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August 19, 2016

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Orphans taught ‘practical arts related to daily life’

THE Tintin cartoon adventure “The Blue Lotus” was published in 1936. In it, Belgian cartoonist Hergé landed his popular hero on the shores of Shanghai, where he rescued a Chinese orphan named Chang Chong-Chen from the whirling Yangtze current.

The orphan character was based on a real-life person — Hergé’s Chinese friend Zhang Chongren (1907-98), who studied art at the Tushanwan Orphanage in Xujiahui and later became a master sculptor.

The northern building of the orphanage where Zhang studied still stands on Puhuitang Road. The red-brick building has been converted into a museum dedicated to the arts and crafts of the former orphanage. Lonely Planet recommends the site as a must-see in Shanghai.

The museum welcomes visitors through a stately wooden memorial gate carved by boys in the orphanage for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. The Xuhui District purchased the gate from its most recent owner in Sweden, brought it home and commissioned a painstaking restoration for the opening of the museum in 2010.

“Xujiahui, with institutions like the observatory and the Xujiahui Library, represented the elite culture of the area, whereas Tushanwan reflected practical arts that related to daily life,” says Fudan University Professor Li Tiangang. “It is essentially a cradle of East-meets-West in arts and crafts.”

The observatory, the library and the art workshops in the Tushanwan Orphanage all resulted from an 1872 meeting in Xujiahui, when the Jiangnan Society of Jesus decided to establish a scientific and cultural committee.

“Under the plans of this committee, Xujiahui was to be developed into the largest private ‘cultural complex’ in the Far East,” Li says. “It was built with the economic clout of the Jiangnan region and intellectual endeavors of French Jesuits.”

Tushanwan translates as “mud hills at the river bend.” It reflected the site of the orphanage in a muddy, hilly neighborhood.

In 1864, the Jesuits relocated the orphanage there from the then Qingpu County. In addition to providing the orphans food and lodging, the Catholics also taught them Western art techniques in the hopes of giving them skills for the adult lives.

The orphans were schooled in Chinese, mathematics and geography in the mornings and in religion and crafts like carving, carpentry and blacksmithing in the afternoons. After two years’ general training, they were sent to specialized workshops to hone individual skills.

There were several workshops, covering areas such as painting, publishing, photography, stained glass, metal casting and woodworking. Each was presided over by a director who was often a European Jesuit with mastery of those skills.

Shanghai Library expert Zhang Wei says the painting, publishing and woodworking workshops were among the most noteworthy. There, Tushanwan introduced Western painting techniques and modern printing technology to Shanghai.

By the early 20th century, the works of Tushanwan were so highly regarded worldwide that the memorial gate and models of Chinese pagodas were exhibited at world fairs. King Leopold II of Belgium commissioned Tushanwan to build a Chinese pavilion in Brussels, which is today an annex of the Royal Museums of Art and History.

“A new generation of Chinese artists, such as painter Xu Yongqing, publisher Qiu Zi’ang and sculptor Zhang Chongren, all emerged from these workshops,” says Zhang, who wrote a book about the orphanage’s operations and contributions.

He says young orphans were sent there after they turned six years old. The boys received general school education until they reached 13, and then they took training in crafts for the next six years.

Once they reached adulthood, the boys could continue to do jobs commissioned by the church or they could go off to make their own livings elsewhere.

The modern-day museum exhibits 400 objects produced by or related to the orphanage, including Zhang Chongren’s renowned sculpture for late French President Francois Mitterrand and a century-old, splendid cabinet with stained glass. The training workshops have been recreated for visitors to view.

According to the book “Zikawei in History,” the craft training at the Tushanwan Orphanage ended in about 1960, when China’s industries were nationalized. The workshops then fell under the jurisdiction of various state industrial groups, and the orphans who remained were assigned to work in state-owned publishing houses or factories.

“The orphans were well received by their new industrial employers,” says Zhang, who interviewed Tushanwan orphans for his book. “Most of them showed a stable, devout character due to their religious background. And they were super good at craftsmanship.”

He credits that to the caliber of the directors who supervised training in the workshops. “Most of them were European Jesuits with versatile talents, who were not only good at woodworking or painting, but also could fix clocks and watches, develop photographs, concoct chemical formulas, brew wine or make milk,” Zhang says.

“They were such devout people who came to China as young men, grew old and died here,” he says. “They contributed decades of their lives to training orphans. Some even gave up wealthy inheritances to work here. They created history by educating illiterate orphans, giving the boys the opportunity to work miracles.”

In the spring of 1934, Hergé was introduced to Zhang Chongren, who was then studying sculpture in Brussels after learning sketching and photography in Tushanwan. The two young artists quickly became close friends, and Zhang introduced Hergé to Chinese history, culture and art.

Zhang went to Hergé’s house every weekend to have tea and help him with passages in “The Blue Lotus.” He even drew the Chinese characters for street signs in the cartoons.

As a result of this collaboration, “The Blue Lotus” was praised for its historical accuracy in replicating the look and atmosphere of Shanghai in the 1930s. As a token of his appreciation, Hergé created the character of Chang Chong-Chen, who appeared in the cartoon story and later in “Tintin in Tibet.”

“Neither Xujiahui nor Tushanwan had a particularly long history, but they were known nationwide and even globally,” Professor Li says. “Chinese and Western cultures converged, with mutual respect on both sides.”

Yesterday: The north building of T’ou-Se-We Orphanage

Today: Tushanwan Museum

Built in 1864

Address: 55 Puhuitang Rd

Opening hours: 9am-4pm, Tuesdays-Sundays

Admission: Free

Tips: For history buffs, visits to the Xujiahui Library at 80 Caoxi Road N. and the Shanghai Science Hall at 47 Nanchang Road offer additional examples of the arts and cultural legacy of the Tushanwan legacy.



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