FINEST PRO­DUCE

This sub­ur­ban district in south­west Shang­hai is best known for be­ing the birth­place of a niche Chi­nese folk art that is cur­rently thriv­ing and evolv­ing with the times

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai

zhangkun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Yan Junjie has not been a farmer for more than ten years, but given his cur­rent pro­fes­sion and its in­tri­cate ties to farm­ing, he reck­ons he can be con­sid­ered a peas­ant.

Yan is ac­tu­ally an artist who spe­cial­izes in a very unique sort of craft that has been cat­e­go­rized as peas­ant art, which orig­i­nated from the sub­ur­ban Shang­hai district of Jin­shan. Th­ese sort of art works are typ­i­cally colorful and they de­pict a wide range of sub­jects, from wa­ter town land­scapes to fam­ily gath­er­ings to dis­tinc­tive el­e­ments of Chi­nese cul­ture and tra­di­tion.

Yan and his wife Li Hui­hong, also an artist, now run a paint­ing stu­dio at a tourism cen­ter in Zhonghua vil­lage of Zhu­jing town in Jin­shan. Their works have gained them some fame over the years. In their stu­dio, an old pho­to­graph of Yan stand­ing next to Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping is placed in a prom­i­nent po­si­tion for ev­ery­one to see.

“Mr Xi was the Party sec­re­tary of Shang­hai when he vis­ited us here, and I cre­ated a piece for him and his wife. He re­ally liked it,” said Yan.

Jin­shan is to­day so well known for pro­duc­ing good peas­ant art that Fengjing, one of its towns, built a painters’ vil­lage as a tourist and cul­tural at­trac­tion. Peas­ant art has be­come so deeply in­grained in the lives of Jin­shan’s res­i­dents that many are start­ing to learn the ways of the craft from lo­cal mas­ter artists.

Yan, for ex­am­ple, is teach­ing peas­ant paint­ing to dozens of chil­dren in the town.

“It’s not pro­fes­sional train­ing. It’s just for chil­dren to have fun and learn about our own cul­ture,” said Yan, who em­pha­sized that there are no the­o­ries or guide­lines to fol­low in peas­ant art.

This art form is be­lieved to have been pop­u­lar­ized in the 1970s by Wu Tongzhang, an artist from Jin­shan who once ran a school teach­ing peo­ple how to pro­duce aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing folk art.

As food has al­ways been an in­te­gral part of Chi­nese cul­ture, peo­ple liv­ing in the Yangtze Delta re­gion used to be known for dec­o­rat­ing their kitchens with elab­o­rate works of art. The wall be­hind the stove was typ­i­cally where peo­ple would place their art works, and new home own­ers would ca­su­ally re­quest their fel­low neigh­bors to help paint a mo­tif on this space.

Such paint­ings would range from fight­ing scenes from an­cient folk­lore to fa­mous char­ac­ters from Chi­nese fa­bles and fairy tales. Flo­ral pat­terns and other sim­ple artis­tic com­po­si­tions that have aus­pi­cious mean­ings are of­ten painted on the lower parts of the wall in front of the stove.

Wu, a re­tired army of­fi­cer, is said to have been so in­spired by th­ese sim­ple works of folk art, in­clud­ing pa­per cut­ting and em­broi­dery art, that he de­cided to gather a group of peas­ant artists to teach them how to paint on pa­per in­stead of walls.

“What he did was not re­ally teach­ing, but more like guid­ance and in­spir­ing,” said Chen Wei, one of Wu’s stu­dents who is now an ad­vo­cate of peas­ant art as well as other cul­tural prod­ucts of Jin­shan district.

“There was this woman who only knew how to do em­broi­dery and Wu just told her to use the pen as she would her nee­dle and to treat the pa­per as a piece of silk,” Chen added.

Chen has re­cently brought to­gether about two dozen paint­ings from peas­ant artists, which will be show­cased at an ex­hi­bi­tion that’s be­ing held in cel­e­bra­tion of the Lu­nar New Year. This ex­hi­bi­tion, which is tak­ing place at the Zhu Qizhan Art Mu­seum in down­town Shang­hai, will run from Jan 28 to the end of Fe­bru­ary.

He said that peas­ant art is so pop­u­lar th­ese days that out­stand­ing artists from Jin­shan and their works are of­ten in­tro­duced to celebri­ties from home and abroad. Such paint­ings have also been pop­u­lar with in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors too, as Chen said they of­fer a com­pletely dif­fer­ent al­ter­na­tive to the art that peo­ple are nor­mally fa­mil­iar with.

“Peas­ant art mostly com­prise bright col­ors and de­pict joy­ful at­mos­pheres, so they are quite ap­pro­pri­ate for the New Year,” said Lu Xing, a spokesper­son of the mu­seum, who added that peas­ant paint­ings from Jin­shan fea­tur­ing the horo­scope an­i­mal of the year have been a reg­u­lar fix­ture at their Chi­nese New Year ex­hi­bi­tions ev­ery year since 2004.

To­day, peas­ant artists from the younger gen­er­a­tion are seem­ingly look­ing to in­fuse con­tem­po­rary el­e­ments into this tra­di­tional art form. Qiu Jian­guo, one of the more suc­cess­ful peas­ant artists who runs his own stu­dio in Zhu­jing town in Jin­shan, has cre­ated pieces il­lus­trat­ing the ur­ban land­scape of Lu­ji­azui, as well as the con­trast of old build­ings and new sky­scrapers along the Huangpu River.

Qiu is also ex­per­i­ment­ing with the poin­til­lism tech­nique, the method of cre­at­ing im­ages us­ing dis­tinct dots of dif­fer­ent col­ors. Qiu said he was in­spired by Vin­cent Van Gogh, and this is just one of many styles he plans to at­tempt.

Mean­while, Yan has turned to the root of peas­ant art for in­spi­ra­tion. One of his sig­na­ture se­ries in­volves the Chi­nese horo­scope an­i­mals. While his use of lines and shad­ing shares much in com­mon with pa­per-cut­ting, the col­ors and com­po­si­tions are much like those found in tra­di­tional blue-print cloth.

Be­sides paint­ing on pa­per, artists like Qiu and Chen are also pro­duc­ing art works on ce­ramic plates. In the vil­lage of Shan­tang, lo­cated in Jin­shan district’s Langxia town, this new form of peas­ant art is thriv­ing. Liu Jian, a pot­ter from Longquan, a town in Zhe­jiang prov­ince fa­mous for its an­cient green porce­lain art, has brought his ce­ramic stu­dio to Shan­tang to cap­i­tal­ize on the boom. Liu uses a re­fur­bished old school house as a show­room for his porce­lain works.

Chen will of­ten lead vis­i­tors to this school house be­fore shar­ing with them the de­vel­op­ment plans and cul­ture of Jin­shan — which is also home to an in­dus­trial zone — over a cup of tea.

“We are host­ing our first marathon event in the com­ing spring. Ath­letes will be run­ning along roads lined with beau­ti­ful trees,” said Chen.

Some of the ac­tiv­i­ties that vis­i­tors from down­town Shang­hai can cur­rently do in Jin­shan is pick­ing straw­ber­ries and en­joy­ing lo­cal food that is cooked us­ing old-style stoves that re­quire fire­wood.

Chen added that the res­i­dents are hop­ing the govern­ment will de­velop Jin­shan as a cul­tural en­clave filled with flower farms and orchard gar­dens, though he con­ceded that one of the chal­lenges faced by Jin­shan now is the lack of tourist ac­com­mo­da­tion.

“We’re go­ing to need nice ho­tels or bed and break­fast ser­vices. This is a nice va­ca­tion spot that’s only a 40-minute drive from down­town Shang­hai,” said Chen.

“We’d also like to see peo­ple come and buy a hol­i­day home here. Then for the rest of the year, the home can be leased as a B&B busi­ness. It’s a good in­vest­ment.”

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Yan Junjie and his wife, Qiu Jian­guo are rep­re­sen­ta­tive young artists in Jin­shan. Peas­ant art is known for its vi­brant col­ors and de­pic­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture and val­ues.

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