Monday, February 19, 2007

Shaanxi Province: Hands and Needles, Threads and Machines

Shaanxi Province – Ancient Crafts and Mass Production
My first interviews with artisans are set around the traditional start of the Silk Route: Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Below is the THIRD of the series on Shaanxi Province.

Yabai Zhen: Hands and Needles, Threads and Machines
“Yabai Zhen is the unchallenged center of embroidery in northern China,” I had been told. “It is the heartland of needlework, the capital of stitching and sewing.” With the help of these descriptions and a large heap of optimistic naiveté, I had imagined the town alive with color and chockfull of old women’s handiwork: a bustling hub of traditional crafts. So when the next day I cruise into this decadently dusty and garbage-strewn town, I have to remind myself that sometimes places are hard to pierce, that the surrounding villages need to be discovered, that I should not despair yet. This town feels as if it has fallen from grace. Tall buildings, once freshly painted are leaning towards the gutters, their facades sagging with the rusted rivers of last year’s rains. It feels like a deserted ballroom invaded by uncomely squatters: dusty, dirty and unwelcoming. The bleak whole is traversed by a dangerous thoroughfare down which buses howl and honk, not giving the town’s streets a second glance. I decide to get off the bus anyways.

Small Computerized Workshops – The Town’s New Entrepreneurs
I walk down the desolate main street, derelict and almost abandoned but for a few shops open for this Friday afternoon’s slow business. I am wishing that Mr. Liu the talkative shoupolar garbage collector I had met in Mafang village was still working here. At least I could have some company to slurp noodles or doufu nar, tofu soup. I sit down to lunch at a low table in a dent of a restaurant and eat pickled vegetables and a plate of dumplings. There is a collective gasp of surprise among the restaurant’s customers and everyone turns to stare – they too are wondering what the hell I am doing here. First some basic questions, some praise at my use of chopsticks (yong de hao de hen!) – and then everyone in the restaurant is conspiring to help me find handicraft embroidery. Each person has a plan and firmly-set ideas; they are battling about where I should start looking. I am finally taken hostage by the winner, an old woman who takes my arm and pulls me out of the restaurant. She knows a handmade embroidery workshop on the outskirts of town, and parades me through town until we reach it together.

This is how I meet Mrs. Zhou, in her one room workshop attentively watching the buzzing needles of her 12-headed computerized sewing machine. True, she does occasionally manually fix the threads and notches of the machine, but there is no hand-sewing to be found. She and her husband left their work at a local factory two years ago to buy this 3-meter long computerized sewing machine and set up their own business. They invested RMB 70,000 for the machine whose computerized designs they now sell for RMB 1.5 per piece, each piece having up to eight three square inch flowers or other designs. Jiu shi ku de hen she says, this work is really hard and time consuming. They are able to make about RMB 200 (USD 18) per day; just enough to support their family and reimburse their substantial initial investment. Electricity only costs about RMB 300 per month. They communicate with their clients by phone and have enough regular clients that come seek them out, so that they do not have the additional pressure of attracting new business.

After talking with the soft Mrs. Zhou, I decide to give Yabai Zhen a couple of days to explore its sewing business and hopefully find some of the traditional handmade crafts which I still stubbornly contend must survive in the surrounding villages. Mrs. Zhou insists on helping me to find a hotel, and we zip off on her scooter to the town’s top lodgings. The three story hotel is on the thoroughfare and the receptionist tells me the quality of the rooms is comparable to Xian’s best. I need a shower, so I willfully believe it. Marketing is in the eye – or this time, the armpit - of the beholder. Mrs. Zhou helps me to bargain a RMB 20 discount and I book into the 50 kuai room complete with TV, heating, and private bath – this place is wonderful, despite its lack of hot water. It is easy to find a decent hotel in Shaanxi’s county centers and small towns – a fact that I greatly appreciate after days in the villages. I could find much cheaper rooms, the 10 to 20 kuai variety, but I’m happy with a little bit of luxury. It’s hard to break old habits.

A Sewing Economy
Everyone in Yabai, I soon discover, has something to do with embroidery. Indeed the whole economy of this town is centered on sewing – from threads, to sewing machine equipment, to needlework, to finished products like sewn blankets, door hangings, comforters and pillow-heads. Here is where all of China’s kitsch bed-wear originates. The wealth of Yabai’s 15 outlying villages and its population of 5,000 persons once fully rested on the bustling sewing economy of Yabai town-centre.

Ms. Zhang Zai Fang, who with her husband brought the first computerized sewing machines to Yabai from Shanghai two years ago, explains that the town’s peak economic success was in the early 1990’s. Between 1990 and 1995, Yabai was supplying all of China with its embroidered bedding. She tells me that everyday truckloads of sewn goods left Yabai to be delivered to stores throughout the country. At that time, the town was ablaze with energy, and visitors and businessmen came from every province of China. How to explain today’s barren streets and empty lots? Ms. Zhang tells me that Yabai’s specialized know-how and savoir-faire was quickly learned by business partners and assistants from other provinces, who rapidly exported their acquired knowledge to other towns and cities. As a result, people now no longer need to go to Yabai to find embroidery. The town was not able to preserve its monopoly or innovative environment, and so over the past 10 years the town’s sewing economy has slowly faded and dwindled to a small almost inaudible hum.

Ms. Zhang and her husband however have been adamant and successful entrepreneurs – taking advantage of the remaining embroidery market, while also diversifying to other more promising markets. Over the past two years the couple has sold 30 of the 40 computerized sewing machines in Yabai. They have also set up a customer service store where they sell the thread and repair parts needed for the machines. They have a small factory in the back of their home, where 10 workers help to dye and package the thread they then resell in town. This is a lucrative business, and the couple and their son have traveled to China’s key tourist destinations every year for the past four years. They still however do not have a shower in their home, and go to the County Center every third day to shower together. Today, they are getting on board China’s growing “green economy” and are looking to plant trees and shrubs to sell to China’s cities as they start to beautify their streets and parks. This has already very successfully started in some of the villages around Yabai, and they want to get into the action.

The couple is also wagering substantial cash into the production of embroidered patches figuring the 2008 Olympic mascots. They do not have an official agreement with the Olympic committee, and will be using the mascot logo illegally – like thousands of workshops around China. I imagine that over the next 18 months, thousands of computerized sewing machine heads will be working in a frenzy to produce the mascot accessories to be sold around the world in the summer of 2008. Perhaps there will be enough embroidered mascots to build a path to the moon: 1.3 billion pieces at least.

I continue to look for hand embroidery and ask the director of the Wen Hua Guan, the Cultural Association in Zhouzhi County (the county under whose jurisdiction Yabai village is under) for some leads. He tells me in a surge of honesty, that even though Yabai is called the heartland of embroidery, the name reflects a modern phenomenon started in the1980’s. “The embroidery here,” he says, “is not outstanding; it is just like in any other part of China: a long tradition of woman preparing their dowries.” This fact he has conveniently omitted from his official report to the provincial government, a report of which he has given me a copy. In the report the Zhouzhi Cultural Association asks for RMB 900,000 to save the embroidery tradition of the town and its surrounding villages. I am astounded by the substantial amount of this four-year budget (2006-2010). Having visited and observed the Cultural Associations of several counties, I have seen that their work is minimal and almost derisory – their’s is a political hide-a-way, a joke of a responsibility, a comfortable vantage point that comes with chauffeured car and endless banquets. To top it off, this is the budget the association has asked for only one craft – they have of course also drafted budgets for all the other crafts of which traces are found in all the surrounding villages! Who will drink and eat this money away, I wonder? I doubt that it will ever sift down to the countryside and those people that can save and teach this ancient tradition.

Back in Yabai, when I ask where I can find people who still hand embroider, everyone insists that no one continues to hand-sew in Yabai. One woman tells me that the oldest embroidery technique used here is the foot-powered sewing machine. But when I ask Zhang Zai Fang’s 54 year old mother-in-law if she has any pieces that she has hand-embroidered herself, she proudly says yes. 10 minutes later, she comes out of her back store-room with a beautiful hand-sewn menliar or decorative door curtain. She sewed the intricate flowers, birds and trees on this door curtain for over one month in preparation for her wedding. At the time, each woman was meant to sew a door curtain, several pairs of pillows, a duster and a comforter for her wedding-day. These dowries were hand-sewn treasures. “Woman then had time,” she says. “We would sit at home with friends chatting and sewing. When there was no farm work, we would sew.” As little as three decade ago, there was no notion of market deadlines, no stress, no rush, no production quotas and targets. There was only time and the movement of needles. Today, due to her bad eyesight and arthritic hands, the fifty four year old no longer embroiders. None of her daughters have learned to embroider. There is no market they say. No one is interested in hand-sewn products anymore. The computerized sewing machine is king.

Yabai’s Countryside: Kiwis and Celebration
Motivated by this first hand-sewn discovery, the next morning I decide to borrow a bike and peddle around Yabai’s countryside. I have given myself two days, and am determined to find women who continue to sew by hand.

The countryside around Yabai is bustling with activity. Everywhere people are cleaning, cooking, and getting ready for next week’s Spring Festival. Villagers are flocking to the county center to buy new clothes for their kids, firecrackers, fruit and other New Year’s gifts and luxuries, while their family members are returning from the big cities where they have gone to work or study. The whole country is alive with movement. This week the trains are running packed and at full throttle through the great Chinese Mainland: Iron Dragons connecting cities to the countryside. The world has shifted from the Roman calendar to the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, in which the Spring Festival marks the first month of the year. There is a palpable excitement: families reunited, stories told, and nights filled with color and light. The countryside has visibly dug into its bag of traditions – emerging are paper-cuts for the windows, painted deities for the houses, and the village troupes are getting ready for the festival’s Shi Huo, the crazy drum accompanied dances and songs performed on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month for Yuan Xiao Jie. One village I ride through has put up a giant swing for the kids to play on. The first crackers are lit, and the villages are animated with the sound and color of celebration.

I am surprised by the plentiful religious and superstitious symbols around the villages. (I am not sure here where religion ends and superstition begins. but perhaps this is not important). There are alters to deities in front of each house, the wells and public places. The temples charred and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution have been rebuilt and freshly painted. In one village, the temple keeper opens the doors and lets me explore the newly renovated temple. This small temple perched above the village was 500 to 600 years old before being burnt to ashes 35 years ago. Today, the gods and goddesses are back in place and histories and myths have once again been painted on the walls. Riding through the villages, I also pass several churches – one still being renovated, and several traditional burial celebrations doused with rice wine and the continuous banging of drums, cymbals and the piercing voices of opera singers.

The villages I ride through are surprisingly clean and orderly. Only 30 minutes from Mafang village, they have a distinctly different style and are clearly more affluent. Yabai’s successful sewing market has clearly shared its achievements. It was only three years ago however that each village got a cement road, leading from the village’s center to the main Zhouzhi to Yabai road. The villages are arranged radially from this central and economically powerful axis – I imagine that it has been this way for centuries. Roads have always been the most basic necessity for trade, commerce and economic subsistence. Next year each village in the county will be able to choose one additional road to be paved by the county government. Road by road, economic growth is reaching the countryside, boosting its connectivity and the speed of movement and ideas.

Yabai’s countryside hides another sweet surprise: kiwis. In almost each village, there is a courtyard full of people frenetically packing kiwis into bright jazzy Spring Festival packaging. These tasty kiwis were first picked ripe in October and have been kept in the warehouse’s cooling rooms for 5 months, waiting to be sold at the high prices enabled by the Spring Festival. Les malins! Huge trucks are waiting in the villages to deliver these kiwis to festival tables throughout the country: Jiangsu to Liaoning. This is a lucrative business for the kiwi field owners – which are often joint-ventures run by several village families together.

The workers packing the fruit however, are the poorest from the surrounding villages. The women earn RMB 15 a day, a little less than USD 2. The men, who perform the more strenuous work of lifting and carrying the crates earn a double wage set at RMB 30 for their more than 10 hours of work. This is the countryside’s harder side - the underbelly of the world. These are the people without growth opportunities, the ones who have not yet reaped the benefits of cement roads and the past 30 years of growth. These are the people who will not pause at the Spring Festival, for which work is still basic survival. These people are the hard reminders that despite all of China’s growth and success, there is still work to be done, there are still growth opportunities to capture.

Yabai’s Countryside: Dowries and More Recent Math

The village doors open. I am taken into houses while women sift through their closets and piles of old pillows, comforters and blankets looking for their old embroidered handiwork. They pull out the remaining pieces of their dowries, sewn thirty or more years ago. They are beautiful and speak of older times – times when these villages were still isolated geographically and economically. They speak of time and rest and communities at work. Almost every woman I meet is eager to sell these pieces to me, and they are disappointed when I tell them that I am not looking to buy. Many of the women in the villages tell me that they have already sold off most of their most beautiful pieces: antique collectors have already scavenged through these villages, buying beautiful pieces at meager prices. One woman tells me that three years ago she sold her mother’s dowry door curtain for only RMB 20. Her mother had worked several months on the piece, and the daughter now regretted having sold it. The regrets were not for the sentimental value of the lost piece, but rather for the higher price that she could have captured for it today.

An intricately embroidered door-curtain in good condition can reap up to RMB200 in the villages these days. They are then sold, I imagine, for triple that price in urban and foreign markets. I ask some of the women if they don’t want to keep these pieces for their daughters, for future generations – but they are not interested in such inheritance. They want to give their daughters economic and educational opportunities, not the antiquated symbols of former hardships and darker days.

Today, door-curtains still hang in every villager’s house. But they are the bright fluorescent modern variety, computer sewn for the masses. Why do women not continue to embroider by hand, I ask. The reply is brute: it’s simple math. It takes one month to sew a door-curtain which in the local market she can only sell for RMB 200. A woman packing kiwis in the village however can earn around RMB 450 per month. The math is indeed simple: more kiwis, no more hand-embroidery. There is no time to think of heritage, of traditions: there is no value for cultural capital set into the equation. Here survival, education, growth, and “getting out of here” are the keys.

Retirement and Tigers
Many of the formerly prolific embroiders I meet, old women in their 60’s and 70’s no longer embroider because of their deteriorating eye-sight. However, this retired community of creative women is still active, sewing thicker, simpler toys, tigers and shoes for their grandchildren and village kids. Some of the old women I meet also continue to sew the colorful pillows and feet-holders made to assure the comfort of the dead in their wooden caskets. This is a market that never fades: anchored in birth and death.

These women go down to Yabai’s market held every three days to sell their wares. A pair of baby shoes is sold for RMB 5, a felt tiger stuffed with corn stalks, to celebrate the newly-born’s manyue first month goes for RMB10; a pair of hand-sewn shoe-soles are RMB 1 – the price of a bus ride home. All these prices can be tripled in Beijing, and again quintupled in New York and Paris.

In Yabai, I’m learning that keeping these traditions alive is math, geography and movement.

A clear obstacle to the perpetuation of hand-embroidery is that these creative women lack the links and connections to the wider – city and international markets – in which their hand-embroidery could reap more interesting prices. To link their local supply market to outside demand would be enough to create a flourishing trade for the ancient craft, enough to save some of these ancient gestures, and teach them to new and younger hands. Again, where is the Wen Hua Guan, the local Cultural Association? I’m thinking that I should send them a business plan for their RMB 900,000. With that much money, we could hit the international market within 6 months.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Shaanxi Province: Art for the People

Shaanxi Province – Ancient Crafts and Mass Production
My first interviews with artisans are set around the traditional start of the Silk Route: Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. Below is the SECOND of the series on Shaanxi Province.

Art for the People
A cultural revolution needs art. But, how do you find art without looking to the elite, to the group of people with the time and leisure to think and create? Most importantly for the new Chinese communist nation in the early 50’s – how do you find art without history – without the history you are trying to negate or obliterate?

The answer, like many for the Party, came from the countryside. For centuries, farmers and their families had colored their lives and celebrations with traditional painted crafts – drawings on the walls of the newly-weds’ room, paintings on the temple gates and colors splashed on spring festival doors. It is these ancient creative gestures that the communist party appropriated and transformed as their own, as the people’s. Mingjian Yishu – Popular Art. A twist of names and the trick is done. Adding a qualifier to the word art, and its history and innate elitism vanishes.

Of course, these traditional crafts could not be taken in their entirety. The superstition, the gods and goddesses, the remnants of religion, ghosts and goblins had to be purged. People had to be trained in the new language, be taught and assembled with a collective goal – a movement had to be created. Huxian County and its Huxian Nongmin Hua, Huxian Peasant Painting, became one of the epicenters of the movement, and professor Ding was one its passionate leaders.

An Unknowing Politician
What is most surprising when talking to Professor Ding is the total absence of politics. He loves peasant painting and seems almost oblivious to the strong political will behind the creation of the Nongmin Hua. He was clearly not the architect or mastermind behind the creation of this national symbol, and reveals himself rather as the unknowing, almost naïve implementer of a new political language. Born in Chenggu about 50 miles west of Xian, Professor Ding was country folk himself. After graduating from his home county’s teachers college in 1955, he was sent as a young cadre to teach in Huxian, where he continued his hobby of painting. One year later, he was chosen as one of the first leaders of the Huxian cultural organization and embarked on the important task of creating a mass art movement.

This mass art movement was to turn the gestures of folklore into a national art – into propaganda. The Huxian cultural organization first gathered all those men and women in the surrounding countryside that were renown for their traditional crafts. It then gave the new group a name, and along with this nomenclature an official existence and national recognition. Through this organization, traditional crafts would now be raised to the status of art, and its craftsmen and women would be recognized as people’s heroes. Professor Ding than took on the task of peyang he yindao, training and guiding.

Speaking about this time, Professor Ding is proud and still conveys the full-hearted enthusiasm and optimism with which he embarked on his task of teaching and leading the peasant painters. Professor Ding talks about his countryside students with great esteem and notes the simplicity and beauty of their painting. Tamen hua de shi yuan wer de he repeats in his thick Shaanxi accent, their paintings are naïve and pure – strokes uncorrupted by kuankuan tiaotiao, rigor and rules. The paintings his students created were soon reproduced throughout China – their purity and honesty transformed into one of the communist party’s most powerful tools: propaganda posters.

In Professor Ding’s apartment on the 6th floor of a 15 story building built in the early 90’s in western Xian, we are looking at pictures of the early days of Huxian Nongmin Hua. Flipping through the pages of his album, he stops at each photo and exclaims Zhe Zhang A! At first, I’m not quite sure what he is saying – the Shaanxi accent is like speaking with a mouthful of marshmallows – but almost in a fit of laughter I quickly understand that he is saying - and look, here I am! The pictures depict Prof. Ding, a drawing board in hand teaching his students how to depict the new nation. His students surround him, attentive and respectful. He stops at many of the pictures and proudly explains that they have been published by the country’s leading newspapers. One picture of the him surrounded by his countryside students was reproduced by the Jiefang Jun Bao, the Liberation Military Weekly in 1958, another was printed in the Zhongyang Xinhua Bao, the Capital Xinhua Times a few years later. Huxian’s peasant painting movement was clearly part of the nation’s political machine.
Paintings of a green and blossoming country-side, with peasants happily squatting down to rest, or energetically harvesting their fields were created to build cohesion around the nation still arrested and torn by the damage of wars, poverty and famine. The paintings portrayed the economic prosperity promised by the 1958 Great Leap Forward, and could soon be found pasted on walls throughout the country. One painting of Chairman Mao among a field of green cabbage speaking tenderly with peasants won the national silver medal for art in 1975. Another depicts children outside next to a cherry tree field in blossom, learning how to use a new modern metal machine. Yet another painting shows a crowd of farmers watching a revolutionary opera in the village square.

Professor Ding seems truly disinterested in politics – perhaps he has seen too much – or perhaps he is truly taken away by the simple esthetics and beauty of the peasant paintings that have been his life for the past 50 plus years. Professor Ding tells me that I should go to the countryside and see for myself. He has prepared a paper for me on which he has written directions to Huxian and the phone numbers of the head of the Huxian Peasant Painting Museum who will meet me there upon my arrival. The next day, he calls me several times to make sure that everything is alright: have I found the bus station? Have I met the director? Is everything going smoothly? - he is worried that I am traveling alone. The following week he continues to call to make sure that I am well and gives me advice on how to stay safe.

The Countryside
At the Huxian Peasant Painting Museum, I am bored stiff. My thin guide Mr. Wang, the third assistant secretary to the director of the museum, asks me if anything is wrong. I tell him somewhat awkwardly that I am not interested in the museum and would rather go to the surrounding villages and talk to the painters themselves. Without hesitation, Mr. Wang surprisingly says hao, zuo ba! great, lets go! He phones a friend, and a few minutes later a van packed with old men pulls up to the museum. We are headed to a wedding, the son of one of the older painters is tying the knot and many other painters will also be present. My visit to the museum was keeping Mr. Wang from some good times with his friends, and he is relieved and happy that he will finally join in the fun. A close call.
We are soon slurping noodles in the effervescent courtyard of Zhao Sheng Tao’s home. I have become an impromptu guest of honor and must give a few words of congratulations to the newlyweds in front of the crowd. They burst with hilarity when, despite having written out what I am supposed to say, fumble and mess up my few lines. Have I said something completely vulgar and grotesque? probably, it seems quite funny and definitely breaks the ice with the painters assembled at my table. Three cheers for peasant painting! I am soon unable to ask any cohesive questions. Rice wine and the Shaanxi dialect is a potent brew.
I am lucid enough to see that these painters are greatly respected and treated like an elite among the crowd. They have wenhua – culture, and gain status from their creative profession. More simply, they now also have money. Many are still living off their former days of glory, and have taken on administrative tasks in the museum and the painters association. All however have recognized that the nation’s new king is capitalism, and have entered the peasant painting art-market with revolutionary zeal. They now paint for the millions of tourists that pass through Xian each year, reaping high returns from the sale of their abundant and cheaply made copies. Although he laments the lack of skill and talent in these reproductions, Professor Ding himself has joined this entrepreneurial crowd and runs a peasant painting stall with his daughter in Xian’s famous tourist bazaar near the Great Xian Mosque.

As the next bottles of rice wine are opening, we thankfully leave the wedding. Mr. Wang must accompany journalists from the Liaoning TV station to get footage of someone doing paper-cutting – they are preparing their Spring Festival programming. Mr. Wang tells me to come along. We are going to visit Liu Jin Hua, a 73 year old woman known for her paper-cutting and peasant painting. She was part of the first group of student, assembled in 1956. The TV journalists quickly take their shots and leave. I stay and spend two days with Liu Jin Hua.

Liu Jin Hua
Liu Jin Hua is in constant movement. Cooking, cleaning, feeding her rabbits, barking at her German Sheppard. She is soft and funny - a wide face framed by a grey wool hat and a bright blue mesh of a scarf. Her husband is the Paul Newman of Mafang village, calm and photogenic, quietly sucking on his pipe throughout the day. Together, they are an incredible couple – tender, tough and humorous. Liu Jin Hua is so excited that I am interested in her craft and welcomes me with the concern of a parent and the energy and bustle of a celebration.

Liu Jin Hua and her husband live mid-way down the second alley of Mafang village when coming from the main road in the direction of Zhouzhi. Their alley, which is about 3 meters wide (and so must probably not be called an alley – but is so because of the dry earth and dust that constitutes its path) is lined with houses facing each other on both sides. Each house touches the next and the alley has become an extended courtyard and meeting place for the residents. The alley is pilled high with bricks and sand, as many families are slowly getting ready to renovate or rebuild their homes. Houses here are status symbols and are frequently renovated and improved to reflect the wealth its owners. Here in Mafang there are three well defined social echelons. The first and lowest echelon is a house that was rebuilt in the 1980’s or before. It is a simple, single-story edifice made out of clay and straw supported by a wooden beam structure. The entry way which does not have a door is a low rectangle painted in black, leading into a large entry room where the kitchen and its corn-stalk burning oven are located. The kitchen oven is connected to the kang in one of the side rooms, and provides heat for the winter bed. (A Kang is a brick bed heated from underneath for northern China’s long winter nights.) Behind the house is a walled garden where there are random semi-permanent structures for keeping animals, tools and kindling – this is the domain of ferocious dogs. For some odd reason, these angry guard dogs are always stationed next to the latrine -- I’m trying to drink as little tea as possible.

The second and most common house on the alley is very similar to the first – but with some key and visible differences. These houses have been rebuilt within the past ten to fifteen years, and have a cleaner fresher feel to them. Their clay walls are supported by both wooden beams and bricks and are about half a meter taller than their older compatriots. Their doors are taller and wider and framed by bricks, making their larger central room more visible to the passerby. Some of the houses have brick floors, rather than beaten dirt floors, but like their lesser versions, these houses do not have heating other than the kitchen oven. Surprisingly, considering the cold winter weather there are no chimneys to be found. Steaming hot bowls of noodles are the only comfort for frozen faces.

The third and glaringly luxurious houses are entirely made of brick and tile. Once starch white, they have multiple stories and tower over the alley. Liu Jin Hua lives in such a home, and the small gated garden in front of her house makes it the most opulent residence on the alley. Her living room’s high ceilings are adorned with dusty electric fans and neon lights, none of which are used. In the living room there is enough room for a large round dining room table, similar to those found in every aspiring restaurant in the country. Liu Jin Hua and her husband, however still prefer to sit on low stools and use the tea table to dine. They never use the second floor and have locked all of its obsolete rooms. Their main activity and movement happens between the kitchen and the winter kang in the adjacent room. Liu Jin Hua also has a small painting room on the ground floor, but no longer paints much during the winter cold.

Agile Hands
Liu Jin Hua’s house is filled with color. In the entrance is a large and messy table-alter, strewn with candles, incense and a bright new statue of a Buddhist deity. Behind the alter hangs a one-meter high painting Jin Hua painted about 10 years ago. It is riddled with coagulated layers of bright blues, pinks and yellows depicting the many divinities she worships. It is a thick brute painting that reminds me of the kitsch and beautiful Mexican alters worshiping the Virgin Mary. Nothing here of the Great Leap Forward or the depiction of the new China. She has returned to the roots of traditional painting – the religion and superstition of the Chinese countryside. She once again paints for the village temple.

Liu Jin Hua’s paintings are a collage of the countryside’s traditional crafts. She pastes paper-cuts on paintings, and adds bright colorful paints to her paper-cuts. It is a creative mix of mediums, which she says is not her innovation - it has always been done this way she claims. She paints the colorful scenes of the village market, Spring Festival dances and temple celebrations. She transforms every scrap of paper she can get her hands on: a calendar, cardboard, instant noodle wrappings, the traditional thin red paper used for paper-cuts. She is a prolific creator.

We spend the afternoon sitting on her warm Kang, bundled in blankets. She is telling me stories while gently unwrapping and proudly showing me her many awards. Some half dozen of her paintings were exhibited by the Huxian Peasant Painting Museum and other cultural institutes around China, and she has received a memorial certificate for each time they were displayed. She fires away in her Shaanxi dialect, talking for hours, laughing and eating peanuts. I understand a small 30% of what she is saying and doze off leaning against the wall. When she lifts up her shirt and layer upon layer of long-johns to show me her flabby belly, I have no idea what she is talking about. But I feel that easy proximity and complicity that women often have with each other through their bodies and femininity.

Her husband, who I respectfully call old grandpa, comes in with the family’s photo album, and we talk about their visits to Beijing for a Peasant Painting exposition, and travels to the county center. Being part of the Huxian painting movement has clearly boosted Liu Jin Hua’s livelihood and enabled her to be the family’s biggest earner. Her husband worked the family’s fields – 1 Mu (0.17 acres) of land for each person in the family who has an official residence (hukou) in the village. With the support of the peasant painting movement, Liu Jin Hua has traveled once to Beijing, multiple times to Xian and has built the family home. She says that she was thrilled to be part of the movement, and reaped many of its benefits.

At noon Liu Jin Hua makes noodles, fried this time with some pork meat and a few bitter and delicious greens. She spices up my bowl with salt and lajiao (hot spice) and tastes it with her chopsticks to make sure the proportions are right. slurp. This is the first time someone eats from my noodle bowl, and it makes me feel like a kid. I am surprised at how much Liu Jin Hua and her husband eat, I can barely finish my bowl. They each finish two large bowls. After eating, we sip some of the water that was used to cook the noodles – it has become a thick tasty glutinous broth. I want to clean the dishes, but Liu Jin Hua doesn’t let me do anything. Finally I am glad that she doesn’t let me because I would have thrown away the meat that I had not finished in my bowl. She keeps it for the next day’s sauce, stored in a little wooden cupboard where all the food is kept. There is no fridge here. Despite her relative wealth in the village, life here is still counted in fen and mao, and everything is kept, reused and recycled. The left over noodle broth is fed to the dog, who is surprisingly not skin and bones. The rabbits get dried leaves from the courtyard.
Liu Jin Hua tells me that she learned paper-cutting and painting from her mother and other women in the village. Hers are ancient gestures passed down for generations from mother to daughter. I asked her if she had prepared paper-cuts and paintings for her wedding. She says that she had prepared some, but very few. Her husband laughs and tells me that Jiefang qian, before Mao Zedong and his Red Army created the People’s Republic of China in 1949, their families were utterly poor, barely eating enough to quell their hunger. He tells me that I probably can’t understand. Liu Jin Hua continues, saying that at their wedding their were no mian hua, the traditional steamed bread kneaded into beautiful shapes and forms, no musicians or shadow-puppet plays. Her husband’s family could simply not afford it.

These traditions call for some basic ingredients, tools and materials which mean they necessitate some monetary investment. Mafang village today is as rich as it has ever been in the past century. In comparison with former years, it is a land of plenty, a land of opportunity. Finally crafts and traditions can be fully indulged in, celebrations can be bountiful and full of magic. But despite these conditions, many of the younger generation are no longer interested in these crafts and ancient forms of entertainment; they are pulled towards the modern and the new, towards cities and their Western-influenced cultures. In Mafang village, no one is learning Liu Jin Hua’s craft, she has no students and none of the village kids come to watch her paint. The young are leaving the village for school and work, they no longer have the time or interest to study these “outmoded and archaic” gestures. Perhaps the loss of these traditions is but a little sacrifice next to the gain in prosperity, and the wealth of opportunities that have come to the village. Perhaps this is the small price to pay for rising up from poverty.

The second day in Mafang some of the village kids follow me into Liu Jin Hua’s home – this is the first time they see so many of her paintings strewn out on the Kang and they really like her stuff. They are making a mess touching everything and laughing. It’s a nice voluptuous mêlée, which makes me think that these traditions still resonate, are still potent and beautiful. Will some agile hands remain when these kids, ten or twenty years down the road want to recall and reclaim these traditions?


(I think of UNESCO and the work of the Wen Hua Guan – the Cultural Associations who have an office in each county center of China – where is there work? what are they up to? – there are so many entrepreneurial projects to undertake here; projects that are both profitable and could help to preserve the invaluable historical and social capital of these traditions. Many ideas and business plans in my head. I feel like only small-businesses and entrepreneurship has the potency to save the ancient gestures of these crafts. There is an urgency for them to be built and developed)