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)

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