East meets West in Flushing
By Allison Plitt

Queens resident Simon Xianwen Zeng is what the Chinese call “a person of talents.”

Practicing painting, calligraphy and chops carving, which is engraved writing, as a profession in his studio in Flushing, he is highly respected among the Chinese community. According to Zeng, “These three arts are complementary to each other and may be viewed as belonging to one category.”

Born in 1967, Zeng grew up in the town of Jinshou of Dalian City in the Liaoning Province of southern China. He is the 74th descendant of the famous scholar Sheng Zeng, one of the three greatest students of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher and politician born in 551 B.C. who espoused personal and governmental morality, justice, sincerity and respect towards elders.

When Zeng entered elementary school, the teachers taught the children mandatory calligraphy so they could learn to write well. At the age of 12, Zeng started to study the different eras and styles of calligraphy as a form of art. He initially adopted the Kai Style, which is considered block or standard script. As the years passed, he developed a more free-flowing and cursive style that expressed his spontaneous and sometimes humorous nature.

When Zeng turned 15, he was teaching himself to carve chops which are seals carved in exquisite, stylized calligraphy that carry a name or phrase meaningful to its owner. For centuries chop marks have carried the same authority in China that a signature holds in the western world. Chinese people couldn’t do business or sign a letter without a personal chop.

Nowadays in modern China identity cards and computer codes have decreased the usefulness of chops, but many Chinese people still like to own them. For example, professional artists use chops to sign their own paintings. Considering chop carving a form of artistic expression, Zeng learned to carve with an iron knife and engrave impressions into many different materials such as wood, stone and jade.

A schoolteacher who saw Zeng’s talents introduced him to Liu Zhanao, a student himself of the renowned Li Xi, who had carved at the imperial court in Beijing in the early 1900s. Although Zeng met Zhanao when he was 90 years old, his teacher was both mentally and physically capable enough to mentor his student.

“Master Liu Zhanao taught me poetry, seal carving, painting and calligraphy,” Zeng said. “More importantly, during the 12 years that I studied with him, I learned a lot about authentic Chinese traditions and culture.”

The culmination of all of Zeng’s work soon resulted in a long list of honors and awards. Some of his most important achievements include becoming a fellow of the Chinese Academy of the Arts, winning an award as an exhibitor in the 1993 Beijing Olympic First International Art Exhibition on Calligraphy and Painting and being named an Art Talent Treasure by the Chinese government.

Despite his success in his homeland, Zeng moved to the United States in 1996 to learn more about westernized painting. He enrolled at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan, where he studied more modern, abstract art. He gained recognition in the United States when in 1997 President Bill Clinton sent him a letter saying that he had acquired some of Zeng’s calligraphy for the White House collection.

Several years later Zeng’s wife immigrated to the United States and the couple is now settled in Flushing with their son and daughter.

Although his mentor Zhanao had passed on, Zeng still feels conflicted about the more modern art he has been exposed to in the United States. “When it comes to abstract painting, I think it’s really hard to achieve that level,” he said. “The good artists should know how to do the traditional painting that copies the natural world like painting a portrait, but then that artist should be able to do an abstract interpretation of that, too.”

In 2003 Zeng was asked to participate in a book called “The Book of Chops” which historically describes the Chinese tradition of chops. Zeng created a set of 15 seal work chops for the book, which has been published internationally. Unfortunately, the wide dissemination of his work has led to some cases of copyright infringement where he has seen his paintings grace the cover of books and greeting cards without his consent.

As Zeng has matured as an artist whose canvases have become coveted pieces of artwork, he still personally struggles with his own style.

“China as a country is always looking towards its future,” Zeng said. “I am like that, too. I am always thinking about my painting. I can’t completely throw away the traditional. There is the east Oriental style and I’ve learned a more western, modern style in the U.S. Now I’m really trying to find a way when I paint to blend the two styles.”

For more information about Simon Xianwen Zeng and his artwork, you can visit his website at zhiguanggallery.com/index2. He can also be reached by email at simonzeng20003@yahoo.com.

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