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Rao Zongyi, Master of Chinese Culture, and the “Top Society in the World”

Date: 2018-02-09
Crossing Hangzhou’s Xiling Bridge and follow Gushan Road, one comes to Xiling Seal Art Society behind a moon gate built with white bricks and black tiles. On 6 February, Rao Zongyi, the 103-year old president of the society, passed away in Hong Kong.

He was elected the seventh president at the sixth session of the eighth council of the society on 13 December 2011. On 29 June the next year, the 97-year old Rao, respectfully referred to as Master Rao, wrote “Bo Fang Liu He” in Chinese calligraphy in a main building called Botang of the Society.

“ Liu He means the heaven and earth, the world.” He explained after writing the characters. His hope is that the reputation of the Society will be spread like the fragrance of flowers (Bo Fang) around the world. Looking at the tablet with the calligraphic writing of Yu Yue, a renowned scholar of textual research in late Qing Dynasty, at Botang, and that of Wu Changshuo, the first president, Rao was very moved and said he was honored to be the president.

Xiling Seal Art Society was established in Hangzhou by four seal artists, Ding Ren, Wang Shi, Wu Yin, Ye Ming. Later, it grew into China’s oldest and most influential scholarly group that studies China’s seal engraving art with perspectives from poem, literature, and painting. It is also the oldest group of artists in China.

The president of the Society is a position only for the best, and would remain vacant if there is no qualified candidate. In 1913, Wu Changshuo was voted the first president. Twenty-one years after his passed away, Ma Heng, then director of the Palace Museum, was made president of the Society, in 1948. After him, later presidents include Zhang Zongxiang, Sha Menghai, Zhao Puchu, and Qi Gong. After Qi Gong, there was a six-year gap before Rao Zhongyi was elected.

“This position is too important,” said Professor Chen Zhenlian, Vice President of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and Xiling Seal Art Society. Some find a pattern in all the presidents: master of art, authority of scholarly studies, and cultural celebrity.

Rao Zhongyi was a productive scholar in classics study, archaeology, religion, philosophy, literature, and the study of the history of cultural exchange between China and other countries. He was also an accomplished expert in poems, literature, music, and painting. His calligraphy was the Jinshi School and his paintings were themed around natural landscape and individuals. So he was the natural choice when the position of president was vacant. In October 2011, the society sent someone to Hong Kong to offer him the position and Rao gladly accepted the invitation.

Chen said Rao set a new height for the Society to promote traditional Chinese culture. “As a century-old Society, Xiling’s mission is cultural rejuvenation. Rao was at the center of this mission. ” In December 2011, Rao accepted the credential and officially became the seventh president.

On 22 October 2013, the Society celebrated its 110th anniversary. Rao, 98 at the time, was not able to come to the event, but wrote a scroll and sent a video message to those at the gathering, calling on them to promote seal art and traditional Chinese culture in the world.

“Master Rao believes traditional Chinese culture needs to go overseas; the Society needs to reach out. In the past, due to our backwardness, we were learning from the West. Now is the time to go the other way around,” said Chen. The Society has taken some steps in recent years, for example holding an international seminar on pictorial seals and non-Chinese character seal, expanding its scope of research to cover cylinder seals in the Tigris and Euphrates basins, scarab seals in ancient Egypt, and netsuke in ancient Japan.

“It is a profound historical question for the entire cultural and art community in today’s China how to increase the cultural self-awareness and confidence of the Chinese nation, represent the emotions and experience of the modern Chinese in artistic language, and promote the great ideals of the nation,” said Dr. Sun Jiashan who works at the Center for Modern Art Critique at the Chinese National Academy of Arts. Rao Zhongyi’s philosophy in scholarly study shows his theoretic depth that cover the East and West and his rich knowledge in history and modern times.