After six years working, first as a radio host, and then a television host in southeastern China, XIAO HAN made a brave decision. She changed careers to launch an online platform,
What made you decide to launch a website promoting art education?
After graduating from university I became a local radio station host and then worked as a presenter at a television station in Xiamen (Xiamen) in Fujian (Fujian) province. At that time, being a host was widely seen as a decent job, especially among my parent’s generation.
As a presenter, I was sometimes asked to host commercial events. As a TV host,
I was usually paid more to do it than other hosts, but I realised that was because of my title, rather than my talent and ability. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to have a stable job like being a presenter of a state-owned media company, but I was eager to do something different to prove my own worth.
In 2013, China started to embrace a new wave of internet start-up companies. I thought about setting up my own media channel, but couldn’t decide what the content should be.
I love history and art, but like most of people I didn’t really “understand” art. I don’t think that is because of any failing on the part of the general public. It’s just that the way the subject of art is introduced is wrong.
Then I met my angel investor, Cai Wensheng, whose company owns the popular photo-editing app, Meitu, and we decided to launch YiwaiArt.
Why do you think is generally wrong about art education ?
The subject of art and art education on the mainland is at an early stage and is still a niche activity. We have been used to the arts being introduced in a way that uses lots of terminology, which sounds professional to industry insiders, but is often confusing and dull to most other people and does little to arouse the interest of a potential audience.
For example, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh are famous, but few mainlanders understand why Van Gogh is regarded a great artist.
I visited an art museum in Taipei and found I was able to understand what they were talking about. It was like normal conversations between people.
At the museum a kindergarten teacher was trying to explain the works of mainland artist Xu Bing to a group of pupils , and how Xu portrayed The Great Wall.
It was impressive; you could see how important the role of communication plays in art education. It’s like telling your story to a complete stranger and knowing you’ve made it when you’ve piqued the interest of listeners.
How are you spreading knowledge about art to the public?
In the case of Van Gogh, instead of explaining the definition of post-Impressionism, we tell stories about Van Gogh’s life – for example, what he encountered during his life and his personal character. I believe the life experiences of Van Gogh are important reasons why he and his work has been loved by so many people.
We put this Dutch painter in context for people in today’s Beijing – a young man called Vincent Van Gogh travelled to the capital city to pursue his career – and compare the living costs in Beijing now with those existing when Van Gogh was alive.
We give the audience an image of what kind of apartment Van Gogh lived in and what painting materials he would be using if he lived in Beijing now.
In our programme about The Last Supper, one of the world’s most famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, we try to explain the painting by acting like a detective examining details of the painting to find out who it was that betrayed Jesus.
To attract interest to Along the River During the Qingming Festival, the famous painted handscroll by Zhang Zeduan during the Song dynasty, we have used a background story about a burglar during that time, who tries to break into houses in the capital and explain the painting through the eyes of the thief.
I believe such methods of communication are more interesting and accessible to the public than simply telling them about the painting technique of these works.
What does your website do to promote public art education?
We have produced a series of talk shows that are available on several video websites. In each episode, lasting less than 10 minutes, we try to use simple but creative language to explain art.
We now have 1.5 million subscribers to our WeChat public account, Weibo microblog and talk shows. More than 60 per cent of our subscribers are office workers, 30 per cent are teachers and students, and the rest are those who work in the art industry.
Most of our followers are women aged between 20 and 40 living in first- or second-tier cities. Some want to learn more about art themselves, some want to meet new friends, and some are parents that want to teach their child more about art.
We also have many helpful fans that are willing to lend a hand. Some have translated our video shows, added subtitles in English or Japanese, and uploaded them on foreign video websites. Some have helped with fact-checking and then decide whether a programme or a manuscript is ready to be published.
How do you think art education will develop on the mainland?
I believe it is a process. After years of rapid economic development, the focus of life has turned to how successful a person has become. People in China often find themselves struggling to slow down so they can experience the beauty of life.
This is a normal phenomenon in China, and nobody should be blamed, but one disadvantage we have to admit is that art education is usually ignored because we often use marks to measure our success, but art can never be measured by marks.
However, as more people grow stressed from their jobs and lives, they start to force themselves to slow down.
This can explain why colouring books such as the Secret Garden or painting classes are growing in popularity, as everyone wants to slow down and find a way to relax and relieve pressure.
On the other hand, China has a huge market for art. In 2014 it was estimated that more than 300,000 people visited an exhibition of paintings by Claude Monet at the Shanghai K11 Art Mall and spent almost 40 million yuan (HK$48 million) on its exclusive merchandise.
Last year we had exhibitions featuring Van Gogh, Salvador Dali and now Da Vinci. This is positive news for art education, as the social atmosphere surrounding Western art has been created and is prevailing in China.