Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life

 May 18, 2021
Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
A farmer painting


Farmer paintings, a genre of folk art, embody farmers' collective desire to enjoy the good life. Dongfeng, a county in Liaoyuan, a city in Northeast China's Jilin Province, is renowned for gaily colored farmer paintings. By drawing inspiration from both rural life and traditional Chinese culture, local rural women painters vividly, yet in an exaggerated way, depict landscapes, figures, animals and plants in their paintings. Through their works of art, one may get a glimpse into farmers' happy, prosperous lives.

Renowned Paintings

Dongfeng's farmer paintings, which date back more than 100 years, integrate the cultural elements of the Manchu and Han people, and people of other ethnic groups in Northern China. During the past century, many rural painters in Dongfeng have created numerous works of art that have captured their "vigorous vitality." Through their exquisite works of art, which embody Dongfeng's distinct cultural features, one may get a glimpse into the rural residents' aesthetic tastes. Through farmer paintings, one may also have a better understanding of Dongfeng's folk customs and traditional ideas.

In recent years, the government of Dongfeng County has adopted preferential policies, and has increased funding to promote farmer paintings. As a result, the popularity of the art form has increased. In 2008, China's Ministry of Culture named Dongfeng "China's hometown of folk art and culture." In 2019, Jilin Province's Department of Culture and Tourism named the county "Jilin's hometown of folk art and culture." Dongfeng's farmer paintings are on the list of Jilin's items of intangible cultural heritage.  

In 2019, the China Women's Development Foundation (CWDF) initiated the "Genius Mom" Project, to help women escape poverty by creating crafts.

In October 2020, CWDF established a studio to promote paintings created by "Genius Moms" in Dongfeng. The foundation employs product designers to help the women develop various creative cultural products, with the patterns of farmer paintings.

Depicting Poetic Rural Life

Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
Zhang Mingyun


Zhang Mingyun was born in 1969 into a rural family in Gushan, a village in Dongfeng. She has had a keen interest in painting since she was a little girl. "My uncle introduced me to an art teacher (in Dongfeng), who taught me how to paint traditional Chinese paintings. I took delight in copying artworks from the painting books, which I borrowed from the teacher," recalls Zhang.

One day, one of Zhang's friends mentioned farmer paintings during a chat. That aroused Zhang's curiosity. Soon after, Zhang visited the museum of farmer paintings (in Dongfeng). Fascinated by the unique charm of the paintings, she taught herself the skills used to create farmer paintings.

Zhang eventually had the honor of studying painting under some famous artists, including Li Junmin and Yang Shuyou. Given her diligence and wisdom, Zhang quickly honed her skills. She, a bright and talented woman, gradually developed her own artistic style. Given her constant efforts to improve her painting skills during the past 30-plus years, Zhang has become one of the few well-known rural painters in Dongfeng. She is a member of both China Farmers Painting Seminar and Jilin Farmer Paintings Research Society.

Zhang will never forget an event that happened one day in 1997. After she completed her farm work, she returned home, around dusk. She was so angry — and burst into tears — when she saw that her then-three-year-old son had made graffiti on her painting, One Hundred Deer. At some color-stained spots (in the painting), she painted deer or trees. Zhang was pleased when she discovered the mended painting looked more lively than the original one.

Like many farmers, Zhang is hardworking, frugal and content with her busy life. Her experiences of planting fruit trees and breeding chickens and deer are rich sources of inspiration for her artistic creations. With joy and poetic sentiment, Zhang during the past several decades has created hundreds of paintings, which vividly depict rural life.

Based on her fertile imagination and careful observations of life, Zhang has created many paintings with the themes of deer and oxen. In one of her works, she uses bright colors to depict many oxen, whose bodies are decorated with various patterns, including flowers, corn, magpies and swallows. The painting embodies rural residents' prayers for an abundant harvest and good fortune during the coming year.

Zhang has also created many paintings to depict the tremendous changes that have taken place in rural areas across the country. For example, in her painting, Helping Women Escape Poverty by Creating Crafts, she depicts many rural women (in Dongfeng), who attend training, provided by the local government and women's federation, to develop the skills needed to make the crafts.

Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
A farmer painting


During the past three decades, Zhang has strived to improve her painting skills. She has won many prizes during national and provincial art exhibitions and craft competitions.

Painting Changes Lives

Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
Liu Li and Liu Fen


Influenced by Liu Zhenqi, their father, who has had a decades-long affinity for painting, Liu Li and her younger sister, Liu Fen, developed an interest in using paint brushes to depict their lives.

Liu Li was born in 1978 into a rural family in Miaosheng, a village in Dongfeng. "Given my parents' meager incomes, our family lived a hard life during the 1970s. In 1980, my father began painting, so he could sell his works to help our family meet its daily expenses. In 1994, he sold his paintings in Beijing," Liu Li recalls.

Liu Fen admires her father, who has a strong heart and lives an optimistic life. "Our dear old man has inured to hardships and hard work. Influenced by him, we stay positive and face the reality rather than complain about fate," says Liu Fen.

Liu Li began studying how to paint, under Liu Zhenqi, in 1998, shortly after she finished senior middle school. A few years later, Liu Fen joined her elder sister in studying painting skills with their father. "As we tried our best to improve our painting skills, under our dad's guidance, we helped him receive orders from customers. As we gradually became better off by selling Dad's paintings, we bought a house in the town," says Liu Li.

As she looks back on days past, Liu Li marvels at how fast time flies. Liu Li and Liu Fen both take delight in depicting the tremendous changes in rural residents' lives during the past several decades. The sisters live in peace and plenty by selling their art.

When you marvel at the unique beauty of farmer paintings, you might not be aware of how much effort painters devote to their craft. "Creating a painting involves several procedures, including outlining a draft on paper, adding ink and/or colors to the draft and framing the item. An excellent color-mixing skill is the key to creating a wonderful painting," says Liu Li. "Although farmer paintings can neither be compared with oil paintings nor with traditional Chinese paintings, especially in terms of artistic elegance, farmer paintings vividly depict rural residents' lives and express their feelings."

Given the sisters' constant efforts to improve their painting skills, the artworks they have created have won them the recognition of many artists and customers. Golden Rooster Spreads Wings, the painting created by Liu Zhenqi and his daughters, was displayed during the Chinese Farmer Paintings Exhibition, which was held by the United Nations (UN), in New York, in May 2014. "Falling in love" with the exquisite painting at first sight, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, UN Under-Secretary-General, decided to buy the artwork.

Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
A farmer painting


Given the sisters' efforts to promote their paintings, Liu Li and Liu Fen during the past few years have received an increasing number of orders from customers from across the country. "Sometimes, our dad, who is in his 70s, assists us as we work day and night to fulfill the tasks on time," says Liu Li.

Even though they are busy managing Dongqi Art Studio (established by their father), Liu Li and Liu Fen plan to promote their paintings via Douyin (TikTok China) and livestreaming, so their artworks will attract more fans.

'Painting Makes Me Look Younger'

Farmer Paintings Depict Happy, Prosperous Rural Life
Wang Jinling


"Painting brings joy to me," says Wang Jinling, a member of Dongfeng Farmer Paintings Studio. "Farmer paintings are derived from (inspiration) farmers get from their lives. The artworks embody their vitality, wisdom and emotions."

Wang uses much of her spare time to create paintings. To attend art and craft exhibitions, she sometimes paints in the wee hours. "I hope through my works, which depict Dongfeng's landscapes, more people will understand the beauty of my hometown," says Wang.

When she was a little girl, Wang made up her mind to dedicate her life to pursuing her dream — becoming an excellent painter. Since then, she has become more sensitive to beautiful things in life.

Wang has stuck with her hobby for dozens of years. "Although my family could not afford to buy canvasses and colored pigments for me, I collected my primary school classmates' pencil and crayon stubs, so I could use the items to draw pictures … on my exercise books, or on the package paper of cigarettes," recalls Wang.

"Despite my keen interest in painting, I have had little time for self-enjoyment since I got married ... One day in 2014, one of my friends took me to the Farmers' Art Gallery (in Dongfeng). Within a short time, I attended the course (on painting), provided by the gallery. The course rekindled my enthusiasm for art ... Now, I'm full of youthful vigor. Indeed, painting makes me look younger," says Wang.  

She was pleased to note she has become smarter through learning to paint. "As I tried my best to improve my painting skills, under the guidance of craftspeople (in the gallery), I had more opportunities to access new things and ideas. That broadened my vision. Also, I realized nature is a rich source of inspiration for my artistic creations," says Wang.

Pastoral Song is one of the works that has given her the greatest satisfaction. The boy riding a buffalo and the high mountains, set off by green trees and flying birds, make a lovely picture.

Wang has been pleased by the increasing number of organizations, and individuals, who have helped promote the development of farmer paintings. "I hope women, who are interested in art, will have more opportunities to study painting from artists, so the women can support their families by painting," says Wang.

"I love the name of the project — 'Genius Mom,' which implies, in addition to tending their families, mothers may have a genius for art ... I'll try my best to be a good mother. I will also dedicate my life to studying the art and creating more, and better, paintings," says Wang.

She hopes more young Chinese will study how to paint farmer paintings, so the intangible cultural heritage will stay alive. She also says she hopes more people worldwide will understand the beauty of the art form.


Photos Supplied by China Women's Development Foundation and Interviewees

(Women of China English Monthly March 2021 issue)


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