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I discovered the art of Daniel Xu while searching for new and unusual cannabis creations on Etsy.com. I was instantly captivated by Daniel’s work not just for its beauty, but because he utilizes a very traditional Chinese art form to depict subject matter than is traditionally considered taboo.
From his new post at a Hong Kong architectural firm, Daniel chatted with Ladybud about his art, his inspiration, and Chinese cannabis culture.
Ladybud: What inspired you to create this series of paintings?
Daniel Xu: I was initially interested in finding a way to represent cannabis in a way that deviates from the psychedelic/Rastafarian aesthetic that seems to characterize much of marijuana related art. The intention was to expand the appeal of marijuana art to a larger, more conservative audience, an idea analogous to a ‘suit and tie’ approach to the Occupy movement to counteract the drum circles and tie-dye that were largely ineffectual in swaying the mainstream. To quote Saul Alinsky, “True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits and infiltrate the system.”
I eventually began to experiment with painting cannabis using traditional Chinese brush painting, and shifted my focus toward addressing a Chinese-American audience. While cannabis has only recently begun to gain widespread mainstream appeal, to many, especially the Chinese, it is still considered taboo, bringing to mind essentialized imagery of an unfamiliar culture to be cautious and critical of.
On the other hand, Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world, with its beginnings dating back as early as 400 BCE. It was quickly considered one of the highest art forms in Chinese culture and still is to this day. I wanted to combine the familiar and deeply rooted tradition of Chinese painting with something as foreign and controversial as cannabis, and that was how the series was conceived.
LB: Many historians believe that the Chinese were the first to use cannabis thousands of years ago. How has cannabis culture and law evolved in China in more recent years?
DX: A large part of how drugs are perceived in Chinese culture can be understood by looking into the country’s history. Prior to the Opium Wars, China was at the height of its economic prosperity, representing almost 50% of the world’s GDP. At the time there was high European demand for Chinese goods and a low Chinese demand for European goods, a trade imbalance that the British sought to correct. Their solution was the importation of opium, which quickly and effectively secured a massive consumer market due to its highly addictive nature. Recognizing that there was an epidemic of opium addiction, the Chinese government placed a ban on the opium trade which led to a series of conflicts as the British wanted to maintain their profits. This eventually led to the Opium Wars in which the British devastated China with its superior military technology and forced China to pay reparations, open up ports to European traders, and cede territories (including Hong Kong) to the Queen. The Opium Wars decimated the Chinese economy, resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, and humiliated a once powerful empire that had considered itself the center of the world.
From this point on, not just opium, but all drugs including cannabis became a reminder of China’s downfall, a sentiment that carried over to my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, and still exists today.
LB: So in your experience, how is cannabis viewed in contemporary Chinese-American culture?
DX: My mother’s side of the family grew up during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. Mao was a huge proponent of anti-drug policies, and one of his goals was to put an end to all drug addiction in China. My mother and grandmother have both told me many stories of how they were taught to despise drugs, and to see them as the poison that ruins individual lives and society at large. Unfortunately, cannabis was grouped among these drugs, and so it has been ingrained in their minds to see marijuana as no different than opium or heroin.
LB: Can you tell us a little about the current status of cannabis in Hong Kong from a legal and cultural standpoint?
DX: Cannabis is illegal in Hong Kong, and is classified as a dangerous drug along with heroin, methamphetamine, and other harder substances. There are harsh punishments for possession, distribution and cultivation of cannabis, usually several years imprisonment for using, and life for trafficking.
How marijuana is perceived from a cultural standpoint in Hong Kong was quite unexpected. I have learned that most Hong Kong locals show very little interest in marijuana, except those who have a fascination for western culture. Local drug users are more inclined toward ketamine, heroin and meth, whereas marijuana is mostly sought after by tourists and ex-pats.
Unlike in mainland China where many make no distinction between marijuana and harder drugs, people in Hong Kong are aware that cannabis is mild in relation to other substances, and that it is decriminalized and far more common in other parts of the world. There is no marijuana hysteria, but rather indifference.
LB: Do you think marijuana should be legalized?
DX: Absolutely. To only name a few reasons: Cannabis is much safer than many drugs that are already legal, enforcement of marijuana laws is discriminatory, expensive, and ineffectual, and taxing it could be profitable. Legalization only seems logical.