Zest for Life:

Max Chi-wai Liu

Wu Hsiao-ting

It is hard to pigeonhole Max Chi-wai Liu. Few people have been engaged in more fields-electrical engineering, writing, translating, teaching, painting, adventuring and cultural anthropology. Even fewer people live with more verve and gusto. At the age of eighty-nine, he exudes a zest for life and is constantly on the go. Old age doesn’t seem a problem to him-even today he is thinking of exploring jungles to conduct field research in relation to art and anthropology. In fact, he just returned from one such trip last year. Not as agile as younger men, he sometimes has to rely on a stick to walk on crooked, uneven paths, but nothing can daunt him.

Bubbling with humor and charm, he cuts a popular public figure in Taiwan . With his face covered with wrinkles and his teeth all lost, he has nevertheless a magnetic appeal that puts the most dashing movie star into the shade. His infectious passion for the wonderful things life has to offer and his determination to reach out for them never fail to impress people.

The maxim “One is never too old to learn” certainly applies to him. He started to paint when he was nearly forty years old and started to study anthropology when his hair had turned gray. Although he always says that he is an amateur in both fields, he has outshone many recognized professionals with his achievements.

His life has been full of many unexpected turns. How did this electrical engineer develop himself as a painter? And how did he become engaged in studies relating to cultural anthropology? There is a nice story to tell.

A painful past

Not many people know that behind Max liu’s exuberance and sparkling sense of humor is a life story that is filled more with pain than happiness.

His mother died shortly after giving birth to him. His father, saddened by his beloved wife’s death, never gave Liu the love that was due to a child. When Liu was six years old, the originally affluent family went broke due to a business failure. Unable to sustain the blow, his father grew even more melancholic and decided to move the family from southern China to Japan in 1920. Three years after the family finally settled down in Japan , a big earthquake hit the country, turning everything they had into ashes. Liu had to work his way through his education. At the age of twenty-four, with the help of a scholarship, he finished his studies at the National Railway Technical College in Tokyo and went back to his mother country to teach electrical engineering. Shortly afterwards, the war between China and Japan broke out and he had to join in defending his country….

“The only thing I could feet during my eighty years is that life is full of suffering,” Liu said. “Happiness is transitory-it disappears before you know it. In order to survive, one has to keep rising to new challenges…. I have been fighting all along, never for a moment lying down on a cozy sofa enjoying a moment of easy leisure. I am always packed up and ready to go.”

Pushed by poverty

If you ask him what the most painful experience in his life was, this veteran who had fought in the war and frequented the most dangerous jungles will answer without hesitation: “Poverty, of course. Life is miserable when you have no money. You lose even dignity when you are poor.”

Poverty dogged him for a large portion of his life-from when he was six to when he reached fifty-four. He said that he did many things in his life with an eye for making money, including painting.

He was already thirty-eight years old when he picked up a paintbrush. He had moved to Taiwan after the war against Japan (1937-1945) ended and was working as an electrical engineer at a government-owned enterprise. As Taiwan was plagued by poverty at that time, his salary as a civil servant was far from enough for him to keep his family. His father was old, his wife was in poor health, and his children were still very young. He had to think up any way to supplement his income.

One day, a friend of his told him that an engineer named Hsiang Hung was displaying his paintings at Chung Shan Hall in downtown Taipei . “You’re an engineer too, so why don’t you hold your own exhibition?” the friend teased him. Driven by curiosity, Liu went to see the display and was greatly impressed by the splendor of the exhibition. When he saw that many of the paintings show-cased were pasted with red slips indicating that they had been purchased, he thought, “One can make so much money by painting-why don’t I paint too?”

He approached the painter at the exhibition hall and became a good friend of his. During weekends, he would accompany him and several other painters on excursions to draw from nature.

Painting filled his life with a kind of happiness which he had never known before. Because of straitened financial circumstances, he had been living under a lot of stress. Furthermore, he was at odds with his boss, thus making a promotion unattainable. “At that time I was like a boat that had suffered a shipwreck and was grounded on shore. No one paid any attention to me.” But painting helped to dispel the gloom for him. “Through my painting, I forgot many painful things in life.”

Soon after he started to paint, he produced a watercolor that depicted his son soundly sleeping on a tatami. When he showed it to one of the painters, the artist turned up his thumb and exclaimed, “Genius!”

The word “genius” boosted his confidence in his painting skills and pushed him to paint harder. He found that he was not only fond of painting, but he was good at it too. In order to cultivate himself, he read books on art extensively and he often showed his works to painters he knew to ask for their opinion. “Max Liu was very smart,” said Yao Meng-ku, also a painter. “He absorbed the strong points of his painter friends and soon attained an artistic level that was really astonishing.”

His progress was indeed amazing. In less than a year, his work Solitary Temple in Setting Sun garnered him a prize at the Fifth Taiwan Provincial Art Exhibition. When he received the news, he was so overjoyed that he jumped straight up from his chair. Another year later, his first painting exhibition was staged in Taipei , marking the starting point of his artistic career.

The Vietnam War

Although he displayed a remarkable talent for painting, it was impossible for him to make a living with it. As Taiwan was a rather poor country at that time, not many people had spare money to buy works of art. Therefore, for six years after his first exhibition he did not even touch a paintbrush. He had to continue to struggle against poverty.

“I still remember that during those days the shirt my father wore was so tattered and covered with holes that it looked like a spider’s web. But I was so poor that I couldn’t afford to buy a shirt for him.” Even today the memory still rankles in his heart.

In the summer of 1965, the chance came for him to make good money. He learned from a colleague that the American navy was recruiting a party of engineers to work for them in the Vietnam War. Those who were qualified and joined would receive very high pay. “I was really excited when I heard the news,” Liu reminisced. “I thought it the chance of a lifetime. If I survived the war, I would come out rich. Even if I didn’t, a substantial pension would be given to my family according to the contract I signed with the American army. My wife was still young, and she could remarry . I told myself that I’d rather fight to death than be starved to death.”

He regarded the Vietnam War as the turning point of his life. In Vietnam he earned seven times as much as his salary in Taiwan . Knowing that his family could be well provided for, he could live at ease.

“Only when you have money can you fulfill your dreams and ideals,” he said. The dream he wanted to fulfill was painting.

While in Saigon , he worked for the American army in the daytime, but during nights and holidays he would devote himself passionately to painting. Disregarding the dangers in the battle-fields, he often explored the countryside where there were relics of ancient shrines to paint from. “I was very keen on Vietnam ’s ancient culture at that time, especially the art of the Chams and the Khmers.” He collected and studied a great deal of relevant materials and even wrote articles. The ancient art opened a new territory for him and provided a rich inspiration for his paintings. It also paved the way for the cultural anthropology studies he would be engaged in later in his life.

Liu believed that his most rapid progress in painting was made while he was in Vietnam . “Because I didn’t need to scrimp on painting materials to save money, I experimented as much as I could. Besides, being in a new place was refreshing to me. I was full of hope and constantly in high spirits.” All these factors contributed to his step forward.

An episode that occurred during this period also had a great impact on his painting style. One day he went back to where he lived later than usual. As he was walking up the dark staircase, a shaft of light shone down on him. “Its color was so beautiful, as if it had been emitted by diamonds. I felt as if I was walking in a dream. But later I found that the light was produced by several coke bottles my landlady had placed on the landing. The sun shining through the bottles created the light I saw. As soon as I realized that, the enchanting beauty disappeared in my heart. From then on I knew that abstract forms are more beautiful than concrete ones.” Partly because of this, his paintings were done mostly in semi-abstract of abstract style.

Other people whiled away their lives in the war, but Liu led a full one by making the best of every minute. In 1967, his three-year contract ended and he came back home with more than two hundred paintings. An exhibition featuring some of these works was staged for him in the National Museum of History in Taipei . The dramatic appeal of his “artistry under fire” must have drawn people to the museum. But the merit of his paintings was not unrecognized. His work was praised for its artistic value, for its excellent coloring and composition, and for an enchanting tone which was redolent of both Indian and Chinese spirit (the ancient art of Vietnam had been greatly influenced by China and India ).

The exhibition gave him a resounding reputation in the artistic circles of Taipei . He was invited to teach at the Fine Arts Department of Fuhsingkang College and to publish his essays on art composed over the years. The next year he was awarded the Literature and Art Prize for the writings and paintings he had created in Vietnam . The prize, awarded by the Sun Yat-sen Culture Foundation, was considered the highest accolade an artist could receive at that time.

He had come out of the war a winner.

A self-taught artist

People may wonder how Liu, without any formal or informal artistic training before he picked up a paintbrush, could paint as if he had been painting all his life. The painter admits that talent plays an important part in artistic creation. “I feel that art is in my genes,” he said. He remembers that when he was a child, he had a great sensitivity for and was always enchanted by colors. Pigments sold in the department stores, the colorful cake his grandmother made, animals mottled green, brown or red-these never failed to catch his eye.

In addition to talent, the artist also emphasizes the importance of concentration. “When I am working, nothing can distract me and so I can devote myself whole-heartedly to my work.” He advises those who are interested in painting to spend more time alone. He thinks that when people are alone, they are more likely to concentrate and to be introspective. “Art is born in solitude and dies in society,” he believes. If one sets his heart on becoming an artist, he must be prepared to endure loneliness.

Aside from practicing in solitude, he also suggests that aspiring artists should read extensively and get in touch with nature and life to expand their minds. A painter must have a rich mind to create works with life and depth. He himself read a lot and even translated many art books from English, which greatly helped him cultivate himself as a painter.

A self-taught artist, Liu never thinks that techniques should come first in painting. He takes issue with some of the traditional training methods adopted by art schools. “For example, I don’t think that beginners should start by drawing from plaster busts. I’m of the opinion that precision, the contrast of dark and light, and perspective are not that important in painting. I would consider it more important to train one’s imagination.”

His emphasis on imagination has to do with his fascination with the Swiss painter, Paul Klee (1879-1940). One of the most original masters of modern art, Klee created works that are best known for their fantastic dream images, imagination and wit.

“Klee paints not what his eyes see, but what his heart tells him,” Liu explained. “Painting what you see is not creation, but copying-copying God’s creation. But if you paint with your own imagination, rearranging what you see in your own colors, you are creating something equivalent to the creation of God.” Liu’s art, which never sets out a faithful delineation, embodies this belief.

Max Liu is good at presenting things in semi-abstract form,” an art magazine reported. “Through his imagination, he ingenuously simplifies and metamorphoses what he sees in the real world into something primitive, innocent of mysterious.”

Most painters paint directly from nature, but Liu paints completely what he thinks,” said painter Huan Nai-chun. “His work reflects his free wit.”

In the jungle

Painting brought Liu into another world which fascinates him even more than artistic creation-cultural anthropology.

“It was just natural that I would become interested in anthropology. The creation of modern painting was inspired by primitive art, so in order to have a more in-depth understanding of the origin of art, I set myself to study the background of primitive art and the society that gave rise to it.”

Research into primitive art took him to primitive and aboriginal tribes. In addition to trips among the aborigines in Taiwan , he also traveled to El Salvador , Peru , South and East Africa, the Philippines , Indonesia , Malaysia and Vietnam to conduct field research. These trips spawned several books about primitive art and culture, and they also fueled his desire for further trips and his lifelong love of jungle life.

Jungles fascinate him. “If I were young again, I would marry a girl from Borneo and stay with her in the jungle,” he once said to a journalist while on a trip to Borneo . “The more primitive and undeveloped a place is, the more you can feel the passion and vigor of life there. Whenever you turn a leaf or move a piece of decayed wood, you can see life struggling, fighting, growing or dying.”

Liu was very good at mingling with the aborigines who lived in the jungles. He ate and slept with them and made friends with them. He remembers that once he was invited to a ritual ceremony during one trip to the jungle. The food they ate at the banquet, considered a delicacy by the local people, was some green stuff in thick liquid form. It was made by putting rotten pork along with salt and rice into an urn, which was then sealed until the ingredients in it fermented. “There were several maggots wriggling in the food offered to us. Judging from its appearance, I thought it ought to contain lots of protein and would indeed be very nutritious.” He ate it without so much as a frown.

His untamed spirit captivated by life in the jungle, Liu couldn’t resist the temptation to go there again and again despite all sorts of unimaginable dangers. Quicksand, whirlpools, poisonous snakes and fire ants-all of these can take a man’s life. “You don’t have the time to think or ponder over anything when you are in a jungle. There are death traps everywhere and you have to watch your every step.” As death was unpredictable in such places, he told his son, who often accompanied him on his trips, “Bury me wherever I die.” Contrary to the traditional Chinese concept that one should be buried at home, Liu believes that we have only one earth and it makes no difference where one is buried.

Liu Jen-chih, a photographer who accompanied Liu on his trip to Sabah, Borneo , in 1985, said that it was rather unusual to see older people conducting research in wild places such as those they visited. Liu was close to seventy-five when he made that trip to Sabah , and he suffered from rheumatism.

“Because of his rheumatism, he walked with a limp,” remembered the photographer. “Nonetheless, he still helped us push our boat on a dry riverbed. I asked him whether he was okay, and he answered, ‘No problem.’ Because of his perseverance, we trekked to the farthest aboriginal settlement in Sabah , where very few outsiders had ever been.”

Liu Jen-chih said that he felt that Liu was like lalang, a kind of indigenous plant growing in Borneo . “They grow only in wild fields. If you cut them today, they will grow up tomorrow. They have a most tenacious life force.”

For the last three decades, Liu has devoted a lot of time and effort to conducting field research in relation to art and anthropology. He collected a lot of antiquities and artifacts from these trips and donated them all to local museum. He also composed many studies relating to the subject of cultural anthropology. These trips not only expanded the horizon of his life, but also had a great influence on his art. Simple in form and color, his paintings are characterized by an innocence and directness that is typical of primitive art. “Art produced in a civilized society is introspective, sophisticated and artificial, whereas primitive art is intuitive, straightforward and sincere.” He found the latter a lot more to his heart.

Far from over the hill

What makes people marvel most about Liu is his boundless energy. He is like what he describes Earnest Hemingway to be: “Although he looked old all over, his eyes flashed the signal, ‘Advance!’’’

Although he suffered deprivation and hardship in his early years, he nevertheless managed to live his life to the fullest. His is a most precious life lesson for us to learn from.

“A lot of people give up doing things they want to de because they think they don’t have time or they’re too old,” a friend observed. “But Max doesn’t. He just keeps going. Once he sets a goal, he does his best to reach it.”

When asked what he enjoyed doing most in his life, Liu answered, “Adventuring—I feel most at ease when I can visit strange, outlandish places where no one has ever been.” He plans to keep adventuring as long as he is still able.

It looks as if his journey will never end.

In the sidebars on the following pages, we present a series of paintings of animals by Max Liu, who, as mentioned above, is a passionate lover of wild life. We hope his creative way of presenting the natural world will help paint some fun and color into your life.

Reprint from the Tzu Chi Quarterly