Hung Liu was born in Changchun, Manchuria, in northeastern China, in
1948, the year Mao Tse-tung drove the Nationalist forces of Chiang
K'ai-shek out of China to exile on the island of Taiwan in a Civil War
that we think of today as the Chinese Communist Revolution. Soon after
her birth, her father, an officer in Chiang Kai Shiek's Nationalist army,
was arrested, and her mother was forced to divorce him in order to
protect herself and her newborn child.
As a young girl, Hung excelled as a student, and her high grades earned
her a place in a prestigious Beijing middle and high school. But with
the coming of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960's, Liu was sent to
the countryside to work in the fields for four years--to be "re-educated"
as a working member of the proletariat. "We were city girls in the
country, treated as aliens. We worked in the fields very, very hard, and
went home when the sun went down. There were no holidays and we didn't
have any family there." She earned the respect of the villagers by
carrying heavy sacks of grain and swimming long distances. She also
photographed many of the villagers.
Part of Liu's fascination with photography can be traced to the fact that
during the Cultural Revolution many people destroyed their family photo
albums in order to hide their non-proletariat origins. Liu herself
burned all of her diaries and journals. But in the village, she says, "I
was like a journalist who went to their door, took their pictures and
gave the photos to them free."
After the Cultural Revolution, she was admitted to Beijing Teachers
College, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1975. Then
subsequently she received a graduate degree in Mural Painting from the
Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981. Her training was
strictly in the Russian Social Realist tradition. A highly developed
form of propaganda, Social Realism advocates art as a vehicle for the
education of the proletariat. Liu rebelled against the strict rules her
training formulated for her. She constructed a secret painting pad, with
tiny brushes and paints, and daily went off by herself to paint
landscapes in a fluid, Western style.
Her desire for artistic freedom led her to seek permission to study in
the United States, and in 1984 she was allowed to leave China to study at
the University of California at San Diego. She arrived with little
English and only twenty dollars. A recipient of numerous grants and
fellowships at UCSD, she received her MFA in painting in 1986. She has
since been awarded two fellowships in painting from the National
Endowment for the Arts, as well as other grants and awards. Today she is
married to art critic Jeff Kelly, whom she met at UCSD, and the two live
in Oakland, California, where she teaches at Mills College.
Hung Liu has returned to China on several occasions, the first time in
1991. On that trip, she discovered that although many private archives
of photographs were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, public
collections still existed. She became fascinated with images of
prostitutes. The photos mixed documentary truth with the artificiality
of the pose, and Liu was fascinated by the questions of freedom and
constraint that the images provoked.
A later trip home was prompted when she asked some friends to see if they
could locate the grave of her father so that she could sweep it, a custom
in China. To everyone's amazement, her father was found still living in
the prison (though he was technically free, he knew no other place to go)
where he had been incarcerated in the early years of the Revolution. She
was able to see him again--although at first he pretended not to know
that he had ever had a daughter, fearing that his guard would punish
her--and her mother, who still lives in China and never remarried, was
able to meet again him as well. Today she hopes to bring her father to
the United States for medical care, although his health may be too
fragile to allow it. Her mother remains in China.