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Fall 2018, WP William Paterson University

Merging East and West:

Professor Zhiyuan Cong Creates Art at the Crossroads

By Mary Beth Zeman

Professor Zhiyuan Cong bends over a rice paper canvas arranged on a large table in his printmaking studio in the Power Art Center on campus. Despite the fact that a few visitors are watching him work, the professor is totally immersed in his art. He painstakingly mixes traditional Chinese ink with water on a palette, dips a brush into the ink, and then carefully applies it to the paper, bringing to life the painting’s intricate design.


“You have to have a feeling to do a drawing,” Cong says.  “You need to feel the energy.”


The focus of his concentration is the largest painting he has ever made, measuring a dramatic and imposing eight feet tall by almost 17 feet wide. Designed as five overlapping pieces, the painting, when assembled, takes up nearly an entire wall in his studio.


Titled “Song of the Phoenix: Paper Money Delivered to the West,” the painting tells the story of the beginning of trade using paper money, which was first developed in China in the nine century, and became the means of exchange along the Silk Road, from China to Persia, India, Greece, and Italy. The complex scene is filled with images depicting trade over water and land; the goods that traveled the road such as fruits, wines, books, and flowers; and symbols that depict how paper money spurred communication and exchange between East and West in terms of culture, art, religion, economy, science, and agriculture. The phoenix—a Chinese symbol for peace and happiness that was featured on early Chinese paper money—figures prominently in the painting.


“The painting aims to record and reflect far back into history, when the epic East-West exchange had its glorious and magnificent moment, to express contemporary mankind's vision for mutual development and the ideal of a peaceful world,” Cong says.

The painting, which Cong has been working on for more than nearly four years, is one of 74 finalists in an international art competition governed by the China Culture and Arts Council, and organized by the China National Academy of Painting and the National Art Museum of China. More than 335 drawings from China and 42 additional countries were originally submitted for the prestigious competition. Finalists were chosen by the international art project committee. The winning artist will be chosen in June 2019, and his or her work will become part of the permanent collection of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

For Cong, a Chinese-born artist who is internationally known as a master of Chinese arts, the painting is very personal. He grew up in the Chinese countryside in the small town of Bencha, in Jiangshu Province. After he completed high school, in 1974 he entered—and his works were selected for—the prestigious Fourth National Art Exhibition in China. His submission was a painting of women working a harvest machine on a farm in the rural area he knew so well.  It changed his life.

“Many of China’s best art faculty are never selected for that show,” he says.  “I had never been in a car, or in a boat, or on an airplane, and I traveled in all those ways to get to Beijing to receive the award,” he says.  His work was placed on exhibit in the National Art Museum of China. He was also selected to study art at the Nanjing Arts Institute, one of the oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions in China. There, he was mentored by the master Chinese artist Chen Da Yu, trained as a traditional Chinese painter, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art, and became a professor.

His desire to study western art brought him to Indiana University at Bloomington. On his arrival in the U.S., in 1989, he did not speak English, and was initially supported by two Chinese artists, Ya Ming and Chen Dayu. He later received two fellowships to continue his studies. At Indiana he completed a master of fine arts while working as a part-time instructor, teaching and demonstrating Chinese arts as well as making his own works, developing an additional artistic path as a printmaker. His exposure to western art, he says, gave him the “ideal opportunity to compare, develop and construct a new artistic language.”

Cong, who joined the University in 1994, has continued to explore the artistic connections between East and West. In addition to heading the University’s printmaking program, he founded and serves as director of the University’s Center for Chinese Arts. Founded in 2009, the center is dedicated to preserving and sharing the artistic heritage of China and integrating its rich tradition into the University's curriculum, including exhibitions, lectures, and workshops with visiting Chinese artists. He also leads William Paterson’s Summer Art in China Program, which provides students with an immersive study experience in China under his guidance.


“An east and west exchange can help people learn from each other,” he says. “You learn to respect each other—people who have different ideas, styles of living, customs.”

For Cong, the painting in many ways brings him full circle.  While a student at Nanjing, he traveled along the ancient Silk Road, exploring his native country and gaining knowledge about art that, he says, caused him to “think deeply about Chinese culture and my own life,” and spurred his choice of this particular topic for the painting. His research required him to delve deeply once again into the story of his native China, visiting museums in the United States and China, and exploring images from movies and websites.

It has also required a painstaking attention to detail. The process of completing a work of this size has meant an extreme focus on time management—and 12-hour days in his studio this past summer—with every decision, from a design element to a choice about color, critical as he moves forward. “There are always a few mountains to climb when completing such a work,” he says with a smile. “I am counting this time on experience…and luck.”

Now, putting the final touches on what is clearly a personally defining work, Cong—who is entering his 25th year on campus—is once again displaying the connection between east and west that he feels so deeply.  “In America, I am an artist from China, and in China, I am an artist from America.  Indeed, I am in the border zone between the two cultures, or at the crossroads, of these two kinds of art. I am proud to be in this zone of conflict and union, making a journey full of adventure and amazement.”