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August 26, 2009

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Helping hands mark quake school's rebirth

BEFORE May 12, 2007, Juyuan Middle School in Sichuan Province was just like any other ordinary middle school in a small city in China. But the massive earthquake destroyed everything.

The disaster engulfed 283 students and six teachers at classrooms in the collapsed building, including Tan Qianqiu, the heroic middle-aged teacher who sacrificed his life to save more students.

Juyuan Middle School is remembered for the tears of despair on the faces of waiting parents and the tears shed by Premier Wen Jiabao at the school's ruins.

"That's why we felt honored when we were asked to make a sculpture for the newly built Juyuan school several months ago," says Li Xiangyang, director of Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute.

"We had a team of several artists work out the proposal in Shanghai and then frequently communicated with the implementation team in Chengdu (capital city of Sichuan Province)."

The institute is known for its rendering of government-appointed artworks for important occasions, including the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

"We are strongly keen on this project, because it is our sincere condolence and earnest wish for those passed and survived," Li says.

Shanghai has been partnered with Dujiangyan City to assist its reconstruction process.

"Undoubtedly the project of Juyuan Middle School is one in the spotlight," Li adds. "Juyuan Middle School has almost become a symbol of the undying spirit of the Chinese nation, and the pressure or expectation on this sculpture is huge."

The 4.6-meter-high bronze sculpture featuring four hands holding other arms tightly now stands in the center of the campus, reminding visitors of the indelible tragedy that happened there and the generous aid that came from all over the country.

The sculpture took just two months.

"The idea came from Xu Baozhong, a Sichuan sculptor who now works and lives in Shanghai," Li says.

But the tight deadline and working pressures caused the relapse of Xu's chronic gastritis. Yet Xu still insisted he be there at the installation of the sculpture last week.

"I am familiar with the culture of both Shanghai and Chengdu," Xu says. "But it is really hard to express the sophisticated, strong and profound feelings through one sculpture."

The theme of hands had always been the first choice for the team.

"I nearly wracked my brains for various arrangement and shape of arms to give a dynamic impact, fused with hope and a struggle for survival," Xu says.

Great teamwork

At the beginning, Xu captured a lot of photos for the arrangement of the arms.

"I even made a small clay model to see the effect."

Li says the sculpture was the result of great teamwork.

"The six sculptors in the sculpture department in our institute gave their suggestions and adjustments," Li says. "Many of them shuttled between Shanghai and Chengdu, because every small detail was critical."

For example, the big rock holding the sculpture was especially transported from Fujian Province due to its unique texture and color.

And even the title to match the sculpture troubled the team for a long time. They thought of lots of titles, such as "Together" or "Power," but none of them seemed perfect.

At the last moment, they decided to just use Juyuan, the name of the middle school. Ju, in Chinese, means gather, and yuan, origin.

"During this scorching summer in Chengdu, some sculptors had to stand on the scaffold to work on the sculpture, because the visual effect of a sculpture right on the ground would be totally different when viewed on a big rock," Li says.

"I was so moved to see that our artists were so devoted. None of them asked for payment."

When the bronze sculpture was finally installed on the rock by a crane, suddenly a ray of sunlight shown through the overcast sky.

"Every person working on site was stunned, including me," Li says.

The new Juyuan Middle School, which cost around 80 million yuan (US$11.7 million), was designed by the School of Architecture in Tsinghua University.

But the newly built Juyuan Middle School is not on its original site for safety reasons.

Occupying an area of 5.33 hectares, the new school can cater for 2,160 students at one time.

"I could only use the word 'splendid' to describe the new building," Li says.

The architectural style combines both the Sichuan and Shanghai culture with a cluster of two to three-story buildings in a round shape.

"I stayed here for more than a half a year," says Ye Fei, deputy project manager of the constructing team.

"The materials we used for the building are of top quality and the school is ready to receive students on September 1."

Juyuan Middle School is one of the 22 middle schools for whose reconstruction the Shanghai municipal government has offered its assistance.

"The love and care from the whole nation will be permanently carved into the sculpture and the building," Li says.


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