Shanghai university exhibit made possible by Parkite’s family recalls Sino-American alliance
The extraordinary journey of a set of World War II-era Chinese woodblock prints, previously displayed in a Parkite’s home, came full circle last month.
At an April ceremony in Shanghai, siblings Dennis Hanlon, Deborah Hanlon and Diane Hanlon Ealy officially opened a permanent exhibition at the prestigious Fudan University featuring the prints that once belonged to their late father, George Hanlon. The exhibit, titled “A Journey Across Time and Space,” occupies a section in the university’s library system named after George.
At first, Dennis Hanlon, a Park City real estate agent, was intimidated by the scale of the event, though everything went smoothly after their arrival.
“We pull up and we just see rows and rows and rows of chairs with everyone’s names on it,” Dennis said. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the way this is going to be, this is going to be tough.’”
The interactive exhibit, accompanied by a documentary filmed partially in Park City, includes the prints, a copy of George Hanlon’s book, titled “The China Walk,” about his experience that led to him possessing the prints, and detailed breakdowns about every step of the Hanlon patriarch’s trip through enemy territory during World War II.
The artwork’s return home is the conclusion to a story spanning decades.
In 1944, Lt. Col. George Hanlon, the copilot of an Army Air Corps B-29 bomber based in India, found himself stranded, along with six members of his crew, in rural China after a bombing raid over Japan went wrong. Mao Zedong, then the commander of Chinese Communist forces at war with the occupying Japanese and an ally of the U.S., heard of the Americans’ plight and ordered a rescue.
After journeying hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, through the rugged terrain of Manchuria, the bomber’s crew reached Yan’an, Mao’s headquarters. The future chairman of China’s Communist Party gifted them a set of contemporary woodblock prints depicting China’s struggle against the Imperial Japanese invaders, which had begun in 1937 — four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The story of George Hanlon’s trek hasn’t been forgotten. One of the most memorable interactions Dennis Hanlon recalled was when a man showed him a copy of a children’s English workbook for use in Chinese schools that featured his father.
“This one chapter starts, ‘The seven airmen begin their 1,500-mile journey across China,” Dennis said.
Max Tang, an expert on contemporary Chinese art and a professor at the University of Michigan who helped facilitate the transfer, said that while the woodblock prints aren’t themselves unique (by their very nature, the prints are mass-produced), their decades-long trip around the world and what that trip symbolizes gives them the cultural and academic value displayed in the exhibit.
“It is the history behind them, it is the journey that they took that made this particular set of prints unique,” Tang said. “It’s not simply about Lt. Col. George Hanlon, it’s not simply about this group of American servicemen and their experience, it’s about one important aspect of World War II: the alliance of the Chinese and Americans.”
Last October, the family officially turned the woodcuts over to Fudan University at Dennis Hanlon’s home in Park City with Tang, university representative Wang Le and a documentary crew present. In between then and May’s trip, the family remained in contact with the university, which assigned them contacts to help with travel arrangements and guidance in China.
During the ceremony, the Hanlons not only opened the exhibit but sweetened the deal: They gifted a silk map, a waterproof piece of material designed to help aviators navigate unfamiliar territory, to the university. Dennis Hanlon was also called upon to give a short speech — partially in Mandarin — to the assorted officials present as well as local media, with the aid of an English language translator.
“It was hysterical,” Dennis said of his attempted oration in China’s official language.
Opening the exhibit in Shanghai wasn’t the only item on the agenda. The three siblings, accompanied by friends from Park City and beyond, made the most of their two weeks in China by visiting other locations like Beijing and the Great Wall. Dennis Hanlon noted that some of the people he spoke to in Shanghai were curious about life in Park City, the small Utah mountain town.
“I showed them pictures of my house in the wintertime with all of the snow and stuff, and their question was, ‘How do you stay warm?” Dennis said. “This one girl, who was our liaison, said, ‘Could you be in your house in the wintertime in a T-shirt?’”
Tang says that, looking at the big picture, the transfer of the prints could form a building block in a greater Western academic interest in contemporary Chinese art. Currently, Tang sees an emphasis on ancient Chinese culture in American academia, to the detriment of the study of artwork that comes from eras that are more recent — like the Sino-Japanese War — but incredibly important to China’s cultural and national identity.
“My hope is that the American public and American art institutions will begin to appreciate modern Chinese art more, as there is a lot of great artwork and interesting stories to be told there,” Tang said.
The historical relationship between China and the United States, while taking place over a relatively tiny portion of world history, is packed with twists and turns. With its latest chapter, President Trump’s trade war with the most populous nation in the world, escalating in the background, Tang said the story told in the exhibit can serve as a reminder of times when Americans and Chinese — of all ideologies — stood side by side.
For Dennis Hanlon, the trip served as closure for a story that continued to be told long after his father returned home.
“It was a nice completion to (the prints’) journey,” he said. “We definitely miss having them, but having them there, we loved it. … Donating these, and having it as kind of a learning experience for the Chinese people to learn about their culture; to learn about the history behind these, was worthwhile.”
Correction: This article has been updated to state that the ceremony in Shanghai happened in April, not May.
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