China “farmers painting”: raw but real

Written by Yin Xiuqi China Plus Published: 2017-06-16 10:58:31
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This painting by the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute in Jiangsu Province, east China, depicts a modernized village and the colorful lives of its residents. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

This painting by the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute in Jiangsu Province, east China, depicts a modernized village and the colorful lives of its residents. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Art may be a high-end, professional cultural activity. But arguably, amateur artists can still grasp its objective--to depict life and express the inner spiritual worlds of individuals.

In this way, some Chinese villagers or farmers have been expressing their views of the world and themselves through their own paintings—which have become known as “farmers painting”.

With decades of development and intensified government support, this grassroots Chinese art form seeks to depict colorful scenes of rural life using bold and playful imagery.

What exactly are the paintings about? 

Sixty-three-year-old Zhuang Guorong is a retired rural primary school art teacher, who's had a life of painting for more than 40 years.

Every year, the sturdy, younger-than-his-actual-age pensioner goes to “the farmers’ home” of Chenyang Community for a few weeks to paint or teach other villagers how to draw.

“The farmers’ home”, a public building, serves as the venue for a branch of the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute.

The institute is a government sponsored cultural organization in Sheyang County, in the north of Jiangsu Province, east China.

Zhang Guorong, 63, a retired rural primary school art teacher, works part time for the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Zhuang Guorong, 63, a retired rural primary school art teacher, works part time for the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Zhuang works at the institute part time, and each year he creates up to ten paintings, which are then bought by the local government.

He makes around 5,000 yuan – that’s about 740 US dollars – a year by doing this work.

As well as earning himself some money, Zhuang says the job gives him an opportunity to express his views of life to his fellow countrymen, especially the elderly.

“This painting is about a nursing home. We now live in an ageing society. We can no longer rely on the traditional way of taking care of our elderly just with our children doing it. So, professional nursing homes are essential for elderly people's welfare. 

“In this painting, I depicted a scene of young people celebrating the birthday of a senior citizen. The message I want to convey is that life in the twilight years can still be happy. And all of my paintings are like this one -- based on our real lives.”

This painting by Zhuang Guorong illustrates a birthday celebration for a senior citizen at a nursing home. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

This painting by Zhuang Guorong illustrates a birthday celebration for a senior citizen at a nursing home. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

How does the painting institute work?

In fact, Zhuang is a contracted painter of the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute, which has altogether more than 40 of these artists.

Forty-seven-year-old Guo Kailiang, director of the institute, explains how it operates.

“We give a certain amount of subsidy to the contracted painters each year. At the same time, they are assigned certain tasks to finish. 

“The works they produce will then be bought by the local government for cultural exchanges with other regions or they will develop derivatives based on them.”

The Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute has altogether more than 40 contracted painters. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

The Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute has altogether more than 40 contracted painters. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

The director says the institute creates hundreds of original paintings each year. And the local government buys them at an average price of about 300 yuan each.

Guo adds that each contracted painter at the institute will get an average of 5,000 yuan of government subsidy each year. And for that, he or she must produce eight to 10 original paintings based on particular assignments.

For Zhuang Guorong, he can get 150 yuan of government subsidy a day when he is called upon to work for the institute and finish a particular assigned task.

According to Guo Kailiang, the Sheyang county government has maintained financial support for the institute on an incremental basis in recent years.

In 2013, 400,000 yuan was earmarked for it. This year, the local government has allocated two million yuan from its coffers to the institute to spur its development.

With such financial support, Guo Kailiang has a blueprint for his institute.

He says this year the institute will conduct 100 training courses in an effort to cultivate 1,000 potential farmer-painters.

“The training courses aim to bring together interested villagers and other people who like painting and teach them professional painting skills.”

Farmers paintings usually demonstrate the daily lives of the farmers themselves, their villages and their original wishes and expectations of life. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Farmers paintings usually demonstrate the daily lives of the farmers themselves, their villages and their original wishes and expectations of life. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Why is Sheyang County promoting farmers painting?

The county of Sheyang, which has a population of 960,000, is actually a center of farmers painting in China.

Since the late 1980s, the Ministry of Culture has been promoting grass-roots and rural cultures across the country.

In 2008, Sheyang was awarded the title of one of China’s folk culture centers by the ministry.

In the same year, the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute was established as part of the efforts to promote the local culture.

In 2016, the county’s farmers painting art was included in a list of provincial-level intangible cultural heritages by Jiangsu Province.

Guo Kailiang, director of the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute, says the most obvious feature of their paintings is the depiction of joy and festivities. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Guo Kailiang, director of the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute, says the most obvious feature of their paintings is the depiction of joy and festivities. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Guo Kailiang, a farmer turned career painter, says he is both a witness and participant in the development of the farmers painting in Sheyang.

He says he enjoyed painting in high school. But he failed in the national college entrance exams on his first attempt.

Because his family was so poor, he couldn't afford to give it a second go. He had no choice but to take up farming – but he carried on his painting hobby in his spare time.

After years of practice and persistence, in 1989 he entered a national painting contest and won several prizes. After that, he was enrolled by a public-funded cultural institute in his hometown--Sheyang County.

Now the director of the Sheyang Farmers Painting Institute says he intends to train more young villagers who aspire to be a career painter like himself.

Ms. Wang is one of the trainers he has enrolled in his ambitious training program.

“I have been working for the institute part-time since its inception. My full time job is art teacher in a school. Now I also act as a trainer, teaching interested villagers how to draw. 

“Many of our paintings have been given away to villagers who have suffered natural disasters.”

Sheyang was hit by a deadly tornado in June last year, which damaged or flattened over 1,600 houses. Nearly 12,000 villagers were affected.

Are the paintings popular among buyers?

At the moment, the painting institute is exploring ways to make profits from their rural-life-themed paintings.

Trying to promote their works among the general public, Guo Kailiang says they are on sale on e-commerce platforms for 300 yuan a piece on average.

“The most obvious feature of Sheyang farmers paintings is their depiction of joy and festivities. The themes they demonstrate are the daily lives of the farmers themselves, their villages and their original wishes and expectations of life. 

“Eventually we intend to make profit from the paintings made by our institute’s artists and develop related industries to make more money and carry on developing.”

What are the other production bases of the paintings?

Moreover, Guo says his institute is carrying out cultural exchanges with fellow farmers painting artists from other parts of China, such as Huxian County in Shaanxi Province and Jinshan District in Shanghai.

The county of Huxian in northwest China, another center of farmers painting in the country, began early trials of the grass-roots art in the 1950s.

The Ministry of Culture named Huxian as the “Chinese Modern Farmers Painting Village” in 1998. Now the region has some 400 full-time such painters.

It also boasts that hundreds of its works have been collected by national and local art galleries.

In Shanghai, the farmers painting practice began in the 1970s. Now an industry is emerging with the Jinshan Farmers Painting Village, bringing together some 600 artists living and working there.  

Farmer-painters have recently begun to depict the world beyond their home villages as they have seen more of the outside world. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Farmer-painters have recently begun to depict the world beyond their home villages as they have seen more of the outside world. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Can the grassroots Chinese art be recognized internationally? 

This kind of grassroots art has been extending its presence on the international stage in recent years.

In May 2014, China organized an exhibition of Chinese farmers paintings at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The China Farmers Painting Society, a national government-sponsored organization, collected a total of 108 paintings by 108 farmers from dozens of counties for the show.

The complex overpass system in a city is one of the urban features farmer-painters seek to depict. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

The complex overpass system in a city is one of the urban features farmer-painters seek to depict. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Some art critics say many of the farmers paintings are not as sophisticated as the kind of artwork you would expect from professional painters.

But Wang Linxu, President of the China Farmers Painting Society, says the paintings portray real life and showcase the talent and creativity of Chinese farmers.

The artist points out that originally farmers paintings focused on the group’s daily routines, such as farming, harvest and celebrations of traditional festivals. 

But in recent years, he says, farmers are seeing more of the outside world and that experience is reflected in their paintings.

[The audio clip is from Horizons, a revamped daily features program produced by CRI that gets to the heart of Chinese society, life and economy. To know more about this program, you can download the China Plus App on your mobile phone.]

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