How to begin? It feels like it was just earlier this evening that the artist Chen Xiaoyun called out of the blue. The preamble you’ve always dreaded, for a moment you’re at a loss. A rush of adrenaline, then hurt, then you lapse into thought, bewildered once again in the face of this thing called “life.”
Wawa’s husband, the artist Jiang Zhi, and I first got to know each other in the fall of 1999 at the movie screenings that Ou Ning organized in Shenzhen. At the time we were among the few people in the south who worked with digital video, and a good friend to talk shop with wasn’t easy to find. Our art sealed our friendship, and from then on we kept in touch. It was in 2000, when Chen Tong organized a solo exhibition for him at Borges Libréria in Guangzhou, that I again encountered Jiang’s distinctively literary photographic works, the “Cabinets” and “Mumu” series. If memory serves, the next year, after the ceremony that opened the “City Slang” exhibition Huang Zhuan curated, I saw him and a skinny little girl squatting by the side of the road, tittering merrily away. One seldom saw the quiet, gentle, and judicious Jiang Zhi come so alive. And the young Shenzhen girl by his side? That was Wawa. She worshiped art, and she worshiped her new man.
Shenzhen’s twenty-year-long economic upsurge had given rise to a body of art aficionados, most of them born after 1970. They were connoisseurs, widely read and widely traveled, not lacking for critical ability, their keen cultural sense honed by the sheer density of available information. The opening up of the system and the proliferation of economic opportunity meant they could focus on cultivating their minds. They had both the talent and the ability to build bridges with the society around them. Many of them have gone on to become mainstays of the cultural, artistic, design, and media fields. This was Wawa’s generation.
In 2002, when MSN Messenger came into vogue, Jiang Zhi, Chen Xiaoyun and I, along with Yang Fudong, would ramble on for hours online, sharing the course of our creative lives, and sometimes gossiping with Jiang Zhi about his girlfriend Wawa. He told us she loved books and movies, and she loved to write stories. We heard about her terrific English, how she was a constant presence at Ou Ning’s movie screenings, and about her job working as a high-level corporate trainer in some luxury hotel. In November my and Jiang Zhi’s works were included as part of Wu Wenguang and Wen Hui’s “Body Report” dance workshop. We traveled with the troupe to Hamburg, where Jiang Zhi told everyone, “Wawa’s pregnant.” I asked him, “So do you want to keep it? Are you going to get married?” As was his wont, Jiang Zhi mumbled a vague reply: “I guess. We probably will.”
One day in 2004, Jiang Zhi sent along photos of his brand new daughter, Jiang Yunke. Keke, as they called her, was wrapped in her swaddling clothes, suckling in her mother’s arms. The new mother’s face was all a smile, resting on the hospital bed, exhausted but happy. After his daughter’s birth, Jiang Zhi threw himself into every kind of job imaginable. He still made time for creative work, though, saving a little money here and there to go shoot a video, take photos, buy equipment, or publish something independently. That his new wife didn’t obsess over money was his good fortune. Around that time he had spent a good deal of time filming a documentary-style movie called “Our Love” about the love life of a transsexual in Shenzhen. Wawa was his constant well of creativity, his supporter, his muse, his right-hand, his solver of all problems pre- and post-production. No matter whether it was translating English subtitles, replying to emails in English, buying props, or networking, she was there for him. The first time I ever encountered Wawa’s own writing was in 2002, in an independent journal called “Paradox” that Jiang Zhi edited. In the same journal I also found photos of her mother dancing ballet. At the time I could barely imagine how a wife could be willing to splash the body of her mother—breasts excised as a preventative against cancer—across the pages of her husband’s magazine. It took an unusual kind of courage. That was when I really started to pay attention to Wawa in her own right. Seeing what an incredible mother Wawa had, she herself gradually began, for me at least, to emerge from her role as “Jiang Zhi’s wife.”
It was sometime in 2005 when I ran into Wawa on the airport shuttle bus heading into Guangzhou. She was just returned from a holiday in Thailand without her husband and daughter. Later I found out that she went by herself every year to Southeast Asia or to Yunnan. As she put it, she was “getting out to clear her head.” I was amazed to see this side of her, one that so deeply loved solitary travel, and so enjoyed time spent alone. This was her tough side, and it became visible later on in her art criticism, where she would often called attention to social injustice. Wawa always knew where she was going, even from the very beginning. She was always clear what she needed. In navigating the changing currents of fate, every household needs a person who will make concessions. Wawa knew that it was all a process. It didn’t matter what she gave up in the present.
From the moment she started it, Wawa’s blog left a deep impression. You could feel her heartfelt love of life in her notes on family minutiae and her daughter’s expanding vocabulary. Quick on the draw as she was, Wawa the mom was always finding herself outmatched by precocious little Yunke’s interrogations. Wawa would sketch little dialogues, scenes from family life, one every day, each entry by turns lively, pithy, and poignant, the jokes strung together like pearls. Even while she ran her household and helped Jiang Zhi, Wawa never stopped finding outlets for her own interests. She became a fixture at Wu Wenguang’s documentary and drama workshops in Caochangdi, and she took on the job of translating for all kinds of international exchange projects. A lot of the time she brought her daughter with her to watch plays or rehearsals. She started to offer her own opinions, sending out her critiques on documentaries or plays out over the internal mailing lists of Caochangdi’s performance workshops.
In 2007 Wawa got pregnant again, and in spring of the next year she gave birth to her son, Jiang Chuanming. She quickly recovered her slender figure, and immediately immersed herself in preparations for one of Jiang Zhi’s solo shows. The most obvious change was that she always had her camera with her. She threw herself into every kind of art activity imaginable, attending openings, seminars, and artists’ gatherings. Her pungent, gossipy commentary was so apt that in no time she’d attracted a circle of admirers made up of friends and artists. Since she didn’t accept commissions, went where she wanted, and wrote in lively, funny sentences (often barbs aimed at rottenness in art circles, or merciless sarcasm cloaked in childlike inquisitiveness). Next to her refreshing, relaxed writing, neither sonorous academic prose nor the hollow clank of art commentary bought and paid for by speculators stood a chance. She was genuine, dogged, a good friend, and a perceptive critic with a prolific pen to match. She moved freely through circles high and low. There was no loop she was out of. From corruption in international auctions and collectors, to artists’ amorous adventures, she seemed to know it all. Later on, she registered herself on the Art-Ba-Ba online discussion forum under the name “Little Cow,” filling cyberspace with her work. She was always the first to report on the latest spectacular exhibition opening, and she raced to be the first to get images of the artwork, shots of all the important people at the show, and every little valuable little detail. More and more she began to cast her eye towards public incidents involving artists, like when the artists in Huantie Art village were treated unfairly during the village’s demolition, or Ai Weiwei’s fight for his legal rights. Before too long Wawa was attracting attention from inside and outside of art circles, and other art websites, art magazines, and fashion magazines all vied to book her.
Maybe it was because she was from the south. Maybe something of the vibrancy of everyday life there worked its way into the space between her words, a kind of reveling in other people. She took fun seriously. I know that even through all the years she was in Beijing she still made her family in Shenzhen send her the ND Daily and the Southern Metropolis Entertainment Weekly every week. The first dared to describe society as it saw it, the second was the mother of Chinese gossip rags. Wawa’s famous Weibo feed (@任兰wawa) merged them both. From the time she signed up for Weibo up until four days before her death, her feed was a repository for news about her children and happenings from the art world. More importantly, though, it was also the place where she made common cause with her husband, passing along news on any and every kind of social injustice. One time, she smiled and said, “Our marriage is built on our common political world view.”
After Wawa’s death I found out from Jiang Zhi that she was the granddaughter of Ren Guang, the composer for the iconic 1930s movie Song of the Fisherman. Ren worked with some of China’s most famous revolutionary musicians (including Nie Er, who composed the country’s national anthem), and died in the New Fourth Army Incident in 1941. It was only then that I realized that Wawa’s yearning for democracy and freedom, her sense of justice and her basic decency, her love of art and literature, her worry for her country, her intelligence and her acuity, were all inherited.
Privately, Wawa treated people with genuineness. She could listen just as well as she could talk. This earned her and Jiang Zhi a lot of new friends. She and I got to know each other better after I became a mother too. When we moved last year, I wanted to give Wawa some of our plants and furnishings. Sure enough, the night of the move the rain came down in torrents. Still, she came by herself to make sure everything went well. The rain had her slender figure soaked already. It took me back to that road in Shenzhen, and a little slip of a girl, giggling as she fell in love with Jiang Zhi. Now I had in front of me a strong woman, radiantly maternal, carrying an entire family on her shoulders, always ready to do good, imbued with cultural ideals and a missionary zeal for spreading social justice. She embodied that tradition whereby Chinese women adapt themselves to life, and put their husbands and families first. But she also enjoyed the liberty of a woman who valued herself, and who always strove to better herself.
Wawa always loved looking pretty. She loved to pose for photos, with her tiny eyes crinkled up, a benevolent expression on her face. The course of her life was a short one; if that’s how fate decreed it, then none of us has the power to change it, fight against it as we might. Thinking back over the thirty-seven years of sunshine Wawa brought us, I know she tasted the range of life’s flavors: the love of a mother and father; the influence of her family’s artistic heritage; the spring of political reform in China’s south; the sharp taste of a green onion; the beauty of music, of art and literature; the towering waves of love; the happiness and bitterness of family life; the warmth of friends; the adoration of fans; the pain of her mother’s loss; her society’s darkness and distortion; the flourishing of resistance and expression, and their suppression; the self’s solitary muddle. These are the myriad flavors of a life not lived in vain. But there are some things Wawa’s fated to miss: the majesty of her children growing up, the affection between good friends growing old, the grace—shared with her husband Jiang Zhi—of two people who have poured out their selves for one another, the shifting of her country’s fortunes. But I believe, somewhere in the kingdom of heaven, Wawa will find those things she values: a wider world, one of light, strength, and music, all more beautiful than words can describe. She’s up there, quietly watching the comings and goings of all the living creatures underfoot, listening intently to the sounds of tomorrow and today, giving all of us, the ordinary living, the blessings of happiness and comfort.
Rest in peace, Wawa. We all miss you.