Peasant Painters of Huhsien
Originally published in:
China Reconstructs January 1974, pp. 17-20
Late last year the National Art Gallery in Peking put on an exhibition of paintings by peasants of Huhsien county, Shensi province. Every day thousands of people came to see the 179 paintings.
In old China, the Huhsien peasants, like those throughout the country, suffered from cruel oppression and exploitation by imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism. They lived in misery, cold and hunger. Very few were able to learn to read or write.
After the liberation, these peasants stood up politically, taking their place among the masters of the country. They not only developed production so that life improved continually. They also launched a mass movement to wipe out illiteracy.
In 1958, impelled by the surging Great Leap Forward in China's industry and agriculture, the county set up an amateur art class on the construction site of a reservoir. Guided by Chairman Mao's revolutionary line in literature and art, a lot of ordinary peasants broke through old mental shackles as to what they could or could not do. With hands that previously had held only hoes, they took up artists' brushes and began to paint as well as farm. What they painted were the heroic deeds of the county's people in the arduous battle to conquer nature. In fact, they were using the new art of the proletariat to take over the field of culture and ideology in the rural areas.
Since then the ranks of amateur painters in the county have grown until they now total five hundred. Among them are ordinary commune members, cadres of the communes, brigades and teams, middle school graduates, formerly illiterate peasant women, old people and some children. Today over 70 percent of the county's production brigades have their own amateur artists.
In the past 15 years Huhsien's amateur artists have created altogether over 40,000 works. They
take the form of wall paintings, New Year pictures, picture-story series, papercuts, woodcuts and paintings in the traditional style. They have been displayed through blackboard and wall newspapers, mobile shows, lantern slides and small-scale exhibitions. These are works that come from life but are on a higher plane than actual everyday life. They are clear-cut in theme, sincere and wholesome in feeling, bright and rich in color, and compact, bold and fresh in composition.
Most of the county's amateur artists had drunk deeply of the bitterness of the old society. Hence they have an especially strong sense of the happiness of life in the new. Their works breathe furious condemnation of the old order. They sing the praises of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao, who led the peasants to stand up and liberate themselves, and of the new socialist countryside and the new life.
Tung Cheng-yi, 55-year-old member of the Chengchiao commune, had lived in the county town before liberation, when it was a poor, backward place of thatched huts and narrow lanes. He had witnessed how, under the leadership of the Party and Chairman Mao, the development of production and construction had rapidly transformed it after liberation. In 1962 he painted a picture to reflect the great changes there in the previous 13 years. In 1973, he again climbed the old Bell Tower which commands a view of the whole town, walked through every street and looked at every new building, making sketches wherever he went. Then, with meticulous attention to detail, he painted "New Face of Huhsien".
Three other paintings by ordinary commune members are "Our Brigade's Sewing Group" by Chang Chun-hsia, "The Village Supply and Marketing Co-op" by Ko Cheng-min and "Every Family Has Savings" by Liu Hui-sheng. They depict happy scenes from the new, good and constantly improving life of the people - trying on new clothes, buying industrial products and putting savings in the bank. Showing rural medical workers giving peasant children a checkup, "How Our Children Grow" by Liu Chih-kuei and Hsin Chiang-lung conveys a sense of the joyous, healthy life and growth of new China's youngsters under the care of the Party and the people's government.
The Huhsien peasants are not engaged in "art for art's sake". They use their brushes as powerful weapons in revolutionary struggle. They coordinate their themes with the main task of the Party at each period. Their art serves proletarian politics and the three revolutionary movements of class struggle, the struggle for production and scientific experiment.
In 1962 Chairman Mao issued the call, "Never forget class struggle". To help give education in the class struggle, Huhsien's amateur artists produced picture-histories of communes, villages and individual families which were exhibited in over 150 brigades.
In the course of the cultural revolution, they have used the weapon of their art in coordination with the revolutionary criticism campaign in the countryside. Their pictures have helped expose the criminal attempts and schemes of swindlers like Liu Shao-chi and Lin Piao to overthrow the dictatorship of the proletariat and restore capitalism.
During the upsurge in the mass movement to learn from the national agricultural pacesetter, the Tachai brigade, they did paintings on worksites, in the fields and on village streets. Their theme was the people's heroic struggle to "transform the mountains and rivers". In the Chinsan brigade of Chintu commune, the amateur artists fought against drought alongside their fellow commune members. And in spare moments they painted the poster "Fight the Drought till Heaven Bows before Us, Fight the Drought till the Grain Is in Our Hands". The poster played a big role in inspiring the united effort that brought victory - a good harvest averaging six tons per hectare.
With their rich experience of life, Huhsien's amateur artists produce works that are vivid, natural and unaffected. Persons they paint have clear-cut individual characteristics. When they present scenery, whether towering mountains or flowing streams, crisscrossing power lines or field ridges, the treatment is realistic and straightforward. They portray life with deep insight and sensitive perception.
In "Spring Hoeing", the woman painter Li Feng-lan employs bright colors and lively, detailed brush work to depict a group of women happily at work. In "Digging a Well", its creator Fan Chih-hua was not satisfied with just showing the activity at the well-head. To fully express the enthusiastic vigor of the commune members in their struggle for water, he adopted an angle of vision from above to the very bottom to show the digging at several levels. Lively and imaginative too is "Our Commune's Fish Pond" by Tung Cheng-yi in which the leaping, rainbow-colored fish symbolize the growth of a commune's diversified economy.
Among the most popular of the Huhsien paintings is "Our Party Secretary". The artist Liu Chihteh moves viewers by his concrete delineation of a vital person. He does not resort to postures or symbols detached from typical situations or typical character. The elderly secretary's weatherbeaten face, his grizzled hair, big rough hands and plain clothing all show that he continues to work with his hands, that his heart has never left the people, that he is a man steeled through many trials, yet warm and approachable. In painting him pausing in the act of lighting his pipe, the artist captures a very expressive moment to emphasize this rural cadre's deep immersion in reading a Marxist classic.
It is not by chance that Liu Chihteh could paint such a portrait. Himself a brigade Party secretary, he is thoroughly familiar with the life and thinking of such cadres. And as a preliminary he made sketches of many Party secretaries from life.
The exhibition proves that the working people, who are the creators of society's material wealth and the masters of history, are also the creators of mankind's spiritual wealth and the masters of the new culture.
Photograph published with the article: