How a Tibetan Village Became a Giant Factory for Buddhist Art
QINGHAI, Northwest China — A few minutes after 9 p.m., Kharze and three other apprentices finally put down their paint brushes inside their small studio near Wutun, a village in the historically Tibetan region of Amdo.
On the canvas in front of them, a huge image of the Green Tara Buddha is framed by a swirling kaleidoscope of green light. Only the goddess’s eyes are missing: As is traditional, the artists will add them in with their final brushstrokes.
Kharze has dedicated six months of his life to creating this painting. It has been grueling work. The 25-year-old often spends over 12 hours a day sitting cross-legged in front of the canvas. Much of that time, he has to hold his breath, so he can complete the intricate brushwork without slipping.
“We work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with only one day off a week,” Kharze tells Sixth Tone. “Just like ‘996’ jobs in big cities.”
In this remote village, nestled high on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, artists have been painting using the same exhausting technique for centuries. Until recently, it was a purely religious practice. The artworks — which are known as thangka and typically depict Tibetan Buddhist deities — would be produced for local monasteries, which used them as teaching and meditation tools.
But today, local artists like Kharze toil away for a very different kind of client: China’s wealthy elite.
In recent years, the village’s thangka have risen from obscurity to become one of the most coveted art forms in China. Antique thangka now sell at auction for millions of dollars. New works by Wutun artists fill galleries in faraway Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the homes of rich families.
The thangka boom has totally transformed life in Wutun. Once a secluded, agrarian region hovering on the poverty line, the village — and other neighboring settlements — has morphed into a vast production hub for Buddhist artworks.
The local thangka industry — which used to consist of a few hundred artists, villagers estimate — is now a 780 million yuan ($110 million) juggernaut that employs at least 40,000 people across Tongren, the county that administers Wutun. Thangka museums, art academies, and studios have sprung up all over the region. High-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls are under construction.
For local villagers, the new jobs have brought unprecedented prosperity. Painting thangka is a tough profession, but it offers a route out of subsistence farming. Despite dropping out of school at a young age, Kharze now earns a monthly salary of 7,000 yuan — a good income by local standards.
But the boom is also creating tensions. Some locals consider the commercialization of thangka a desecration. Today’s thangka producers and consumers often know little about Tibetan Buddhist traditions, they complain. Shoddy, mass-produced paintings have become common. The market is riddled with scams and exploitation.
In Wutun, meanwhile, the money from the boom has not been spread evenly. Studio bosses hold all the power: They own the work that apprentices like Kharze produce, and pocket most of the cash. Bosses and clients can often be seen cruising the village in shiny BMW and Mercedes-Benz sedans. Kharze, by contrast, can’t even afford a car.
“I spend 360 days a year in the studio — I’ve never been to other places,” says Kharze. “I want to see the outside world.”
An unlikely rise to fame
Tongren County — known as Rebgong in Tibetan — has a long history as a cultural crossroads. Over 1,000 years ago, it sat on the frontier between the Tibetan and Tang empires. Locals claim their ancestry is a mix of Tibetan and Han Chinese — a result of widespread intermarriage in the region.
Thangka was first introduced to the region from Tibet. It’s unclear exactly when this happened. Some historians believe it was as early as the 10th century, though most agree that the art form didn’t flourish in the region until the 15th century.
Over the following centuries, the region’s thangka artists developed their own unique style. Compared with works from Tibet, paintings from Wutun tend to have brighter colors and more pure gold decoration. They also show a greater Chinese influence: Deities are often depicted in Han Chinese dress, and landscapes resemble those found in traditional Chinese ink paintings.
Wutun’s art, however, only achieved national fame over the past few decades. Its rise was sparked by an unlikely trigger: the Cultural Revolution.
In the late 1960s, religious art forms like thangka were banned all over China. But in Wutun, local people were fiercely proud of their artistic traditions and went to great lengths to preserve it in secret — despite the severe personal risks involved.
Fathers taught their sons clandestinely at home. With no canvas or paper available, they soaked wooden boards in ink, then used slender twigs to practice drawing lines on the boards, locals recall.
Gedun Dargye, a veteran local artist, spent night after night drawing thangka on these makeshift boards. He would always do it in the most secluded room in his house, which had just one small window obscured by a barrier, he says.
“When I’m painting … people can’t suddenly come into the room, or I’ll be startled,” he tells Sixth Tone.
After the Cultural Revolution ended, Wutun was blessed with an unusually high number of trained thangka artists. They began to find work all over the country, restoring Tibetan Buddhist temples that had been damaged during the previous decade of upheaval.
The village’s reputation spread with them. From the 1980s, Chinese authorities awarded several Wutun thangka artists the National Master of Arts and Crafts title — the country’s highest artistic honor. Gedun Dargye’s father received the award in 1988; he himself did eight years later.
By the 1990s, thangka were beginning to sell for serious money in China. The Chinese economy was booming, and so was the art market. Religious practices had experienced a dramatic revival. Then, public interest in thangka skyrocketed even further after UNESCO named it an art form of global importance in 2009.
In 2014, a 15th-century thangka sold for an astonishing $45 million at a Christie’s auction. Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs and officials regularly traveled to Wutun to commission new paintings, often paying more than 1 million yuan for a single work, local artists recall.
The Beijing elite were particularly fond of thangka, industry insiders tell Sixth Tone. “Beijing has a rich cultural atmosphere, and there are several Tibetan Buddhist temples there, such as the Lama Temple,” says Cheng Hua, a thangka gallery owner based in the eastern city of Hangzhou. “The Beijing clients I’ve encountered tend to appreciate cultural items more, and are more willing to spend big money on them.”
At first, the market for thangka was dominated by the super-rich, who would pay large sums for an original painting. But in the past few years, the art form has also become trendy among Gen-Z Chinese, who turned to Buddhism as a way to cope with years of COVID-19 restrictions and high youth unemployment.
Companies are cashing in on this trend by creating cheaper, mass-market thangka — including 4-centimeter-long “small thangka” that can be worn on a necklace. Hundreds of thousands of these pendants have already been sold via Chinese e-commerce platforms.
“The emerging young collectors tend to buy thangka with a more utilitarian mindset, hoping for good luck,” says Cheng. “But the size of this market can’t be underestimated.”
God and Mammon
The thangka industry has brought an extraordinary influx of wealth to Wutun. The village’s two Buddhist temples have continuously expanded, and are now ringed by 12 sumptuous pagodas. The local income level has soared, with residents’ annual disposable income rising sixfold between 2013 and 2018.
But from the beginning, the boom has also generated local unease. In the 1990s, many villagers were opposed even to allowing children from neighboring towns to study thangka painting. They argued doing so would be blasphemous, as the outsiders were motivated more by financial than spiritual concerns.
“Initially, there was a heated debate in our village about whether to share our skills with outsiders,” says Tsering Tashi, a well-known painter in Wutun.
The villagers only relented in 2006, when the local government finally managed to persuade them that opening up to outsiders would help them spread their religion, Tsering Tashi adds.
The suspicion of outsiders, however, has never gone away. Artists in Wutun complain that non-local artists make basic mistakes, such as painting bodhisattva holding the wrong kind of weapon. For them, this lack of accuracy is unacceptable.
“If the painting is wrong, how can we protect this intangible cultural heritage?” asks Gedun Dargye.
The issue goes beyond individual errors. As the thangka market has grown, businesses have moved into Wutun and begun trying to mass produce paintings. Some workshops resemble factory assembly lines: Painters complete the thangka as a team, with each artist adding the same detail again and again.
Locals abhor these innovations. Traditionally, the production of the thangka is a sacred process — an expression of the artist’s devotion to Buddha. To this day, boys in Wutun learn to paint thangka inside temples from the age of 9, and are taught to recite scriptures as they study.
“My brush is connected to my heart,” says Gedun Dargye. “My entire being, my soul, is merging with the thangka.”
Multiple local artists tell Sixth Tone they no longer accept apprentices from outside the village, as they fear they will later leave to join the assembly lines.
But local authorities are keen to see more and more people from outside Wutun join the thangka business. For the government, the industry is crucial to eradicating poverty and revitalizing the rural economy.
There are at least a dozen painting academies in Tongren County, which are encouraged to accept students from impoverished families, according to local media. The local government gives out huge subsidies to these facilities.
The Regong Ethnic Cultural Palace, established in 2010, is one such academy. Posing as tourists, Sixth Tone reporters visit the school and tour classrooms filled with students aged between 9 and 18. The crowded rooms are almost silent, as the children appear immersed in their painting.
There are now at least 100 students enrolled, the school principal says. The school does not charge students for tuition, food, or accommodation, which costs the school more than 2 million yuan a year. After five years of training, the students can graduate and find a job paying at least 5,000 yuan per month, the principal adds.
A cut-throat market
The industry the students will enter, however, has become fiercely competitive — and often quite ruthless.
After several years working as apprentices — during which they earn a flat monthly wage while their boss takes the lion’s share of the profits — artists typically break away to set up their own studios. But to succeed, they first have to boost their profiles.
It takes up to two years to complete a large thangka painting, and the price an artist receives for it mainly depends on how highly rated they are. The difference can be huge: from tens of thousands to over a million yuan.
Artists therefore have to invest massive effort in boosting their reputations by winning awards and titles. Dozens of painting contests are held in Amdo throughout the year, and locals take them extremely seriously.
“The more you win these individual competitions, the better your future rating,” says Jakshemgyal, a 37-year-old painter.
But these contests are not a level playing field. Jakshemgyal, who was born outside Wutun, says his non-local background counts against him. Cheating is also an issue, local artists tell Sixth Tone.
Gyatso Dechen, a Wutun-based painter who used a pseudonym due to the sensitivity of the topic, says that he once spent an entire day painting in the sun during a competition, only for the judges to not even glance at his work. In another contest, a painter received help from another individual in full view of the jury, yet ultimately won the prize.
“I wish I had been born during my father’s time — there weren’t so many complicated things,” says Gyatso Dechen. “Now, everyone is comparing who is richer or has more resources.
The temptation to cheat is huge — not only because the number of artists in Wutun keeps increasing, but also because a thangka artist’s career is so fleeting. A thangka master’s prime years normally last from just 25 to 45 years old.
The paint used to make thangka contains several toxic substances, including mercury. By the time artists reach middle age, the accumulation of mercury in their bodies has often severely damaged their eyesight and caused other health issues.
Some locals worry about where the breakneck development of the thangka industry will lead. In Wutun, it’s common for kids to drop out of school before they reach their teens to study painting. For now, this appears a sensible career move. But what if the thangka market declines?
Artists fear the industry’s growth model is unsustainable. Several mention Nepal, which has become notorious for mass-produced and counterfeit thangka. Others say the intense competition is depressing prices.
“Everyone has to learn to paint, make money, and buy a car … but too many people are in this industry now,” says Jampa Gyatso, a 43-year-old painter. “Gradually thangka lose their value.”
Like many of his peers, Jampa Gyatso started painting as a child and never learned to read Chinese. But he doesn’t want his own children to follow in his footsteps. His oldest son is about to start university, his second son has become a monk, and the youngest is in elementary school.
“My friends’ children have started to support their families, and they can all retire,” says Jampa Gyatso. “But I don’t think everyone in a family should choose to paint. Different people should excel at different things … The same goes for a village.”
Jampa Gyatso says the final straw that made him determined to keep his children in formal education came a decade ago, when a group of agents posing as gallery owners stole several of his paintings.
The men came to Wutun and told Jampa Gyatso that they would like to sell his work on his behalf. But after Jampa Gyatso handed over some of his paintings, they disappeared without a trace. Jampa Gyatso was left feeling humiliated at how easily he’d been conned — and his inability to seek justice.
“I just tell my sons every day, ‘You don’t want to be like Dad … I can paint very well, but it’s very difficult for me even to order food in big cities,” he says. “They should know how the outside world works.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A close-up of a nearly finished thangka painting depicting the Buddha, Tongren county, Qinghai province, April 2023. Fu Beimeng/Sixth Tone)