Revolutionary China

Huxian Peasant Paintings and Artist Ding Jitang

Revolutionary China

Michael is a director of the Meridian Society which cooperates with SACU in its objectives to spread understanding and friendship between the people of China and the UK. He led the 2012 Meridian/SACU ‘Long March’ Tour to China and is a regular contributor to China Eye.

Huxian County is about one hour’s drive out of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. During the Meridian Society tour last October, we visited it to see the centre of peasant paintings which was celebrated nationally during the Cultural Revolution. We found that it maintains its reputation and its legacy and is still active today.

As Xi’an was the ancient capital of the Qin Dynasty, then called Chang An, it has a legacy of culture and artistic creativity manifest in the First Emperor, Qin Shihuang’s, Terracotta Army, and Buddhist and Confucian temples and pagodas. The artisans of this magnificent art and architecture were the forefathers of the peasant folk artists of contemporary times.

Huxian was among the first places to produce peasant paintings in the early 1950s. This form of art grew out of village art and crafts, such as embroidery, decorative paper-cutting and temple decoration. The formative period of development of peasant painting in Huxian was between 1956 and 1958, when artists went to join and observe agricultural work and rural construction projects in the countryside around Xi’an. There they developed their own artistic skills, drawing sketches on the spot and working on their pictures back home.

This artistic development cannot be separated from the political policies and social transformation which was being enacted in the countryside during these years. Rural collectives were being formed and there were movements from the early 1950s to expand these collectives and mobilise the village population to carry out projects of rural construction, such as building dykes and reservoirs and improve irrigation and water control in order to raise agricultural production and improve standards of living.

As early as 1950, a Cultural Centre with gallery was set up in Huxian County Town to promote popular art, starting with blackboard art and illustrated local bulletins. They sent out art workers to over 50 villages and found a dozen or more craftsmen whom they then trained, and they exhibited their work in the Cultural Centre gallery.

After Agricultural Cooperatives were formed in villages in 1956, 50 cultural clubs with 30 art groups were established. At that time, to meet the growing demand for professional instruction, Ding Jitang, a young self-trained artist, was transferred from Xi’an to the Huxian Cultural Centre to take charge of training the folk artists.

1958 marked the final stage of collectivisation, in the form of the People’s Communes, when Mao Zedong also initiated the Great Leap Forward to promote agricultural production through big construction projects with mass rural labour. This stimulated cultural and artistic activity in the villages, and Huxian was nominated as a ‘cultural county’, specifically to promote a campaign to paint on walls in villages and at rural construction sites.

Thus Huxian emerged as a pioneer of peasant painting and one of the models of the movement throughout the country. In early 1959, some of their paintings were exhibited in the Xi’an Academy Art Department, impressing viewers with their realistic portrayal of their lives and endeavours.

1959 saw a flurry of activity in Huxian peasant painting, with art students setting up art groups and classes in schools and other places all over the county. The Huxian Cultural Centre was upgraded by the provincial authorities into the Huxian Art Workers Association under its Vice-Chairman Xie Zhian, who was in charge of the Centre/Association for 30 years. The woodblock artist and tutor to the peasant painters, Ding Jitang was appointed Secretary.

In spite of the problems and hardship caused as a result of the Great Leap Forward, Huxian was further acclaimed and peasant painting also played a big role in the Socialist Education Movement of 1964. About 1000 panorama pictures, sketches and paintings were produced and many exhibited in Huxian County town and other places, including factories, schools and villages. Ding Jitang played an active role in this movement, travelling around the villages with other experienced artists. They trained the amateur peasant painters, both old and new, to paint for these exhibitions, and the number of local peasant painters rose to 500. Amidst the multitude of pictures some outstanding ones were produced, but they all generally depicted the simple life and humble feelings of the country folk in a spontaneous and direct way.

In 1966, it was planned to hold an exhibition of Huxian peasant paintings in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, but this was thwarted by the rising storm of the Cultural Revolution later that year. When the storm broke in June, a group of radicals in the Huxian Cultural Centre instigated some peasant painters to form the ‘Red Painter Guards’ (as in Red Guards), which started to cause rifts among the painters in Huxian.

In 1968, some of the leading painters in Shaanxi were attacked by the ‘Red Painters’ in the Huxian Cultural Centre, and in October 1970 they were further criticised for being arrogant and promoting their own interests. The Xi’an Art Association itself was accused of deprecating Huxian peasant painters. All this made a big impact in the region and affected the confidence of local Huxian people, the peasant painters and their tutors. The ‘leftist’ phase, although quite short-lived, left its mark on the Huxian peasant painters, some not painting for 4 or 5 years, while others kept a low profile as they continued painting.

By 1969 rural construction work was again in full swing, most of the young people from Huxian went to water conservation project sites in Shaanxi to participate in the work. This was part of the campaign ‘to learn from Dazhai in agriculture’, which was a call from Mao to follow the spirit and some of the farming methods of the village in northern Shanxi Province. It involved mass mobilisation of labour to transform the rural landscape and create self-sufficient communities.

The peasant painters produced scenes of this production drive and other aspects of their daily lives. Even under political pressure they maintained their artistic integrity and painted lively pictures in their own distinctive styles.

In the early 70s the local leaders tried to boost the peasant painting movement in every way. They promoted peasant painters to administrative positions, organising meetings to enhance the movement, and local leaders attended part-time art classes, organised art groups and took charge of them.

In 1973 Huxian peasant paintings reached their height of fame. The exhibition of Huxian paintings in Beijing which had been planned just before the Cultural Revolution erupted was now revived as part of the National Art Exhibition. Meticulous preparation went into producing and selecting paintings in the months before the exhibition, as Huxian was to be presented as a national model of folk culture.

This exhibition, held at the National Art Gallery from 1st to 20th October, gave Huxian national and even international publicity. During the 20 days of the exhibition, over 10 thousand people visited per day, including over 150 foreigners from 30-odd countries.

After this, Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) herself instructed that the Huxian painting exhibition should tour 8 cities: Harbin, Hefei, Shanghai, Nanning, Kunming, Urumqi, Taiyuan and Xi’an. The Huxian painting exhibition toured between 25th December, 1973 and 31st July, 1974. During this period, local exhibitions, receptions, visits and discussions were organised in a nationwide campaign to promote Huxian peasant painting.

When the close followers of Mao Zedong, the so-called 'Gang of four' were overthrown in Autumn 1976, there was bound to be a campaign denouncing their policies and attributing all aspects of 'leftism' to them (and not Mao himself). Huxian peasant paintings were in danger of being condemned (or at least relegated to history) in this way when the Cultural Revolution was ended abruptly and every aspect of policy, including art and culture was re-evaluated. Since Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, had been in charge of cultural affairs during the Cultural Revolution, and had shown support for the Huxian painting movement, Huxian was once more under scrutiny.

In January 1977 two famous painters from Huxian were selected to participate in an appraisal conference for the National Art Exhibition in Beijing. One of them was Liu Zhide, who recalled in his memoirs: Some people openly criticised the peasant paintings as a product of the 'Gang of Four'. Many who previously revered or praised us as 'expert teachers' now distanced themselves?. He felt fearful for the future of the peasant paintings, especially when he heard that some people connected with them had committed suicide. Liu felt it his duty to uphold the history of the peasant paintings and ?clear up misunderstandings. He confirmed the positive role of peasant painting and achievements of the Huxian peasant painting movement.

When Liu Zhide returned to Huxian, he reported to the Party County Committee and local administration. They were all pleased with his achievement in Beijing, and were encouraged to continue to develop the peasant painting movement. Consequently, Liu and Xie Zhian, Head of the Cultural Centre, decided to hold an exhibition on the history of Huxian peasant paintings ('nostalgia exhibition') in May 1977. It was displayed in the county Cultural Centre gallery with over 1000 paintings and historical documents produced since 1957.

As artistic taste changed with the new political climate, however, the Huxian artists stuck to their guns. In February 1980 Huxian Peasant Painters Association called a meeting to discuss ‘the theory of peasant painting’ and recent developments They invited over 40 participants from Shaanxi Provincial art circles and the main activists among the Huxian peasant painters. After this, the Huxian Cultural Centre organised staff and painters to visit local villages in order to collect source material and enhance the peasant painting movement.

Now Huxian peasant painting once again began to eclipse other centres of folk art, adapting to the new economic and market conditions. They also expanded their styles of painting to incorporate aspects of folk art and a new, contemporary style produced by the educated young people who came to the countryside from the cities. Older painters too, especially women, played a strong role in bringing their experience and organisation into the new era of peasant painting. At the 3rd meeting of the Huxian Peasant Painters Association in May 1988, participants stressed the importance of encouraging a variety of styles, and were determined not to follow artistic formulae or other models of folk art.

This is how Huxian peasant painting has survived, manoevering adeptly with the prevailing ‘winds of change’, but maintaining their strong identity based on their own real experiences, creative imagination and sense of commitment. Nowadays we do not see the scenes of political mobilisation or mass labour projects in their pictures, and there is a lighter touch in depicting rural work and scenes of daily village life.

Commercialism has certainly set in, with some painters and their families mechanically reproducing pictures for the wider market. Their small art shops and studios both in Huxian and Xi’an, and some counters in show rooms for foreign tourists, indicate how they have had to go along with the tide.

The exhibition hall in the Huxian Cultural Centre now includes a shop of its own. The Cultural Centre is at present undergoing expansion, as the current curator pointed out to me, with generous funding from the county and provincial administration. The town is rapidly developing into a city, with its high buildings, new restaurants and plush hotels, like most towns in China. Though the street walls are no longer adorned with so many peasant paintings as in their heyday, Huxian is still on the artistic map of China and might endure more as a museum of peasant painting or artistic commercial venture.

Note on the style of peasant painting

There are different reactions to Huxian peasant paintings. Some find the views of village life, work and festivities attractive in their bright, colourful and simple style. Others find them ‘naïve’, exaggerated or childish, often uneasy about the idealistic or utopian images of village life. There has been some contention about the apparent spontaneity of the paintings, or in contrast about the more sophisticated style of some paintings. There is no doubt that the Huxian painters did benefit from tuition and guidance from such trained artists as Ding Jitang. Obviously, too, the peasant painting movement has been influenced and even shaped by political and social factors, bearing down on them particularly during the major ideological campaigns. Fundamentally, though, these are the creative products of down-to-earth villagers honing their artistic skills and depicting the life around them in a natural and imaginative way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!?

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2013, reprinted SACU's magazine China Eye, Issue 38, Summer 2013

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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