Yuan Xikun, a sculptor born in Kunming in 1944, made 2.1 million yuan earlier this year at an auction. But that’s not what captured people’s attention. It’s what he did with the money that made news.
He donated all of it to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for use in marine protection projects.
At a WWF charity auction called “Save Our Oceans, Save Our Future,” Yuan’s glazed sculpture “The Urgency of the Polar” was auctioned off for 900,000 yuan. The sculpture features a mother polar bear standing on a dangerously small piece of thawed ice with her terrified cubs.
At the same event, a bronze sculpture, “Confucius,” claimed 1.2 million yuan. It features Confucius greeting others while on a lecture tour in the Eastern Zhou kingdoms. The philosopher has a broad forehead and a face brimming vividly with willpower and humility.
“Yuan is saving nature with his art,” critics have said. He is credited as having achieved the greatest success in combining art with environmental protection.
Yuan, a rare artist equally versed in painting and sculpture, started his career as a painter for a zoological institute and an art editor for a publishing house. He pioneered painting techniques that incorporated Chinese elements into western oil painting.
He inherited his sculpture skills from his father, who was a student of Xu Beihong, one of the most influential painters in 20th century China.
Yuan, a member of the National Standing Committee of the 11th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, has always been passionate about preserving the world’s ecology and the environment. In 2007 he sculpted “Tiger, the God of the Forests,” a 25 meter-long and 13-meter-tall work that now stands at the Beijing Zoo.
He also holds a Guinness world record for mass on-the-spot drawing. He led 300 Beijing residents in drawing tigers on a 150-meter-long piece of paper to highlight the importance of protecting tigers, which are on the verge of extinction.
In early 2008, he finished “The Urgency of the Polar,” made of copper-nickel alloy. It was sent to the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Geneva and set up at the square in front of the office.
His designs were chosen by the agency to appear on cups for Champions of the Earth in 2009 and 2010. UNEP named Yuan an environmental protection artistic master. He held a solo exhibition, Man and Nature, at UN headquarters in New York and at the Berlin Museum.
This is only part of Yuan’s extraordinary zeal for public good. He donated more than 60,000 yuan to Anhui Province when it was devastated by a major flood in 1991. He donated a sculpture as a way to help tsunami-afflicted people of Asia in early 2004. And he sent 216,666 yuan to his ancestral home province of Guizhou when southern China was hit by a once-in-a-100-years snowstorm in March 2007.
He donated 450,000 rubles (90,000 yuan) to forest fire-afflicted people in Russia in 2010. In a blog, he wrote, “As a son of nature who had been cultivated by Russian culture, I would like to do what I can to minimize the loss caused by the forest fires.”
He has established a fund of nearly 10 million yuan for work on a group of international sculptures in Beijing, a fund of 5 million yuan for scholarships in Yunnan with a sale of his picture “Tiger,” and a fund of nearly 10 million yuan for the welfare of the elderly. The sale of his bronze sculpture, “Zhao Puchu, a Buddhist Leader and Calligrapher,” was used to help the poor.
“What I do is but in line with my faith,” he’s said before in interviews. “My faith is art, which seeks truth, kindness and beauty.”