Nansuo Village in rural Xi’an is famous for Chinese farmer painting – a unique art form that utilises a calligraphy brush and ink to replicate natural images such as bamboo, peonies and lovebirds. As this artform doesn’t involve erasing any mistakes, each painting must be perfect from start to finish and takes artists many years to master.
Today, myself and 70 international scholars from the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Latin America have been invited to Nansuo Village to learn more about the intricate details involved in traditional Chinese painting.
An elderly farmer leads us down the dirt roads to his courtyard. This man is Mr Jiang, a Chinese farmer and renowned painter in the Chinese farmer painting circles.
As we walk the streets, we pass multiple colourful murals depicting smiling children and village life.
We enter through the large traditional Chinese gates and line the path of his courtyard to watch as the local villagers put on a traditional welcoming ceremony.
First comes the crashing of symbols; a group of three women set the scene with great gusto. One woman steps into a dragon boat costume, pulling the straps up over her shoulders and makes her way down the path, swaying in time to the music.
Next, two smiling papier-mâché masked characters dance down the aisle, twirling and curtseying to the audience.
As the performance continues, I notice a group of villagers and their young children have gathered at the entrance to the courtyard and are clapping along to the familiar rhythm.
Nansuo villagers perform a traditional dragon dance
The music ends and soon five young women dressed in the same green silk suits pick up the sticks of a five-metre-long dragon puppet, ready to impress their international guests. The symbols start up again, this time with the addition of a large hand drum. The women run up and down the aisle, twisting and turning the body of the dragon to give the illusion of flight. The red and gold dragon is restless, and snaps its jaws at the crowd. One girl in front of the dragon is startled, until she remembers that it’s being controlled by the five women, and laughs it off.
The drummer speeds up his tempo, the symbols crash together even louder, and the dragon moves faster and faster, doubling back on itself to create a red figure-of-eight.
Finally, the performance comes to an end, and the scholars are invited to the second floor of Mr Jiang’s house, which serves as his art studio and showroom.
“So, the performance just now we performed in my courtyard is for the big holidays, traditional Chinese holidays or the occasions when we are welcoming distinguished guests from far away,” Mr Jiang explains with the assistance of an interpreter.
“I feel very happy and honoured for you to come and visit my farm, the village, and my family,” he continues.
“Our village has a population of 900 people and the agricultural area is more than 1000 mu” (which equates to approximately 666 square kilometres).
“Our people grow a lot of wheat and corn. Some of the families grow fruit and vegetables. In the agricultural seasons, we all work in the farms but in our spare time we will go and work as the labourers.
Mr Jiang explains that Nansuo village was established during the Qing dynasty from 1644 to 1912.
“This area was the back garden of the Qing emperor and with the growing of the populations, more people moved to this area and we filled the pond so we could start to grow things in the farms.
“There are four villages surrounding the four sides of the garden. Our village is on the south side of the imperial gardens and we call it the South village.”
When asked how long he has lived in the village, Mr Jiang replies: “my family always lived in this village and for so many generations it is hard to remember”.
Mr Jiang begins to paint – dipping his calligraphy brush into pigmented ink and dabbing it on the page repeatedly; creating delicate pink flower petals.
As the calligraphy brush moves across the page, the pink flower petals receive stems and leaves.
Mr Jiang explains that he is painting peonies, as they are renowned in China as being the favourite flower of Chinese emperors because they symbolise prosperity and happiness.
Mr Jiang’s first strokes
Mr Jiang sets down his calligraphy brush and explains how he got into the Chinese farmer painting movement.
“I’m just a local farmer and I have worked in the farms for a long time. I’m a farmer but also an artist. Painting is my hobby and since I was a child I loved painting so much.
“At that time, I had a big wish that I would go to college and have further education and become a professional artist.”
But Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 had severe consequences on Mr Jiang, and many other aspiring artists.
“When I graduated from junior high school, the Cultural Revolution burst out. As a kid of a low-ranked official in the national army I had no chance to further my education.”
The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to eliminate existing traditional influences and replace them with Mao-ist ideologies.
“At that time, the students needed to be recommended to continue their education. But as a kid from this background I had to drop out,” Mr Jiang explains.
Despite the Cultural Revolution, in 1973, Mr Jiang had the opportunity to join a farmer’s painting club and fulfilled his dream of creating traditional art.
“At that time, a lot of professors and painters from universities of Xi’an came to this village and I had a chance to study and learn from them.
“Through years of study I created so many different artworks and many of my works had won a lot of prizes in domestic and international awards and some of my paintings were collected by public exhibitions.
“Now I’m the vice chairman of the committee of the Pu Shen farmers painting and in my spare time I like to teach the students too.
“I had two exhibitions in Minnesota in the United States in 2000 and 2009. My exhibitions there were very successful.
“I made a lot of friends with Americans and they love my paintings very much. I’m very happy to see my paintings collected by them and hung on the wall or given as a gift to their friends.
Mr Jiang picks up his calligraphy brush and paints two grey lovebirds perched on the peony branches. As he does so, Francis, our interpreter, provides us with some background on traditional Chinese painting.
“In China, there are four treasures for artists – the first is the brush. Normally it’s like a bamboo stake with the fur from a wolf or goat, or sometimes the whiskers of a mouse.
“The second is the rice paper. The Chinese invented paper – it’s one of the four greatest inventions invented by the Chinese. The best paper for paint and writing calligraphy is rice paper. The best rice paper can last for thousands of years, and the rice paper holds the ink very well – that’s why painters like to use the rice paper.
“The third and fourth things are the ink and the ink stone. Of course, we don’t use ink stones anymore – just liquid ink,” Francis explains.
Mr Jiang changes to black ink and leans over the rice paper, carefully writing the Chinese characters for ‘lovebirds’ in his elegant script, as Francis continues her explanation of traditional Chinese artwork.
“If you look at a Chinese painting there are four elements. Firstly, you need to look at the painting itself – the contents. Second, in the corner of the painting you will see a sentence written in Chinese calligraphy. This sentence tells you the meaning of the painting. A second sentence will tell you where and when it was painted. The last thing will be the artist’s seal.
“Chinese oil paintings try to paint a scene to replicate nature – just like taking a photograph. Chinese paintings try to absorb the feeling of the thing.
“The artist will observe the subject, for example bamboo, for many years so he starts to know the growth of bamboo in four different seasons. After so many years of observations, suddenly the artist will become enlightened and come back into the studio to finish the painting within five minutes with no corrections.
The students watch silently as Mr Jiang holds his stamp up to the light and rotates it to the perfect angle, before firmly pressing the seal onto the rice paper, leaving behind a perfect red character.
In less than 15 minutes, a scene of two love birds sitting on a peony bush has been recreated on rice paper.
Mr Jiang’s final artwork
“Mr Jiang can finish the painting quickly now, but it took him many years to get to this point. He doesn’t like the sketch work where you can use erasers to remove your mistakes and repaint again. You don’t do that – you just finish the painting in one time,” Francis tells the awestruck group.
Mr Jiang’s self-discipline is evident in his artwork – each stroke is intentional and adds to the beauty of his work. It seems that years of perseverance and hard work has lead him to this point.
In the age of emerging digital artwork, there is something intrinsically simple and beautiful about this traditional approach to art.
If art is intended to replicate the complexities of life, perhaps we can learn something from Mr Jiang.
By carefully considering what is around us and learning to be intentional with our actions, we can create a beautiful life that we’re proud of.