The dominance of women, moreover of naked Chinese women, is a striking feature of Hu Ming's recent paintings. The women are supremely comfortable with the sensuousness of their bodies, whether they are representations of young peasant workers or soldiers in a North China setting or of Chinese women in Auckland, where the artist from Beijing lived for ten years before relocating to Sydney in 1999. These virile women have abundant bottoms that exude strength and fecundity, and arms and legs that have been thickened by physical labour.
The young peasant women in "Stitch a Quilt", "Harvest", "Doorway" and "Nothing More Delicious Than Dumplings" and the soldiers of "Army Summer" and "Summer Transparency" are representative studies of the virile female body by Hu Ming. The faces of the women are never the focus and these at most project a mood or an attitude. Instead, it is sexual virility that is externalised in the bodies of the women. The three women eating dumplings in "Nothing More Delicious Than Dumplings" are typical of Hu Ming's peasant women. The bare bottoms of two of the women have a commanding presence in the lower foreground of the work. The woman facing away has a slender waist and wide hips; the one facing sideways has a strong well-rounded bottom. The woman in the middle is portrayed from the front, and all three images reinforce and complement one another, providing three-dimensional "sensed" whole images of the women's bodies. The faces of two of the women are portrayed, but these are minimalist depictions so that attention is directed fully to the bodies. The three women have strong limbs signifying that they are engaged in manual labour and their strong hips and buttocks signify fertility. Wheat in the background, ready for harvest, will provide the flour for dumplings that also symbolise fertility and abundance.
In the work "Monday", a Chinese woman with the same strong limbs reclines leisurely atop the steel structure of Auckland Bridge. She is created as an imposing giant who fills almost half of the work. The modern city, the bridge, and the nude male figure with his back to the viewer are all relegated to background insignificance. The focus of the work is the woman who has an air of supreme nonchalance as she entertains herself with the three large frogs clambering on her legs and lower body. The frog is a recurring motif in much of Hu Ming's paintings; it is a motif clearly denoting the male, and is at once tactile and sexual.
Hu Ming's women in this series of works are sensual but in no sense erotic, nor are they confronting. Beautiful breasts and beautiful buttocks are portrayed, but in frontal depictions the lower abdomen is always discretely covered. What exudes from these works is an unmistakable exuberance for life. The female body as portrayed by Hu Ming gives the distinct feeling that the artist is totally at ease with her own physical self. Her women are endowed with qualities that can only be evinced by an artist who is totally aware of her own body and sensuality.
These oil paintings on canvas of North Chinese peasant women or peasant women prototypes are not realist representations and, while clearly informed by various European oil painting traditions, they are deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese "gongbi" style in which detailed lines are the main feature. The "gongbi" style is evident in the early Buddhist paintings found in the Dunhuang Caves and continues to present times as the major school of traditional Chinese painting. In popular culture, this style has been enshrined and perpetuated with little change in the traditional Chinese New Year poster paintings, "nianhua", especially those of North China. Hu Ming acknowledges that many of her peasant women paintings are to some extent inspired by the themes of abundance and fecundity that are common to the "nianhua" genre. After relocating to Auckland in 1990, Hu Ming found that acquiring the rice paper and Chinese inks for "gongbi" paintings was a problem and turned to painting with oils on canvas.
Born in 1955, Hu Ming's art had won her acclaim throughout her school years. However, as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) unfolded she found herself only allowed to paint propaganda posters and heroic portraits of the Great Leader Mao Zedong. In 1970 she joined the People's Liberation Army and was assigned work in a library. Although warned not to read the banned books she was to catalogue, she found herself sneaking off with them to read in secret. A volume of Michelangelo's nudes that she kept under her pillow and from which she made copies was discovered and she was severely reprimanded. The "confessions" she was ordered to write continued to be unsatisfactory and, alarmed, her parents managed to secure work for her in a military hospital where for a time she trained and worked as a nurse in a morgue and later in a burns unit.
Hu Ming was granted leave to enable her to study at the Tianjin Art Academy where she specialised in traditional "gongbi" style painting. Her first major work "Heavenly Pool Borrows the Moon" won Second Prize in the First National Youth Art Exhibition and was collected by the Tianjin Museum. She travelled extensively to remote regions where she lived amongst the peasants, including to the Dunhuang Caves where she spent six months copying ancient Buddhist wall murals. The twenty-three large scrolls she copied have been retained in the Academy as a teaching resource for students. It was fitting that Hu Ming had chosen to follow her paternal grandfather's artistic inclinations: he had been a folk artist who carved Buddhist images for temples and monasteries. On graduating in 1983, she resumed work in the PLA, and after twenty years of service, at the rank of major, returned to civilian life.
Mabel Lee is Honorary Associate in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney. She is known internationally for her translations of Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain (2000), One Man's Bible (2002) and Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather (2004).