Parkite’s family returns WWII-era woodcuts to China
The prints date back to the 1930s and 1940s
Siblings Dennis, Deborah Hanlon and Diane Hanlon Ealy waited eagerly at Dennis’ front door for a black sedan to pull into his driveway. Pawsie, the resident dog, paced around the foyer. The 12-year-old rescue wasn’t used to this much excitement around the house.
Max Tang, a University of Michigan professor, and Wang Le, associate director of Shanghai’s Fudan University library, stepped out of the car, walked up to the porch and knocked on the door. Dennis Hanlon opened up and a flurry of handshakes and pleasantries ensued.
“That’s good,” said documentary filmmaker Dodge Billingsley from behind his Sony Alpha camera. “Let’s do one more.”
Though the documentary, being filmed for Fudan University, necessitated multiple takes, the feelings were genuine. Wang had flown in from Shanghai to obtain a piece of her home country, and Tang from Ann Arbor to provide his expertise on the artifacts in the dining room.
An international cultural exchange was about to occur in the Park City realtor’s home just outside of Thaynes Canyon on Saturday, Sept. 30.
The Hanlon siblings, comprising Dennis Hanlon, Deborah Hanlon and Diane Hanlon Ealy, carried with them a tangible piece of their father’s legacy: a set of modern Chinese woodblock prints given to their father by Mao Zedong after being shot down over Manchuria in 1944.
The prints had been created by an array of artists in the 1930’s and 40’s as part of the New Woodcut Movement, which coincided with the Chinese Civil War and World War II. Woodblock printing is an ancient artform, but experienced a renaissance in the 20th century alongside the massive sociopolitical upheaval taking place in Asia.
The prints had taken up residence in Dennis’ dining room, where the siblings would ceremonially hand them over to Fudan University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions.
Dennis Hanlon said the university, one of the most selective in the nation, was a better home than any alternative.
“To have them displayed in a university and for the education of the Chinese people and actually for students all over the world, I think this is something my father would have been so proud of,” Dennis Hanlon said.
Fudan University will display the prints in an exhibit bearing George Hanlon’s name, starting in January 2018. According to Deborah Hanlon’s research, the artworks portray many different facets of 20th-century Chinese life, from the daily routines of the countryside proletariat to the unified Communist and Nationalist forces’ struggle against Japan’s invasion and occupation. The prints were borne out of an era where untold millions of soldiers and civilians, Communist and Nationalist, died both in civil war and at the hands of the Empire of Japan.
American forces had aided the Chinese against Japan since the very beginning of their conflict in 1937. Volunteer units like the Flying Tigers were joined by the full force of the U.S. military after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. After that, America and China were sworn allies until Japan finally surrendered in 1945 and China’s internal struggle continued.
The story of how the prints ended up in Park City, documented in George Hanlon’s book “The China Walk,” wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
The China Walk
According to Deborah Hanlon, George Allen Hanlon was born in Milwaukee in 1915 and passed away in 1996. As a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he served in World War II as the copilot of “My Assam Dragon,” a B-29 long range bomber that ran missions over Japanese targets from the Twentieth Air Force’s base in India. Boeing B-29s were designed to tackle the long distances that characterized the fighting in the Pacific Theater.
On Sept. 8, 1944, My Assam Dragon’s luck ran out when, after a successful bombing run, Japanese fighters caught up to the bomber over the Yellow Sea and shot it down.
Four of the crew bailed out immediately, never to be found again. The remaining seven, including Hanlon, managed to steer the 75,000 pound aircraft to Manchuria where they parachuted to dry land.
However, it was a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Manchuria was firmly within the grip of the Japanese empire, which called it “Manchukuo.” Soon, however, the seven Americans found their way to a Chinese village, where they were taken to local Communist guerillas with the Chinese 8th Route Army. The leader of the army, Mao Zedong, had heard of his allies’ plight and ordered his soldiers to escort the airmen safely to his base in Yan’an, an isolated community in the mountains of northern China.
The group travelled hundreds of miles by wagon train out of Manchuria, dodging Japanese forces along the way. The Americans donned local garb to avoid arousing the suspicion of the Japanese and ate whatever they could get their hands on, including a tiger and a 75-year-old egg.
At one point, an ill-tempered horse Hanlon was riding fell off of a cliff face and died. Later, as the group stopped in a village for dinner, he realized the meat the villagers were preparing was that of his horse.
“His comment, as was typical of my father and his sense of humor, was that he enjoyed eating the horse more than riding it,” Dennis said.
Along the way, friendly Chinese villagers housed the men and kept them fed, even entertaining them.
“The Chinese people were so wonderful to my father and his crew, for all the years afterwards he spoke so fondly of them, so highly of them, that when we had this opportunity to donate these prints to Fudan University in Shanghai, we just jumped at the chance,” Dennis Hanlon said.
Hanlon Ealy, displaying a photo of her father, the rest of his crew and Mao, said the Communists welcomed their American friends with open arms once they reached Yan’an. Mao treated them to dinner at his house before sending them back to the United States.
Their ordeal had lasted 137 days before they left the country on Jan. 23, 1945.
The Communist chairman didn’t send them away empty handed: Mao gifted Hanlon the set of woodblock prints.
The prints travelled all over the U.S. with the family before finally settling in Dennis Hanlon’s dining room in Park City.
For much of her life, Deborah Hanlon, a retired environmental scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, hadn’t thought much about the Chinese woodblock prints that had adorned so many of her family’s homes over the years.
“As long as I can remember, these prints have been on the walls of our home,” she said to the documentary crew. “We kind of took them for granted as children.”
After George Hanlon passed away, Deborah was helping move the prints when an artist’s name and description caught her eye.
“I was thinking ‘wow, this is a very interesting collection … wouldn’t this be a wonderful thing to show to a university or the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, anywhere else?” she said.
Her research led her to Max Tang, an expert on contemporary Chinese visual culture. Tang raised the idea of sending the prints back to China, and got in touch with Fudan University’s library director.
At first, though, Tang wasn’t sure what to do with the prints because of the relatively small size of the collection and of the prints themselves. However, he said both the names behind the prints and the story of their journey is significant.
“This set of prints, even though it’s limited in number, is extremely valuable both in terms of the stories behind them and for the very fact that these are very important works in the history of modern Chinese art … related to this larger picture is this journey that this American crew took,” Tang said.
Accompanying the print exchange was a presentation of gifts. Wang and Tang presented the Hanlons with silken scripts and a decorative plate bearing the symbols of Fudan University, while the Hanlons returned the favor with locally-made memorabilia and souvenirs from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
Wang said she hopes the prints will inspire Chinese artists by providing a window into the past.
Relations between the U.S. and China have never been simple, from the exploitation of Chinese immigrants in the Old West, to outright conflict on the Korean Peninsula, to today’s tense political rhetoric.
As the pinyon logs in Dennis Hanlon’s fireplace roared and the documentary crew circled, however, the scene in the Park City living room was a brief reminder of when Americans and the Chinese stood side by side as brothers in arms.
The all-female a cappella choir has scheduled a string of performances in preparation for its Spring Sing.