Peasant art draws on folk crafts for vivid rural scenes

Nov 9, 2016

A "peasant painter" (standing) instructs a budding young artist in the village of Zhonghong.
The entrance to the China Peasant Painting Village

IN 1972 during the cultural revolution (1966-76), a group of urban artists was sent to the countryside to "learn" from the peasants.

Cheng Shifa, Han Heping, Wu Tongzhang and others went to live in Zhonghong, a farm village in then largely rural Jinshan District. But in a twist of circumstances, it was the farmers who instead learned from the artists.

Long after the artists returned to their urban ateliers, the legacy of the rice paper painting techniques they left behind remains a hallmark in the Jinshan village. The farmers' works came to be called "peasant art" and attained their global debut at an exhibition held during the Brussels Expo in 1980.

The classic two-dimensional Jinshan peasant art uses bold colors to portray simple rural life: women airing quilts outdoors, people harvesting patches of eggplant and cauliflower, babies in bundling, children flying kites, firecrackers at a village festival, fishermen on a river.

Some villagers, like Cao Xiuwen, 60, long ago gave up tilling and devoted themselves full-time to painting. She still lives in her home village, 65 kilometers from downtown Shanghai. In the cozy artist colony far from urban bustle, some 100 peasant painters live amid lush bamboo, family vegetable gardens and cockscomb flowers.

Peasant art is inspired traditional folk arts such as dyeing, embroidery, paper-cutting, weaving and woodcarving.

"We all worked on farms," says Cao. "However, we women all knew a little bit about embroidery, which provided us with some foundation for painting. My father, on the other hand, was good at woodcarving. I would say our family has some artistic talent."

Some of that native talent traditionally was displayed in frescoes painted on walls above wood stoves in farm kitchens. So-called "stove painting" was part of a tradition in the family of Chen Fulin, now 73. As a child, he tagged along after his father, a mason, and helped paint the stove murals.

Four generations of Chens have been painters, including brother Chen Weixiong and daughter Chen Huifang, who each now have their own studios in the artist conclave.

The Jinshan artists have been called "Chinese Picassos" because of the primitive nature of their works. Perspectives may be skewed and some depictions may seem almost childlike, but the paintings all exude the idyllic joys of a simple, natural environment.

The gene for peasant art seems to have been implanted in many local families. Li Lingen took up painting in 1977, inspired no doubt by the legacy of the urban painters who had been sent to his village. He married Li Jinhua, daughter of another artist, who began her artistic work in 1987. The Li couple also specializes in the framing and conservation of paintings, earning themselves the local moniker of "painting doctors."

"I really like how the paintings relate to the working lives of the villagers," says Sarah Coilders, a Dutch student in Chinese studies at Fudan University and one of a group of foreign students who recently visited the Jinshan art colony. "Such intriguing detail. Just look at the kittens fighting in that one."

The Jinshan Peasant Painting Academy was founded in 1989 to promote the genre and attract artists. Many come from across China. Painters from Qinghai, Yunnan and Inner Mongolia bring their own cultural heritage to the scenes depicted on paper.

More than 6,000 pieces of peasant art have been exhibited in Chinese and foreign galleries. The art form was listed as an "intangible cultural heritage" in 2007, and Jinshan has come to be recognized as "the hometown of modern folk art."

"I live, I observe and then I paint," Cao says. "It's that easy. I am grateful to be living a wonderful life. I have been painting for 41 years, and I think I'll still be doing it when I'm 80."

Chen Fulin's and Cao Xiuwen's art studios are two of 15 in the village's tourist attraction area, where visitors can meet the artists and purchase artworks with registered authentication.


China Peasant Painting Village

Open: 8am-5pm

Address: 4941 Zhufeng Highway

Admission: 30 yuan