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    How Peasant Paintings Capture a Changing China

    For nearly 70 years, state-sanctioned amateur artists have been depicting the country’s social, political, and economic transformation.

    If you live in China, you’ll almost certainly have seen so-called peasant paintings, even if you aren’t familiar with the concept. Be they on city streets, walls around construction sites, pages of newspapers, or screens of TVs, computers, and smartphones, these colorful folklore paintings can be found just about everywhere.

    Many of the images in them have been combined with slogans. Since 1988, when China’s Ministry of Culture granted the title of “Chinese Modern Folk Painting Village” to 35 villages, many provinces, cities, and counties have recognized their peasant paintings as an intangible cultural heritage, granting them a level of state-sanctioned protection.

    In recent years, the government has increased financial support for projects involving intangible cultural heritage, with peasant painting being one such beneficiary. Jinshan District in southwestern Shanghai is home to a peasant painting village exhibiting works from all over China. Cao Xiuwen, an artist who in 2009 was recognized as an “inheritor of Shanghai’s intangible heritage” for her unique, locally refined peasant painting, saw her work “Spring Awakening” displayed in the theme pavilion at the 2010 world expo in Shanghai.

    For some time now, my research institute has been paying close attention to the peasant painting of Shanghai’s western suburbs. In the space of 20 years, this area has gone from being a network of rural villages to a highly urbanized environment. Hu Peiqun, the official laureate of the local style, currently teaches painting as part of a government-sponsored training course. In May, her work “Upward Force” was entered into the nationwide peasant painting exhibition “Chinese Spirit, Chinese Dream,” said to be the biggest exhibition hosted by the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association since 1949. A total of 1,450 works from more than 20 provinces and cities applied to take part, of which 200 were selected for display.

    Similar examples of peasant painting are hard to come by in other parts of the world. Peasant painting represents a unique art style that developed after China was united under Communist Party rule in 1949. Sponsored by government cultural departments, the first peasant painting, “Complaint From the Old Bull,” appeared in 1955, ushering in the first of the genre’s three stages of evolution, each named after the rural area considered representative of the style.

    The first stage — which takes its name from Shulu and Pi counties — was closely tied to two major political campaigns at the time: During the collectivization of agriculture, cartoon-like images were used to promote policy. During the Great Leap Forward, meanwhile, all art was meant to serve politics. One such representative is corn cobs painted bigger than airplanes.

    During peasant painting’s Hu County stage of the 1960s and ’70s, the government deepened collaboration between professionals and amateurs. As a result, lay artists were exposed to the latest sketching and coloring techniques, allowing the country’s artistic output to flourish. This is perhaps best summed up in a 1974 Hu County-style peasant painting called “The Old Party Secretary,” commissioned by China’s national post office.

    The final stage — named after the Shanghai suburb of Jinshan — grew out of the nascent reform period of the ’80s. Politics, which during the Cultural Revolution had come to dominate people’s lives, now somewhat receded from view, and peasant painting reverted back to traditional depictions of everyday rural life.

    Today’s peasant paintings are heavily influenced by local folk traditions and scenery. For example, Cao’s Jinshan-style peasant painting “The Mother Returns to her Parents’ Home” is markedly different from work by Liu Dan of Dongfeng County, in northeastern China’s Jilin province, on the same topic. Jinshan-style peasant painting has its origins in the embroidery and stove paintings of southern China. The small bridge, flock of ducks, and blue and white hues create a gentle, depoliticized pastoral scene.

    In comparison, because the Dongfeng style originated in northeastern Chinese paper-cutting, it tends to feature warm, festive symbols including donkeys, other beasts of burden, and magpies, thought to bring good fortune. For this reason, peasant paintings — a decoration rich in folk imagery — satisfy the imaginations of city-dwellers and foreigners who fetishize the exotic pastoral scenes as a true home for the soul. It is unsurprising that peasant paintings once served as popular government gifts and tourist merchandise.

    However, peasant painting’s heavy reliance on government and the consumer market is constricting its development. The amateur status of the artists and the high replicability of the works make peasant paintings less competitive in the nearly saturated market of mass artworks and tourism products.

    In addition, the inspiration for works like “Spring Awakening” and “Upward Force” comes entirely from a government that hopes to use the visual arts to illustrate its key theories and policies. As the self-ordained patron of peasant painting, the state commissions art for its own exhibitions and competitions, while replicas color the streets and serve as a vehicle for ideological education and propaganda. The ubiquitous posters for China’s so-called socialist core values are good examples of this.

    Peasant paintings already struggle to attract buyers among the general public, and collector enthusiasm is slowing. If the government were to pull its support, therefore, the existence of peasant paintings would likely come under threat.

    The crisis is rooted in the fact that peasant painting fails to uphold an essential component of folk art: reflecting the spiritual needs of the people. Nearly all folk art pieces closely connect to ancient beliefs or annual festivals, and they find a rich breeding ground in people’s everyday lives. Prayers for good fortune and fertility are both central components of folk art as well as the secret to its longevity, but peasant paintings lack such a base, as their origins lie in government propaganda and the development of local economies.

    Globalization complicates the picture even further, as artists must cater to more diverse aesthetic tastes and compete within a larger market. As peasant paintings cleave ever closer to this market, they — in turn — lose much of their original artistic value. The marketization of culture becomes a powerful force that redefines the value of each artwork solely based on how much money can be made from it.

    Under the multitude of external forces, peasant painting somewhat resembles the chimera of Greek mythology — a monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a snake. The ever-shifting interaction of the government, the market, and the people makes it impossible to predict what form it might adopt in the future. Whatever the outcome, the simple, subtle style of peasant painting serves as an excellent reminder of how much China has changed economically, politically, and culturally since 1949.

    Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: ‘The Mother Returns to her Parents’ Home,’ by Liu Dan (2015), an example of Jilin province’s Dongfeng-style peasant painting. Courtesy of the Folklore Institute at East China Normal University)