Feng Yuan (critic)

Feng Yuan: What is A "Reasonable Observer"?


Interview completed on June 6, 2022

Editor: Emma Lee   Images: provided by Interviewee


Feng Yuan was teaching in the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University while I was a student there. Back then he was in the Department of Design and I was in the Department of Journalism, and I had heard his name many times for the four years when I was there, all saying that his classes were particularly popular among the students. I was a bit of a nerd back then, and it was difficult for me to go to classes across departments as I only ever went to four places on campus: dormitory, library, teaching area, and cafeteria. In 2019, I met Prof. Feng face to face at the "Consciousness of Borders" exhibition at the Guangdong Museum of Art, and subsequently I added him to my WeChat. I decided to restart The Beacon in the middle of the year after I opened up a conversation with Prof. Feng earlier this year for my Facebook column "Old Photos China", and he became one of the initial supporters of The Beacon. We would like to formally express our gratitude to him here.



Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity? What books have you been reading lately? What music do you listen to?


A: For us post-60s (in fact, including most post-50s and post-70s), we are all "religious insulators" under environmental determinism.


Environmental determinism can also be called “acquired determinism”, which means that, except for the founders or the soul members of religion at its origin, for most people throughout history and for us today, religious belief is an acquired behavior and is quite dependent on early education and life circumstances. To use an animal behavior analogy, it is a bit like birds (songbirds) learning to sing. Although birds are born to sing, they must learn from their parents at an early age, and once the opportunity is missed, the young bird will not be able to sing "correctly" for the rest of its life.


The "Chinese birds" of the post-1960s grew up in an environment insulated from religious beliefs, and their childhood and adolescence were like metal wrapped in ideological tape, so that even if they were connected to the electricity of religious beliefs in their youth, they would not be able to get the “electric shock” ...


This is not to say that the "religiously illiterate" generation of the post-1960s has no religious perception or pursuit at all after they reach their prime, but even if they do, there are only two outcomes. The first and most common is that, because of the lack of an early environment, when spiritual needs arise in their prime, they tend to fall into the trap of tradition – I can liken this to the "pharmacy effect", which means that the modern Chinese pharmacies have two kinds of medicine cabinets, one for the Western medicine (modern medicine) and one for the traditional Chinese medicine. Tradition also offers various spiritual remedies, believe it or not, I won't expand on that. The second outcome is less common, using a western proverb "the end of man is the beginning of God" as a metaphor, some people will also feel enlightened after a major setback and enter the door of faith from then on, but such people are rare.


Therefore, for people with the same upbringing environment, whether Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, or Christianity, when it comes to the word “faith”, it is all false. Some are just desire-driven transient form.


Two days ago, I went to Luoding in western Guangdong to participate in the historical and cultural city conservation planning meeting hosted by the Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of Guangdong. Luoding Museum gave me three books of "Luoding Cultural History". I visited Luoding's historical attractions – Confucius Temple and Liang Family Manor with the team while looking through these local history compilations. Luoding, before the Ming Dynasty, was on the border of Han and Yao peoples, and the books noted the “Yao rebellion”, indicating that hundreds of years ago the clan revolts were one after another; they were difficult to crack down, so they changed the original name of the “Luopang” to Luoding (Chinese character “Ding” means “pacification”). The book of "Luoding Cultural History" was revised in the middle and late Ming Dynasty, coincided with the period when Luoding built the Wen Pagoda and the Confucius Temple. When viewed in relation to each other, I felt deeply the significance of the reign of words in Chinese culture, and how intellectuals take control of a set of ideologies carried in words and impose the so-called order and "morality" on civil society. I am deeply perplexed by such a Confucian tradition that relies on the ideology of words to rule, and I am even more saddened by the illiterate peasants and fools who were ruled like pigs and cattle. In connection with the monograph "A Study of Du Fengzhi's Diary" by Professor Qiu Jie of the History Department of Sun Yat-sen University I read last year, it uses the diary of Du Fengzhi, a middle-ranking official in Guangdong at the end of the Qing Dynasty, with millions of words as historical material to restore all kinds of situations of the bureaucracy and people's livelihood at that time – it’s a mixed bag of emotions. In a word, I could not bear to read it after half of the book, because officials like Du, who had a good reputation as an official in the late Qing Dynasty, applied the most cruel "standing cage punishment" on young farmers at every turn when he was a county official in Sihui, and the frequency and arbitrariness of his killing really made it impossible to read on.


"Luoding Cultural History"


“A Study of Du Fengzhi's Diary: A Mirror of the Bureaucracy in the Late Qing Dynasty”


As for music, it is also related to environmental determinism. Two weeks ago, I took a taxi to the south campus of Sun Yat-sen University to shoot a TV program on the former residence of Chen Yinke (Chinese historian, linguist, orientalist, politician, and writer. He was a fellow of Academia Sinica, considered one of the most original and creative historians in 20th century China). I happened to meet a cab driver who played piano music in the car; I started a chat with him, “Your taste in music is extraordinary. Most cab drivers play blistering music of square dancing.” He smiled lightly and said, “I am an alumnus of Sun Yat-sen University, a chemistry major with a love for piano – l can play as well.” His answer shows the correlation between education level and musical taste. Of course, on the other hand, musical taste is also an expensive taste, which has been a status marker held by the princes and nobles for a long history in the past. So, all thanks to the cultural industry, which was criticized by Theodor W. Adorno in the 1930s, it was the production of popular culture that drew the masses into the world of musical entertainment and restored the original relationship between music and human beings – I believe that music and witchcraft were born at the same time, and that our perception is a mixture of endocrine and external stimulus signals. Music, wine and food promote the secretion of human neurohormones and the formation of specific neural circuits. Today's pop culture has resurrected and created various soundscapes through electro-acoustic devices, all of which are called music (fans of fundamental classical music don't necessarily agree). I particularly remember the gatherings of my old classmates in Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, who were typically bohemians, and would say something like this: Order whatever music you want, then order whatever wine you want. But the mix of music and wine will eventually reach a "high" state, which is not a sensory body that can be explained by dopamine or Benzedrine. But does getting high need an explanation? Bohemians would laugh at you for trying to deliberately mystify things. To be high is to enjoy it, to be ecstatic and not to think about it.


Chen Yinke and wife Tang Yun


Chen Yinke (1890-1969) spent his last years at Sun Yat-sen University

Chen was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution due to his previous connection with the out-of-favor Tao Zhu. He and his wife's salaries were frozen by the Red Guards. Several times he was forced to write statements to clarify his political standings: "I have never done anything harmful to Chinese people in my life. I have been a teacher for 40 years, only doing teaching and writing, but nothing practical (for Kuomintang)". Many of his book collections and manuscripts were stolen. He died in Guangzhou on 7 October 1969 for heart failure and sudden bowel obstruction.


On May 30 this year, Feng Yuan took these photos while he filmed the "Treasures in the University" album in Guangzhou TV's "Here is Lingnan" program at the former residence of Chen Yinke (the headquarters of Sun Yat-sen University)


In 2021, Feng Yuan attended the exhibition design meeting of Sun Yat-sen University Museum and made the poster and "hypothetical cover study" after visiting Chen Yinke's residence by himself.


Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?


A: Rather than changing the way I work, the pandemic has provided me with the opportunity to observe society, or rather, it has brought about a rare possibility to cast a seemingly post-modern civilization back to its original form – the post-modern + medieval form, revealing the deep structure buried under the colorful surface of our postmodern society. This structure buried deep beneath the surface of society is not at all surprising – it also appeared at any transitional period in the formation and evolution of human society, and our ancestors evolved gradually in such a dilemma of antagonistic survival. Anti-COVID-19 measures show a progressive side – there is no doubt about that, but they also show a rather traditional side. In short, if you can look the other way around and think towards the opposite of civilization, it is easy to see how a series of issues of opposition were amplified, expanded and turned into master rules that govern the life of the present in the name of the pandemic. For example, closure as opposed to openness, isolation as opposed to socialization, blockade as opposed to exchange, self-preservation as opposed to helping others, and so on, and the resulting conflicts and traumas are rooted in this deep postmodern + medieval structure, where people suddenly find themselves thrown from a postmodern civilization into a cutthroat medieval castle, or a traditional clan society in the Pearl River Delta, an experience that is both relentless and it tells us how rare and fragile today's civilization and progress is, and how actually self-preservation and self-interest, distrust of others, clan rivalry, and death may indeed have been the norm of early human life. In short, I believe in the theory of evolution and that the direction of cultural evolution is never unidirectional towards progress, but may go backwards at any time due to the deterioration of the environment.


The most representative cellphone photos during the pandemic:

During the pandemic in March and April 2020, Feng Yuan made a series of "AR photographs" to express his observation of the social situation in the COVID-19 era

AR images, or augmented reality photography, can also be called "projective images"


Q3: Can you tell us about the division of labor between men and women and Marxism (from each according to his ability, to each according to his need)?


A: The opposite of the division of labor between men and women is – no division of labor between men and women. So, if there is no division of labor, what is the point of the evolution of the biological world from single-sex reproduction to two-sex reproduction in the perspective of natural selection? So, if there is no division of labor between men and women (equal to the animal world where there is no division of labor between male and female), then two-sex reproduction is a waste and less effective than unisexual reproduction.


If there is no procreation (reproduction), there is no need for cooperation between the two sexes. Therefore, reproduction is the only reason why two-sex reproduction is favored by natural selection, because the cooperation of the two sexes in the reproductive task brings more genetic diversity and better adapts the offspring to the environment, so that they can win in evolution. Therefore, cooperative reproduction between the two sexes becomes the primary, if not the only task of two-sex reproduction (all other tasks are derived from it).


The basic distinction between men and women is that women are responsible for reproduction (pregnancy and childbirth) and men only provide the male genes (sperm), thus creating an unequal division of labor in reproduction, and thus bringing about the beginning of all inequality between men and women. The same is true when the male is responsible for reproduction, which also creates an unequal initial division of labor.


The question is, since one sex must be responsible for reproduction (the equal distribution of reproduction is obviously not in accordance with the efficiency principle of natural selection), and thus gender inequality is a natural occurrence. Why do the two sexes cooperate (why not rebel)? The reason remains that gender inequality has both evolutionary reasons and that human society has developed many strategies and rules to accommodate the contradiction of gender inequality in the division of labor, and these strategies and rules eventually evolved into the culture of human society, and these cultures are dynamic and subject to specific production technologies and productivity levels. The division of labor between men and women and the inequalities resulting from it eventually evolve into a component of human values, into spiritual, moral and legal outcomes, covering the entire history of human civilization and all types of human cultures. I will not go into the details here.


As for the concepts and theories of Marxism, they will not be discussed here because they involve ideological issues.



Q4: Tell us about genetic determinism?


A: The opposite of environmental determinism (acquired nature) is genetic determinism, or innate nature, as it is called.


Before the birth of molecular biology, even if humans had not created the idea or theory of genetic inheritance, different cultures developed similar explanatory mechanisms, such as traditional fatalism, or fortune-telling, which is a form of attribution for the unknowable state of ancestors under the vagaries of the environment, and points more or less to innatism.


The discovery of the gene, or the double helix structure of DNA, the code of life, is an epochal scientific discovery, and the gene is likened to "God's code". In fact, genes have been the driving force behind the evolution of all life for millions of years before humans created culture, and arguably for four billion years of life on Earth. Of course, humans are no exception, and they are equally subordinate to that truth – a chick is a carrier for one egg to make the next.


Think about the simplest but also the most difficult question to answer: Why do you want to live? Now you can answer without hesitation – it is the internal drive of the gene that makes people have to live and pass it on, except that people do not see the form of the gene and the instructions of the gene have to be translated into the master mind to form self-awareness, and people mostly experience the vitality or the courage to live, etc., without being aware that it is the drive of the gene. This also constitutes a point of contention between innate and acquired theories; after all, we can only perceive that instruction from our inner self – it is what I give out, and it is the judgment I arrive at after receiving signals from my acquired environment, so the environmental signals become the surface for us to process our inner genetic instructions, and this may also be the result that genes are happy to see – the gene needs to create a carrier to receive and interpret the signals from the external environment and make the optimal choice, and to achieve this goal, the gene may resort to stealthily deceiving this carrier into thinking that the choice is made by the self, and this is where environmental determinism comes from. This reminds me of the plot of the French comedy film "La Grande Vadrouille", where the convent sister drives a carriage to deliver a few barrels of red wine and encounters a series of thrills and hilarity. But think about it, the wine is the gene, the sister is the ego, the ego overcomes all the difficulties to deliver the wine to the destination – isn't it the fulfillment of the mission of the gene? But to humans, it still looks like the sister is constrained by the choice of the environment to make decisions.



A still from " La Grande Vadrouille" (1966)


Q5: Can you compare the documentary function of amateur photographers (missionaries, soldiers, embassy and consulate personnel, etc.) in modern Chinese history with the artistic pursuits of professional photographers?


A: A technology was invented, not for the goal of art (except for artistic expression, but artistic techniques are usually not included in the field of technological inventions either), and this can be seen as a general rule.


For example, printing provides a good comparison, whether it is Chinese engraving or Gutenberg printing, whether it is intaglio or letterpress or lithography, and the goal is to pursue clear and accurate reproduction. Such technical pursuit and realization can also bring out some kind of artistic perception, but usually not as the main goal, but can be seen as a by-product of technology. For example, the artisans of the medieval printing workshops were able to produce exquisite prints, but this exquisiteness was more of a technical characteristic, which could of course be translated into an artistic one, although it was completely different or the opposite of the artistic effect sought by modern printmakers after the 20th century.


A Chinese revolving typecase from the agricultural book Nong Shu, written by the Chinese official and agronomist Wang Zhen, published in the year 1313 CE during the Yuan Dynasty


A replica Gutenberg press is featured in the Featherbed Alley Printshop Museum in St. George's, Bermuda


Looking at the invention and evolution of photography in this way, the same pattern can be drawn. The advent of photography established its basic efficacy as a recording tool. Therefore, the activity of photography is defined as follows: 1. even the most unprofessional shot is a record (above the temporal symmetry of light sensitivity); 2. even the least artistic shot can be seen as some kind of artistic expression. These two qualities together can prove that photography as a documentary tool is its basic function, and photography as art depends on the assignment and transformation of ideas – they usually exist in a dual way, which is more important depending on the photographer's goals and the specific assignment process.


In this way it is easy to define what is documentary photography (usually associated with amateur photography, but there is a lot of documentary photography that is also professional) and what is artistic photography (usually considered professional, but nowadays the more professional the shooting, the more amateur it is – this is an afterthought and will not be mentioned here). Roughly speaking, in the early days of photography, when technology was still immature and process complex, photography was a scarce product. The documentary function of all photographic products became considerably higher than the so-called artistic pursuit (except for the artistic perception attached by later generations). Put it in the history of China's entry into photography, this is the era when missionaries, explorers and embassy and consulate personnel acted as photographers. When technology continued to advance and entered the world of media, this is the era when the modern medium created the world and when the art of photography was able to evolve independently from documentary photography. Then it finally reached the digital age – an era of zero-cost and mass photography, in which the documentary and artistic aspects of photography produce many reversals and reverse developments, though not deviating from the historical trajectory of the two aforementioned functions and directions.

Q6: What is your next article or book plan?


A: There are many ideas in the conception, but since the 2020 pandemic, I have received fewer letters asking for articles. Maybe today is a time of generational change and my articles are not liked by the new generation of editors – I guess. Also, the drive for me to have a place in the academic system has been missing in the last two years, so the drive to write a formal academic paper has diminished. As for the book, if publishing is compared to making wine, the rain these years may not be suitable for growing grapes either, so my other anthology is also on hold. Let's just wait and see.



Q7: How do Shenzhen immigrants maintain their hometown and traditions compared to old cities like Guangzhou? When I was a child, I heard adults say "border pass" and "second-line pass", but now Shenzhen is the "center of the universe", and its development is not based on any mainland city as a reference, but on external references, such as Hong Kong. Is this the case?


A: The emergence of Shenzhen is definitely unique to China, but not a Chinese characteristic that happened only in the 20th century. You can only observe the inevitability of the Shenzhen Special Administrative Region if you put Shenzhen into the deep structure of Chinese history of nearly 300 years, which includes the most important elements of Shenzhen – open and closed, internal and external, internal demographic dividend and external capital, etc. Also, although Shenzhen is unique to China, it is not impossible to make cross-cultural comparisons, such as its second-line pass and border, and in this regard, Mr. Qin Hui's comparison between the two camps of East and West is wonderful, which I will introduce later.


So, in fact, I am going to draw a coordinate axis for the emergence and development of Shenzhen, vertically linked to the deep structure of Chinese history for three hundred years, and horizontally related to the institutional contest and evolution of the two camps of East and West after the 20th century.


Let's start with the vertical axis. We all know there is a song called "The Story of Spring" (a patriotic Chinese song praising Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, although it never mentions him by name) about the reform and opening up of Shenzhen, the lyrics of which go like this: There was an old man who stood by the South Sea of our motherland and drew a circle… And there was the Shenzhen Special Administrative Region and the Shenzhen Miracle.


But people rarely ask why this old man had to draw a circle by the South China Sea, why not draw a circle in the East China Sea, why not draw a circle over the Himalayas? If we ask, we find that three hundred years ago, there was already a circle by the South China Sea – that is the Thirteen Factories on the Pearl River outside Guangzhou, the "autonomous special zone" set aside by the emperor for the foreigners hundreds of years ago. No matter how big this circle is, in any case, this circle expresses a basic structure – external and internal – bringing in the external and limiting it to a circle, which is the basic characteristic of the special zone; bringing in means that the circle is a different world from the inside, and to be more open and with more external characteristics. Drawing a circle is not to let it proliferate, so that it is limited to the circle.


A reverse-glass export painting of the Thirteen Factories in Guangzhou (c. 1805)

Author: Unknown Chinese artist


Then two hundred years ago, in the 19th century changes happened, with the emergence of Shanghai by the East China Sea. Shanghai emerged as a circle that the foreigners drew for themselves, that is, the concessions, which later blossomed all along the Chinese coastlines and along the rivers. In short, it expresses the same structure – open and closed, foreign and internal, modern and traditional. Finally, it came to the 1980s, with Shenzhen as the latest circle. Why Shenzhen by the South China Sea was chosen, it was because of a circle the British drew for themselves in the 19th century – Hong Kong. So, the circle is spatial, but the core is institutional and political. If Hong Kong is a circle, then Shenzhen is another circle adjacent to it and learn from and compete with it. Throughout the three hundred years of history, the constant variation of internal and external never changed – we always seek a solution strategy between internal center and external impact, and the solution is to draw a circle. This has brought about the following series of duality: first, the duality of immigration, Shenzhen became the first "immigrant land" of the People's Republic of China (as opposed to the colonies placed in Asia by the Western powers); second, the duality of capital, state capital and capitalist capital; third, the duality of import and export, Shenzhen is both a foreign capital importing place and a transit place of export to the mainland, which brings about the advanced nature of Shenzhen (compared to the mainland) and the depression effect of Shenzhen (a depression where foreign capital is combined with local labor). If we look around the world, we cannot find such a combination model. India has a large population but does not have this model; South America also has low labor cost but cannot compare with China; finally, Shenzhen – only Shenzhen – combines the two biggest elements: Chinese population dividend and global capital flow. This is the story behind the Shenzhen miracle.


The Complete Map of the Concessions in Shanghai County, Scale ca. 1:5400 (revision of map originally drawn by Xu Yucang in 1875)

Shows foreign concessions in Shanghai: Chinese area in yellow, French in red, British in blue, and American in orange


Hong Kong in 1868 (photograph by John Thomson)


Now I would like to talk about the "Honecker Fable" of Mr. Qin Hui. When Qin Hui was visiting East Germany, he asked the East German scholars why East Germany would collapse. The East German scholars said without hesitation: The West German capitalist system defeated East Germany. Then, Qin Hui turned a corner and asked them again: if Erich Honecker, the last leader of East Germany had made a choice at that time – drawing a circle on the East-West German border, declaring this circle a special zone, and bringing in the East German labor force, giving them higher wages than elsewhere, and then bringing in the West German enterprises, giving them many concessions, then, imagine what would have happened? The East German scholars were dumbfounded, unable to speak for a long time – the Germans' brains just don't turn like the Chinese do, and they said: This is impossible, absolutely impossible … Qin Hui said, "Yes, yes, maybe it's impossible in Germany, but that doesn't mean it's impossible in other countries.” This is the famous "Honecker Fable".


National Geographic's 1982 feature article "Two Berlins


By combining the deep structure of three hundred years I mentioned with Qin Hui's "Honecker Fable", the reason for the Shenzhen miracle is clear.


As for migration, it is about how the emerging Shenzhen people view their hometown and traditions, which can be linked to all migration patterns. For example, one of the typical patterns of migration is the "island effect" – a weak minority of immigrants migrate to other cultures and create "cultural islands" among the strong local communities to gain survival, for example, Chinatown is typical; the second pattern is Singapore's petri dish model – a mixture of cultures coexist to form a hybrid culture; the third is the colonial model – such as Hong Kong, where strong cultures coexist with local cultures and are divided into regional hierarchies; and Shenzhen may be the fourth model – immigrants are the majority over the local population constituting the mainstream, which is unique and has only happened in Shenzhen in the 20th century. But from the perspective of culture and immigration, Shenzhen follows the same pattern, for example, the choice and use of language is usually the most fundamental factor that shows and influences the direction of culture; for example, in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew made the important choice of English as the official language (later adding Chinese as a second official language) after the establishment of Singapore as an independent country, which was crucial for Singapore to become an international financial center and port. Shenzhen, on the other hand, can be seen as the first nationalized city in China, and automatically adopted Mandarin as the mainstream language, as opposed to Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and Guangzhou.


I would like to conclude by saying that people don't love anything, they only love the benefits, such as the choice of language. People will choose whatever kind of language can bring greater benefits, which is why strong languages will be used by more and more people, and why weak languages will go extinct. By extension, the same applies to urban development and collective emotions and memories. The majority of people will construct the collective memories of the majority of people, and will create the dominant collective emotions.


To put it bluntly, it's all about the people, and people win by the number. So, we have to think the other way around: Shenzhen is now a city of 20 million people, so what it wants to create, what is justified.



Q8: Nowadays, people's viewing habit is looking through the camera of their cellphones first. Technology is changing the way of viewing – is this progress or regression?


A: Technology will inevitably determine the way of viewing. Perhaps, we would say, we are born with the way of viewing. Yes, we are born with the naked eye, and if nothing goes wrong, we all have the innate nature of vision.


However, this innate nature is still acquired in evolution and also has the technical characteristics given by evolution. For example, compared to eagles, our eyes operate on a very similar principle, but eagles see farther and more clearly than we do; compared to flies, they use triangulation to detect moving objects more easily, if you lift a newspaper to hit a fly, it will fly away fast; compared to bees, they can’t see the brilliant colors of flowers we see – this is interesting, from the human perspective, how the bee sees is like the bee with a filter on its eyes (today's beauty camera is a very common filter mode).


The exhibiting contents of Feng Yuan at his curatorial project "Face of the Earth" (Foshan Duende Art Museum), 2022


We think what we see is real because our gene have tricked us into believing that what we see is a real world to achieve its goals, and we are forced to do so, but at the same time, think about it – still from genetic interests, from evolutionary choices, you will find that we do not naturally need the so-called “real”, what we need is the interest of the gene in evolution. So, if the "illusion" of the real is a need, then we have evolved the "intracerebral imaging" of the mind, which is the way the self must live with the external world. If evolution chooses to support a certain direction – such as looks – where more beautiful and handsome looks express inherent genetic traits, then our physical eyes are taken over by this desire and attempt to artificially interfere or modify natural looks to enhance gains. Thus, the battle between truth and falsity begins, and in the end, evolution must support the only outcome – artificially modifying the visible world and artificially modifying the way we see the world, because they are both consistent with our goal of evolutionary gain. Therefore, whether "nowadays’ new viewing habit", or "technology changing the way of viewing" that you are saying, is included in these two dimensions, and probably belongs to the latter.


Take people as an example, the first dimension is the artificial transformation of the visible world, most typically cosmetic surgery, which in fact shows a paradox of genetic evolution, because, since the appearance expresses and transmits invisible signals of the gene, why encourage people to falsify the signals? It is well understood in the context of nature's interspecies “arms race”; the second dimension, artificially modifying the way we see the world (not modifying our physical eyes, which is too costly), which refers to modifying or creating a medium layer with which to refer to or top the seen world. Thus, many technologies (art) in human culture are the result of the evolutionary development of this dimension: painting, writing, and later photography and film, which are all media layers of different technologies.


Combining the two dimensions, the so-called reality, or view of reality, becomes apparent. The first plausible inference is that human beings like any advanced technology as long as such technology can bring the power of transformation. It leads to the second inference – that human beings have never liked what they were born to see, or their natural self, but to transform the world they see into what they are happy to see, and this is the nature of the mind animals as well as the inevitable path of the evolution of the mind. In this way, we can explain the creation, evolution and development of the media world. Starting from painting, how humans equate the media world with the real, or fictionalize the real, materializing the topping of the fictional "media reality" over the non-media reality. The third plausible inference is that – if we use Spielberg's film "Back to the Future" as a methodological template, imagine if we could take a time machine back to the caves of our primitive ancestors 30,000 years ago in the ice age and give them today's Apple 13 smartphones, how would these long-haired, painting-on-the-cave-wall ancestors with torches react? They would throw away the painting rocks, open the camera on their phones, and start filming the mammoths on the tundra, and take selfies while gathering in groups around the campfire, just as we do today.


Back to the Future still and the fan-made Delorean (San Diego Comic-Con 2011, by The Conmunity - Pop Culture Geek)


I think this is the true innate nature of human beings. Conversely, why did our ancestors create painting and engraving in turn, then writing, then printing, and finally photography and film, and today’s VR and artificial intelligence? That is because the development of technology needs to progress one by one, needs to spread, accumulate and make revolutionary breakthroughs, so the media created at each stage also correspondingly shape the way people see at that stage, shape their view of reality; at the same time, as technology progresses, new technology eliminates old technology. However, the transformation of the old technology on the human mind will not disappear, it becomes a psychological heritage passed on through culture, and so on and so forth.


So, it is still true that human beings do not need any tradition, culture, or custom, but only one thing – the gains from evolution, and so they go on to invent and improve those technologies that enhance the gains; and because of the limitations of technology and objects, they have taken two paths of transformation: one is the path of man-made objects that transform the external world, and the other is the path of creating media to transform what the mind sees; these two paths have brought us traditions, cultures, and habits that we perceive today, and so on – all these can be seen as the legacy of cultural evolution.


So, at the earliest, there was a group of people who were good at depicting created a media, thus the creation of painting; then, at a later stage, painting became the exclusive product of emperors and nobles; then, in modern and contemporary times, paintings that were not previously seen by ordinary people were taken out of the noble mansions and put in exhibitions for the public to view; then, today comes, when people look through the camera of their cellphones before looking at the paintings…


And then? People look at exhibiting paintings through VR helmets, when the real time and space of the exhibition disappear; and then, they look at the paintings with a built-in chip – a chip is placed in the brain, and the exhibition is generated in the brain, when there is no need for real paintings, but only the super large electrical signals generated by quantum computers; and then, humans no longer need the naked eye, the human mind can be uploaded to the robot's operating unit, and humans become immortal machines. And beyond that? ...


So, to discuss today's cellphone viewing of exhibition, whether it is progress or regression, it depends on whether there will be the sad end of human evolutionary extinction and being replaced by another species.


I am reminded of the time in the 80's when I went to a book fair in Guangzhou Library after graduating from university and gritted my teeth to buy a set of books with a whole month's salary. It was a 20-volume set of the Life Nature Library published by Time-Life. One of the books, Animal Behavior, opened up a treasure trove of evolutionary biology and animal behavior for me, and I learned about animal behaviorists like Niko Tinbergen, and was inspired to think about human culture from an evolutionary perspective. I also remember a very interesting cartoon in that book, which shows a group of small dinosaurs (ichthyosaurs) sitting by a creek in a "classroom", and the old ichthyosaurs pointing to a human skull under the blackboard with a whip, saying: Either way, the skull of this species shows that they were an animal of low intelligence, and their elimination in evolution was an inevitable end.


– I think this is the truth of evolutionary theory.


Life Nature Library (authorized Chinese version), written by primary authors and the Editors of LIFE, published by Science Press and Time-Life, 1982

Dinosaurs' "classroom" 

Q9: As a critic, you say that you are in the role of an observer, withdrawn from everything, tell us specifically how it works?


A: Observation is determined by the position of the observer, or rather, the observer's own position can seriously interfere with or influence the outcome of the observation.


This is not a quantum mechanical or theoretical physics concept, a paradigm like "Schrödinger's cat", but I am referring to the basic situation that social observation and cultural analysis in general are bound to face. For example, it is not the same to observe culture within culture as it is to observe culture outside of culture. Here I am emphasizing a reflexive – there is a concept of "embodiment" in anthropology for reference, but not exactly, so I highly recommend Pierre Bourdieu's concept of "reflexive sociology". By using the concept of reflexivity, I link it to structuralism, which I think will allow me to gain an insight into the deeper structure of things beneath the surface, and this has been very beneficial to me.


For example, when we observe tradition, we can immediately discover that in fact tradition and modernity are a structure created by modernity, and through the concept of reflexivity, we can again discover the opposition and mutual shaping of positive and negative traditions. These methods, in particular, have explanatory power, enabling a deeper detection and penetration of contemporary cultural phenomena, explaining the general laws of functioning of culture, etc.


All of this requires that the observer must have an ability to disengage, because all problems (cultural problems) are produced by a specific field of interest (similar to the field of fame and fortune, but not exclusively) and thus have a dynamic relationship that you cannot be trapped in – to be in and driven by the field of interest, and to act in its name. This is very much a typical phenomenon of post-modern consumer society, as in a convenience store or a chain store, being seduced by pre-determined brands and consuming them.


Of course, we can't get out of it completely, and, as social culture is like a wetland with a rich ecology, how can we observe the right results without examining and experiencing it? So, still applying Bourdieu's concept of the observer being observed, we ourselves should become such a person, a biological species in a cultural wetland, which makes us a member of it, and at the same time a reflexive observer, observing our own forms of observation and desire to observe.


Interest and the desire for profit are truly universal human nature, and maintaining a certain vigilance and prevention against it helps us to acquire a more rational judgment. It would be more accurate to say that we become "spectators of desire," seeing the real world as a confluence of the subject and object of desire, and separating from desire through reflexivity, so that we can observe the manifestations of desire and the context in which desire and reality are mixed.



Q10: How do art workers build their knowledge structure? (Literature, history and philosophy, art history, international perspectives ...)


A: Common sense dictates that the work of art workers should also be structured according to their knowledge system, because in this way the results of their work can also be understood within a system of knowledge.


I think this is the case, so when I gave the opening lecture for the graduate students of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts several years ago, I chose the topic: "The Knowledge System of the Academy of Fine Arts", which also prompted me to think about the process of how modern art has been transformed into a systematic knowledge and disciplinary education, and how it is related to the general knowledge system. In short, I tried to create a coordinate axis for art knowledge to measure various indicators of such knowledge, and so on.


In the process of categorizing and comparing and presenting in this way, I found that modern knowledge of fine art (art) can also be divided into approximately two categories, in the words of a German sociologist, who divides knowledge into two categories: the first category is text-based, and the second category is skill- and product-based. The basic knowledge of fine art still belongs to the second knowledge system – that of artisans and techniques, which is the basis for modern art to form a discipline, otherwise it would either become a branch of literature, history and philosophy (such as art history or aesthetics) or be included in the list of intangible cultural heritage (such as those traditional techniques). Conversely, modern art is neither integrated by literature, history and philosophy, nor is it listed as intangible cultural heritage, which means, firstly, that the basic characteristic of art is technical, handed down, from master to apprentice; secondly, it is constantly evolving and innovative, so it is not an endangered intangible cultural heritage.


However, this basic characteristic is only suitable for describing what I define as "the art academy inside the wall" – that is, the system of knowledge in effect inside the art, which can also be disciplined and educated, but is not suitable for describing "the art academy outside the wall" – contemporary art in tension with society. The reason for this is that, although the creation of art today is done by these human subjects in art academies in terms of the source of human talent and the basis of knowledge, it is clear that its intellectual character alone does not explain the role that contemporary art plays in contemporary society and its vitality. One might ask: Does this mean that the world of literature, history, philosophy or English knowledge will be the main factor shaping the creation of art?


I do not see it this way. In fact, looking at contemporary art, you can easily find that there is still an insurmountable gap between the fields of art and literature, history and philosophy, and that this gap actually has a deep structural connection with the contribution of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan more than 1,500 years ago, which I believe is the natural contradiction between the first knowledge system carried by words and the second knowledge system. Huineng’s solution is to break the so-called "textual barrier". In addition, there are ancient sorceries and the basic techniques adopted by shamans that can provide the key to our understanding of the knowledge system of contemporary art.


Liang Kai, “The Sixth Patriarch Tearing a Sutra”, Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), ink on paper, 72.9 x 31.6 cm, Mitsu Memorial Museum, Japan

“The Sixth Patriarch Tearing a Sutra” portrays Huineng performing a mundane action. This reaffirms the focus of the Southern Chan Tradition, which is to attain sudden enlightenment without having to train to be a monk in the conventional way or to study Buddhist scriptures.


I still remember what I said at the panel discussion for Huang Yongping's major exhibition at Power Station of Art in Shanghai in 2016, when I discussed Huang's artistry with Hou Hanru, Qiu Zhijie, and Liu Qing. I said that Huang has a keen sense of language-symbolism, but his way of creating is more like a modern sorcerer. I did not mean this definition in any derogatory sense – it is almost commendatory, and I used two metaphors to describe the way Huang represents the encoding-decoding of contemporary art.


"Bâton Serpent III: Spur Track To The Left," curated by Hou Hanru, Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2016


Panel discussion: Huang Yongping, Can Art Have a Direction?

The first one is the "brick metaphor". I said, there is a brick, which is not art in its essence, but when an artist picks it up and smashes the invisible glass (the idea of knowledge), the sound of this glass breaking in turn gives meaning to this brick, so that the brick (art product) can be upgraded to art in its essence. In fact, it is not the brick, but the piece of glass that we cannot see is the key, because this piece of glass is the system of knowledge we are accustomed to. Huang Yongping is very good at disturbing the stable knowledge system, and his ability to do so can be called a modern sorcerer or Zen master. In fact, those scholars who are immersed in the ivory tower of literature, history and philosophy are often indifferent to this kind of art because they themselves are part of the system of knowledge.


The second metaphor can be called "the bow of society". I said that art may be an arrow, which is nothing until it is shot, but the question is: how to shoot it? Only when the "bow of society" is tightly drawn can the arrow of art be released. Therefore, there is a relationship of tension between art and society, and the bowstring of the "bow of society" is woven with social nerves. Furthermore, how to perturb the nerves of the society is the key to use this relationship of tension.


You see, one is to smash the glass of knowledge, and the other is to disturb the nerves of society. In short, the knowledge behind these two acts is not provided by the knowledge system of the art academy inside the wall, rather, it shows that the knowledge structure of artists still has to be understood in terms of the role they play in society.


As for the "international perspectives" you mentioned, you only need to continue to extend the "bow of society" to the "cross-cultural bow" to see that there is also a structure of tension between culture and culture, the same kind of tension that forms the bow. In short, we can deduce the principle from the result – the art that gets a reaction must have located the nerve of the society and pulled it full, so that the taut society shows the tension and presents the shooting range of the art.


I think this kind of knowledge is unlikely to be disciplined and educated, so if you must call it knowledge, the artist has to go back to the past and has to practice it like the ancient sorcerers did. It also shows that artists who really have the quality of shamans are always scarce – of course they are, just like how there can be more gods worshipped in a temple than the mass of people!



Feng Yuan's work "Atlantis in East Asia" (2016)


On May 8, the time submarine was launched and the southern gate of the undersea Pearl River Delta was opened once again: the process of China's modernization and the geopolitics of the Pearl River Delta constitute a historical result of mutual shaping – the cession of Hong Kong in 1840 can be seen as the beginning of this process, followed by the important role played by Guangzhou in the modern revolution. Significantly, the geopolitical relationship between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao is not only a geographical feature of the Pearl River Delta, it is also a dividing line of political systems. Each inward closure since the 20th century shaped PRD-Guangzhou as the southern gate of the Motherland, while each outward opening changed the southern gate into a southern window.


The opening and closing character of the Southern Gate brings a certain metaphor to PRD-Guangzhou, and the history of the 20th century can be almost symbolically condensed between the closing and opening of the Southern Gate, and reflects the efforts to pursue social progress and the heavy social costs once paid. Today, the sorrows of history have disappeared under the deep sea like a shipwreck in the ocean.


Imagine: let's take a time submarine, through the porthole, we will be able to see those historical relics sunken in the bottom of the sea, and the faint drifting song evokes the memories of the era. These portholes will never be closed while we reflect on history in the face of the underwater world where fish swim in shoals.


White building in the middle: Guangzhou Hotel


Kowloon Station and Jardine House

Note the boat and violin on the left, it represents the incident of Chinese violinist and composer Ma Sicong’s fleeing to Hong Kong by boat during the Cultural Revolution in 1967


Guangzhou verandas


Guangzhou Tower



Feng Yuan said he predicted the sinking of the Jumbo Kingdom.


Jumbo Kingdom consisted of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant and the adjacent Tai Pak Floating Restaurant, which were renowned tourist attractions in Aberdeen South Typhoon Shelter, within Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour. During its 44 years of operation, over thirty million visitors visited Jumbo Kingdom, including Queen Elizabeth II, Jimmy Carter, Tom Cruise, Chow Yun Fat, and Gong Li. Jumbo Kingdom was part of Melco International Development Limited, a company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It suspended operations in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.


On 14 June 2022, the Jumbo Floating Restaurant was towed out of Hong Kong to Cambodia to await a new operator. While transiting in the South China Sea, it experienced bad weather and capsized near the Paracel Islands on 19 June 2022. Its operator denied describing it as sunk.



Feng Yuan
Master of Fine Arts, PhD in Architecture
Sun Yat-sen University capacities: Member of the Academic Committee of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor of the School of Communication and Design, Director of the Center for Visual Culture Research, Director of the Department of Art Design and Creative Industries of the Southern College

He is engaged in visual culture research and cultural criticism, covering the fields of visual art, design and architecture, urban and regional culture, etc. He is also engaged in spatial design, public art creation, conceptual art creation, as well as creative planning and curatorial practice. His main course "Visual Culture Criticism" was selected as one of the first twenty Chinese university video public courses by the Ministry of Education, and was also listed as one of the first batch of national high-quality video public courses. He is the author of monographs – "The Response of Style: The Symbolic Production of Architecture and its Logic of Symbols" and "The Aesthetics of the Oppressed: Cultural Criticism of Visual Representation".

Now he is also a member of Guangzhou Historical and Cultural City Protection Committee; Planning Committee of Guangzhou Planning and Natural Resources Bureau; Guangdong and Guangzhou Cultural Relics Protection Committees; City Planning Committees of Nansha, Huangpu and Huadu Districts of Guangzhou City; Urban Art Committee of Zhuhai Planning Bureau; Design Art Committee, Printmaking Art Committee and Experimental Art Committee of Guangdong Artists Association.

2017 Chief curator for the design competition of Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art & Planning Exhibition
2014 Compiled the "City of Public Art Strategic Plan" for Zhuhai City
2011 "Visual Culture Criticism" was selected as one of the first twenty public video courses by the Ministry of Education
2010 Compiled "Asian Games City Image Strategy" for Guangzhou City
2009 Planer and core consultant for Guangdong Pavilion of Shanghai World Expo, and consultant for Shenzhen Pavilion

Curatorial project
2022 "Face of the Earth", Duende Art Museum, Foshan
2018 "The Shape of the World: The Wild Vision of Yang Peijiang", Art Museum (University Town Campus), Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts
2012 "The 4th Academic Nomination Exhibition of Guangdong Painting Academy: Citizenship – Social Care in Chinese Oil Painting", Guangzhou Museum of Art
2010 "Canton Canton – Natural Evolution within the Locality", Guangzhou Fei Arts and Hong Kong Fringe Club

2015 "Pearl River Delta 2.0: Balance is More”, Urbanism\Architecture Bi-City Biennale of Shenzhen and Hong Kong
2015 "Semiology Laboratory: Two Unrealized Historical Embryos – Reimaging: Modernity of Light", Hubei Art Museum, Wuhan

Public Art
2016 "Mountain of Cloth, Shadow of Bowl", creative landscape sculpture, Shaoguan, Guangdong
2010 "Wind & Cotton Tree", event landscape sculpture, Guangzhou Asian Games

2010 Design of Guangdong Provincial Greenway Guidance Signage System
2005 Design of Guangzhou Municipal Pedestrian Guidance Signage System

Video Interview of Feng Yuan | A Century of Guangzhou Architecture Stories: The Former Residence of Chen Yinke (Source: Guangzhou Broadcasting Network; Language: Chinese)