A peek inside Shanghai's agricultural artists' village
In 1972, as China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, classical painter Wu Tongzhang (吴彤章) was sent to the rural area of Jinshan, south of Shanghai, as part of the “back to the countryside” (上山下乡运动) movement. He was dispatched there to learn from the peasant farmers -- the anti-bourgeois heroes of Chairman Mao's revolution.
What the authorities probably did not anticipate was what Shanghai city-boy Wu would teach the locals.
With a long history of local handicrafts -- including paper cutting, embroidery and wood carving -- Wu realized that Jinshan's peasants had some artistic aptitude and he made it his mission to teach them to paint.
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Before long he had cultivated a distinctive artistic style in the region, as more and more peasants -- mainly older women -- took to painting the scenes around them, with subjects commonly including children, animals, festivals, harvests and rural landscapes.
Farmers who don’t farm
There are now about 300 full-time peasant painters in Jinshan, mainly in the dedicated farmer painter village in Fengjing water town (金山农民画村).
Unlike their predecessors, who Wu taught, the new generation of folk painters have never farmed in life -- they live by their paint brushes.
Zhu Xi (朱希) is 55 years old and began painting in 1976. This makes him one of the original Jinshan “peasant Picassos.”
According to Zhu, for him and other folk artists, painting is not just a career, but something that comes naturally.
“I think the painting is about cultivating a person's feelings, so to be an artist is to do whatever your feelings guide you to do," he says. "When I want to create art I don't have to think about it, it is straightforward."
“Today, if I see something I like, I can put it down on canvas. Then I can present it to others and when they like it I am very happy, this feels like an achievement.”
When I want to create art I don't have to think about it, it is straightforward.
-- Zhu Xi (朱希), Jinshan farmer painter
Jinshan peasant painting first came to prominence internationally in the late 1970s and in the past few decades, works from Zhu and his fellow Jinshan artists have been exhibited in Japan, the United States, Europe and South America.
The style is renowned for its use of strong colors -- reds, greens, yellows and blues abound -- which are used liberally to depict people, animals and places which at first glance seem crudely drawn, as though by the hand of a child.
Though the “peasant Picassos” paint the reality of their day-to-day lives in the countryside, the way in which they paint gives the scenes an unreal, or hyper-real quality.
Fakes and urbanization pose challenge
Souvenir hunters in Shanghai will almost certainly come across Jinshan peasant style paintings at popular markets, such as the Yu Garden.
Buyers should be aware that, according to Zhu and other Jinshan art experts, these paintings are most likely fakes.
Cai Fengming (蔡丰明) is a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who has conducted research on Jinshan folk art.
He estimates that up to 80 percent of the Jinshan peasant paintings currently on the market are fakes, a statistic that is having a huge impact on the livelihoods of the hundreds of genuine peasant painters plying their trade in Jinshan.
Artist Zhu Xi agrees that fake Jinshan paintings are a growing problem that makes the market “more chaotic,” but he also points to rapid urbanization as a threat to the cultural legacy of Jinshan.
“As the city grows the rural areas are quickly shrinking,” Zhu says.
“With no rural areas, farmers become city people and that means the death of our rural culture.
“If there is no experience of rural life, there is no fertile land from which to grow our creativity, there is no inspiration and no life.”
The art will go on
But despite these challenges, Zhu says that nothing will deter him from his painting. He sees himself as something of a cultural guardian and he has faith that, through effort and education, the art form he has devoted his life to will live to bring joy to even more people in the future.
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“Jinshan peasant paintings are a form of rural folk art that is the result of thousand of years of cultural heritage in China.
"By using the language of painting with a brush to express the rural life and rural customs, we can keep that heritage alive,” he adds emphatically.
Shanghai Tourism Distribution Center (上海旅游集散中心), 666 Tianyaoqiao Lu, below Platform 5 of Shanghai Stadium, 天钥桥路666号,上海体育场5号扶梯下, + 86 21 6426 5555, 6 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
For more information on Jinshan's peasant painters, visit www.folkartchina.com.