To John Berger & ‘guanxi’…

Only two days into 2017 and the (art and literary) world is already struck by the loss of a great writer, great mind, great person, and great inspiration – today we lost John Berger (1926-2017). As if all the loss in 2016 wasn’t enough!

Those who attended art school will no doubt have been thrust a copy of John Berger’s seminal book Ways of Seeing (1972) into their hands. (It was also turned into a TV series, which can be watched in full here.) I can remember getting my first copy (yes, I have more than one) back in high school. It was one of few books that provided a backbone to my arts education at that stage, which I have since passed on to others, including more of his textual contributions. Now very Dog-eared, the book sits on my bookshelf back in the UK. Loved, it lives on through my work to date where, funnily enough, it forms the basis of a chapter section in my current PhD thesis.

In Chapter Three, I discuss the influence of Ways of Seeing on Chinese thinkers, specifically their definitions of ‘cultural guanxi’. For those who don’t know ‘guanxi’ means the influence of relationships and networks in Chinese.

‘Few definitions connect guanxi to peripheral or international contexts beyond China. Those who did examine more global understandings, placed guanxi within Western literature or technological developments, such as artist Xiang Jing who sees guanxi as Ways of Seeing citing text from John Berger’s popular book of the same name – ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves […] to look is an act of choice’ (Xiang in Hong 2011:39). This relates to curator Jiang Jiehong’s correspondence with artist Yan Xinguang, who also understands looking as ‘a way to build up guanxi […] ‘looking’ is not just a function of the human body, but a reflection on the relationship between the human body and nature so we can confirm our existence’ (Jiang in Hong 2011: 135).’

“[…] curatorial concepts and strategies are context specific, where it is vital to be critically reflective of the ‘self’ through examinations of Ways of Seeing and ways of being, also highlighting the importance of China creating local (Mainland China), peripheral (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore) and international identities for itself.” – Rachel Marsden

John – may your words stay alive in our future writings, may they cause discussion and critique, contention and contestation. Read a very articulate article from the Guardian, written on the eve of his 90th birthday here.

Image sourced from ‘’ (originally from the BBC(?))

[Citation: Hong Yan (ed.) (2011) Guanxi: The Art of Conversations, Beijing: Xiyuan Chubanshe.]

1 Comment

  1. Rachel Mardsen has become one of my favorite “Go To” authors. But she’s so much more every time. This article a testament to a very well gifted and artistically brilliant person..And she’s hot too😎

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