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May 15, 2021

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From a tranquil childhood, an artist rose to prominence

WHEN not disturbed by tides of visitors, Wuzhen is a 1,300-year-old watertown of tranquility and simplicity in neighboring Zhejiang Province — the kind of place to inspire an artist.

The Dongzha, or East Gate, area of the town was the childhood home of artist and poet Mu Xin (1927-2011). Even after living abroad for decades, he eventually returned to his hometown and spent the remaining days of his life there.

Ten years after his death, Mu Xin’s Wuzhen residence recently opened to the public.

The artist was born Sun Pu into a wealthy family. He took the pen name Mu Xin from “The Analects of Confucius.” It means that a man’s heart is solid and he should use his power to improve the world.

Mu Xin’s left a legacy of more than 600 artworks, reflecting a fusion of traditional Chinese and Western art styles. He used traditional Chinese brushes, ink and rice paper to compose mostly landscapes that drew on impressionism and abstract art.

Mu Xin’s artworks have become parts of global collections. The artist himself donated 33 paintings to Yale University, and he was the first 20th-century Chinese artist to have his works collected by the British Museum. He also published more than 30 collections of poetry and prose.

After living in the United States for 24 years, he returned to Wuzhen in 2006 and had a mansion built on the site of his old childhood home. He named his residence Wanqing Xiaozhu, which means “small house under the clearness at dusk.” It may have reflected his desire for a cloudless life in his last years.

Part of the residence has been modified into a museum in memory of the artist, exhibiting his paintings, manuscripts, videos and other personal belongings.

A family portrait is also on display. Taken in the early 1930s, the picture shows the artist with his parents and two sisters. The tour guide at the residence explained many papers exhibited in the museum are actually copies, with the real ones kept at the nearby Mu Xin Art Museum to protect them from weathering.

The mansion grounds comprise a Chinese-style house and a garden. The garden retains the original look of Mu Xin’s days there. Flowing wisteria blankets much of the garden in purple every springtime.

The interior décor of the house features some Western influences, including furniture in the sitting room and the study. In Mu Xin’s studio, paper, pigments and brushes are piled on a desk as if he had never left.

Another two rooms in the house, once the bedrooms of two Mu Xin protégés, have been converted into small galleries displaying the artworks of them.

Chen Danqing, Mu Xin’s student, once said the house did include parlor rooms for meeting people, though Mu Xin wasn’t keen on socializing beyond family and a few old friends in his later years.

“He was always a bit solitary,” Chen said. “When he was in the US, we often planned to go to an exhibition or do some traveling, but when the day came, he changed his mind.”

Mu Xin wasn’t particularly keen on working in his study either. He preferred to write in the dining room. When an inspiration hit him, he would often jot it down on a piece of tissue paper or on the back of a cigarette pack.

“My mentor paid a lot of attention to inspiration,” Chen recalled. “When we talked on the phone and he was suddenly struck with a good sentence, he interrupted our conversation and grabbed a pen to write it down. He called it ‘catching a phrase.’”

In 1931, the then 5-year-old Mu Xin moved to the Wuzhen residence with his parents and sisters. Back then the mansion was called Sun’s Garden.

He was born into a literary family. His maternal grandmother was familiar with “I Ching,” or “The Book of Changes” — an ancient Chinese text on divination. His paternal grandmother was learned in Buddhist scriptures, and his mother was fascinated with literature.

Mu Xin spent several happy years playing in the garden, singing songs written by Mozart and reading poems by Shelly, Byron and Pushkin.

“At that time, Shelly, Byron and Pushkin were what poets were like in my mind, with pretty faces, curly hair, lapel shirts and holding quills,” Mu Xin later wrote in a memoir.

The carefree days didn’t last long. After the war against Japanese aggression broke out, the family moved to Shanghai in the late 1930s, where Mu Xin was schooled.

In 1946, Mu Xin started to study at the Shanghai School of Fine Arts. However, he was dismissed from school for leading a student movement.

In 1948, Mu Xin graduated from the Hangzhou National Academy of Art. In the 1950s, he went to work at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute. He was also a music and art teacher in Shanghai in that period.

During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), many of his early paintings were destroyed, and he himself was imprisoned in 1971 for 18 months. After that, he was confined to house arrest for several years. Some of the paintings he donated to Yale University, such as “Dawn Mood,” were created during captivity.

In 1979, he was exonerated, later serving as the secretary-general of the China Arts and Crafts Association.

Mu Xin moved to the US in 1982, where he met Chen Danqing in the New York subway. Later, Chen attended his lectures on the history of world literature, filling several thick notebooks with notes.

Literary works Mu Xin wrote in the 1950s and 60s were bound in 20 unpublished volumes, which were destroyed at the beginning of the “cultural revolution.” While living in New York, he published literary works, including short stories, novels and poetry.

The family home in Wuzhen didn’t fare well after the family left. In the 1950s, several factories occupied the mansion, and when they left, the residence fell into disrepair.

In 1994, Mu Xin returned to Wuzhen and was dismayed by the miserable state of his childhood home. He vowed never to come back again.

“In common sense, a ‘hometown’ is ‘the most familiar place,’ but now I recognize only its name,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Wuzhen” after the visit.

But he did eventually return. By that time, Wuzhen was developing the Dongzha area into a tourist destination. The local government bought the family mansion and renovated it according to Mu Xin’s tastes. In 2006, he moved back in.

With the factories gone and the tranquil environment of a watertown restored, Wuzhen has reverted to a more original look.

“When I was a child, I stood on the dock, gazing at the water as it slowly flowed and barely made a sound when it lapped against the bank,” Mu Xin wrote in “Wuzhen.” “Now I see it again, and it’s just like what I saw back then. I feel surprisingly happy about it.”

If you go

Visitors must hold a valid admission to Dongzha in Wuzhen to make an appointment to visit the mansion on the website

Open: 9am-5:30pm

(9am-5pm in winter)


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