, is showing off his knowledge of sutras and theories. He is flanked by two listeners of different ages, personalities and expressions. Enthusiastic scholars are found at the upper level quoting and making references to sutras. The young “short-sighted luohan” is called such a name because his hard work has made him short-sighted. The “long-sighted luohan” is an elderly and his long-sightedness results from the upward movement of his eyes towards his forehead. As to build a link between different levels, the big-ear luohan is climbing downward to get closer to the speakers. Is he afraid to miss anything? A meagre luohan occupies the central position of the upper level. He does not seem meager because of his slim skeleton but because he seems to be light enough to float in the air once blown by a gentle breeze. After all, the fat luohan embraces the greatest sense of blessing. Sitting on a hassock and holding a fan, he is in the centre of the lower layer, flanked by two groups, each with its own interesting features. On the one hand, Xu Xiutang presents his arhats as figures enjoying tea and appreciating tea wares. The longhair luohan is depicted as a visionary and unpredictable tea lover holding his beloved teapot in his hands, raising his head and going to utter something. One should not think that Xu deliberately makes his figures mystifying, as any admirer of the art of tea appreciates whole-heartedly the real joy rendered by the art. On the other hand, there is a group of admirers of painting. What are they discussing? There are elderly and young figures in this set of eighteen arhats. One sees a “small luohan”, who is believed the youngest in the set. All the eighteen figures – meagre or fat, plain or sophisticated, far-sighted or short-sighted, with long hair or long eyebrows, with long legs or long arms – have different facial expressions and head features. Even their drapery is handled with techniques of realism.

        The movements and personalities portrayed by this set of works are found in our daily life. The set has even embraced the art of tea, poetry and painting and presented these items of a cultural life in episodes. This is a highly humanized set of work depicting both deities and humans, with features traditional and innovative, realistic and freehand, appealing to both refined and popular tastes, and integrating art with daily life. The overall composition imposes a strong visual impact on the viewer, who cannot help being deeply impressed by the looks of the arhats. In terms of either connotations or formal structure, this set of “The Eighteen Arhats” is not only an innovation of the art of Xiying clay but also a pioneering undertaking of the art of Chinese sculpture.

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