Diana Y. CHOU

Lin Fengmian (1900–1991). Opera Story, Lotus Lantern. Along with Zhang Daqian and Wu Zuoren, two other artists influenced by the New Culture Movement, Lin studied painting in the West. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Folk painting in China focuses on subjects drawn from myth, drama, and fiction, as well as regional rituals, customs, and landscape. It includes forms such as woodblock prints commemorating the New Year or illustrating a popular drama or novel, and painted door gods to ward off demons and bad spirits. As a result of Mao’s ideology, it is an art not only by the people but for the people.

Folk painting in China is a traditional genre loosely defined as “art by the people” (min jian yishu). It most often refers to art created by persons with no formal art training and, more specifically, to paintings by and for commoners—in contrast to work done by and for aristocrats and literati elite during dynastic eras. But the twentieth century brought to the genre the influence and the participation of professionally trained artists, as well as a starring role in the political agenda of Mao Zedong, who believed that art existed to serve the people as it championed his revolutionary cause.

Mainstream versus Folk Painting

Mainstream and folk paintings use many of the same media: ink on paper and silk, and color pigments from plants and minerals. Paintings in both areas use many of the same pictorial subjects: birds and flowers, various religious deities (including Buddhist, Daoist, and folk belief) or literary and historical narratives. In general subjects such as folklore, festivals, traditional rituals and customs (such as funerals), and drama play a significant role in folk painting. But the scope of folk art, including painting, masks, silk embroidery, toys, kites, and architectural decorations, is less precise than that of mainstream art, and discussing its sources can be quite complex. This is because of the transformation and evolution of many areas that folk art draws on, such as ethnology, religious studies, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines.

By including two-dimensional pictorial representations within the category of folk painting, the possibilities expand. New Year prints and genre painting occupy a significant portion of this cultural production. The historical period associated with these works focuses mainly on modern and contemporary times, from the seventeenth century to the present. It is important to recognize that such cultural works developed in response to particular audiences. They reflect differences in preferences and taste of subjects, choice of pictorial representations, and techniques according to the fashion admired by (and traditional to) particular regions and provinces.

Provincial Forms

The regions and provinces producing folk prints and paintings that have drawn the attention of scholars are predominantly along the costal rim from Shandong to Fujian provinces. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the city of Suzhou turned out a particularly flourishing and prosperous supply of woodblock prints, called Suzhou ben, representative of the south. Because of its convenient location near Shanghai and other vital cities, Suzhou folk artists gradually combined different regional styles in their prints. The “green willow” (yangliuqing) style from Tianjin, a city north of Beijing near the Korean border, is known for its characteristic color palette and elaboration of details. Initially, Tianjin’s yangliuqing prints drew on subjects similar to those focused on in other regions, such as festivals, the New Year, and stories from popular drama.

After the mid-nineteenth century, folk artists from Tianjian developed much more sophisticated prints. Some of these prints are associated with recognized artists, such as Qian Hui’an (1833–1911). Some landscape prints exhibit perspective that suggests an acquaintance with Chinese mainstream landscape painting and, perhaps, Japanese ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) prints by Katsushiko Hokusai (1760–1839) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1791–1858). By contrast, regions located more inland, such as Shaanxi province, have maintained their provincial and regional forms. This is likely due to their geographical distance from major cities and subsequent limited exposure to outside influences.

Other provinces are noted for prints of a particular style or focus. The work of folk artists from Huxian, near Xi’an, which is called Picture Land today, has maintained a traditional feel and subject matter—harvest and the abundance of life—while rejecting highly charged political implications. Typically these works have represented themes established in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), but they’ve been accomplished with less sophisticated techniques.

New Year and Drama Prints

Because they are popular and in annual demand, New Year woodblock prints (nianhua) are the dominant media within the category of two-dimensional folk art. The primary subjects are portraits or images of Zhong Kui and other door deities. Zhong Kui, a historical figure of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), became a legendary demon queller after the Song dynasty (960–1279). His ugly and grotesque image posted on house gates is believed to have the supernatural power to expel bad spirits and demons. Production of his image for use at the New Year remains popular in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as in Chinese communities around the world. Various deities bearing auspicious metaphors and implications—such as the goddess and god of children (a symbol of fertility and wealth), the god of the earth (a symbol of longevity), the god of grains (a symbol of harvest and abundance), the deity of fortune, and the deity of promotion—are also common themes in New Year prints. Other festivals, such as the Dragon Boat Festival, originally commemorating poet Qu Yuan (343–277 BCE) for his loyalty and high principals, are celebrated in this medium. Historical heroes, such as Guan Yu, or Guan Yunchang, (c. third century), who was known for his loyalty and righteousness from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi) composed in the fourteenth century, was adapted by folk beliefs and become one of the main deities in Daoism and folk belief practices. Both his single image and narratives of his stories from the novel are portrayed in the prints as well.

The popularity of xiqu (stage performances, the prototype of today’s Chinese operas) during the Mongol Yuan era (1279–1368) and narratives from novels can be measured by the number of their themes found in folk prints. This is particularly observable after the sixteenth century. Of note are subjects and characters taken from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms; the Water Margin, or Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihu Chuan), composed in the fifteenth century; and the Romance of West Chamber (Xixiang Ji), written by Wang Shifu (c. 1260–1336). The main centers for drama prints are Suzhou, Beijing, and Linfen (Shanxi) because of the popularity of operas in these regions. In the north yangliuqing prints from Tianjin are more predominant. Over the course of time, characters adapted from Chinese operas, not only the early classical novels, are identifiable in these prints.

Folk Painting since the Influence of Mao

Folk painting has become more clearly defined since the twentieth century. The championing of folk painting
increased under the advocacy of Mao Zedong, who famously celebrated farmers and workers to the detriment of the aristocracy of the imperial past in his historical and revolutionary speech “Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature” in 1942. Subsequently, artists were encouraged to produce paintings taking farmers, workers, and other noncultural elite classes as their subjects. Such works were the mainstay in the newly celebrated genre, folk painting.

The major center for the generation of ideas and production of the art suitable as art for the people was the Lu Xun Academy in Yan’an. Yan’an was the end point of the heroic Long March (16 October 1934 to 19 October 1935). It was during this retreat of the Red Army that Mao Zedong famously led the Eighth Route Army, culminating in a political landmark and turning point for the Communist Party in 1936. A few artists followed Mao, and later more artists joined the party in Yan’an and produced woodcut prints for the wartime effort and other political propaganda. Lu Xun Academy, which established this genre, was particularly influential from the 1930s to the late 1950s and during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961).

Mao’s idea of art for the people did not stop with professionally trained artists. Consistent with his great revolutionary program, he also encouraged untrained artists, such as peasants, to depict their genuine views of the new society. The first works inspired by this effort appeared in Pixian, Jiangsu Province. Some 1,500 farmer artists produced about 183,000 art works in 1958. The media of this large quantity of art works ranged from individual paintings to murals, and subjects focused on farm products, mostly corn and pigs.

Other folk paintings—such as papercuts, New Year pictures, and the serial pictures (lianhuanhua)—either continued to be produced or were revived during this era. Papercut, a craft that goes back to the third century CE or earlier (and which often involves mounting the cut paper onto a window or door), drew on subjects such as flowers, mythical animals, and festival icons.

The serial pictures, which are cartoon strips or pages for children and teenagers, mainly relied on historical novels or drama, such as the Romance of Three Kingdoms and the Water Margin, but expanded from historical novels to contemporary historical events to take up themes such as the Long March and stories of revolutionary heroes after the 1950s. Serial pictures continued to be an important cultural form during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the best serial pictures were produced during the 1970s. The popularity of serial pictures and, later, picture books among the general public, along with demands from the market, surpassed that of other forms of folk painting. Several famous artists, including Chen Shifa (b. 1921), have participated in this production and enhanced the qualities and styles of serial pictures and picture books.

While some artists produced characters from Chinese literature and romance, others illustrated exotic and foreign works ranging from The Thousand and One Nights to Dante’s Inferno to The Snow Goose (Paul Gallico, 1897–1976). Because of their artistic training, artists of serial pictures sometimes incorporated Western themes and techniques, including Russian social realism and symbolism. These innovations brought the genre of serial pictures to its peak, adding depth to the category of folk painting in China in the 1980s.

The conventional subjects of the New Year prints, including door gods, shifted into various directions under Mao Zedong’s guidelines in 1949. New themes—such as the lives of the working classes, an image of the new China, and the overturn and liberation of feudal China—were encouraged. These politically charged themes greatly influenced the range of subjects and techniques and took folk painting into a new era. The results of this new energy were particularly reflected in folk paintings from the 1970s onward. Under Mao’s encouragement folk painting was no longer an exclusive genre for peasants; art professionals (artists and art educators) were encouraged to create folk painting. As a result, folk painting became more decorative, sophisticated, and realistic. The earliest examples of twentieth-century folk painting were created by peasants in Shaanxi province, and production of folk painting spread to other regions.

Since the 1970s, many regions have developed styles that reflect significant local features in their folk painting. For example, farmers from the Shanghai region are known for tranquil water scenes; Shandong folk painting often reflects bright colors under the influence of the local tradition of yangliuqing prints; and art from the Xinjiang region is enhanced with Muslim motifs and designs. The diversity to be found across regions and ethnic groups in China has expanded modern folk painting toward an unlimited horizon in terms of themes, styles, and imagination. This tradition is has been well preserved and sustained in the art schools since Mao’s death. It is also visible in the fact that there are no limits on gender, age, or social class of the artists who produce folk painting. The main feature that once distinguished folk painting—the categorization of particular artists producing the work as peasants without artistic training—is no longer relevant, as professional artists with complex Chinese and Western training in techniques and styles make contributions to the genre.

Contemporary Outlook

With the end of the Cultural Revolution, many varieties of folk painting in various forms and media continued to be produced since the 1980s. Contemporary folk painting may have suffered somewhat in recent times because of the popularity of TV, movies, and digital products. However, as Chinese economic strength and interest in Chinese tourism increases, the value of folk painting may well increase and will, perhaps, enjoy a revival.

Further Reading

Bi Keguan. (1991). Chinese folk painting on porcelain (Peng Ruifu, Trans.). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

China Social Culture Editing and Publishing (Eds.). (1991). The best in modern Chinese folk painting. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.

Munsterberg, H. (1981). Dictionary of Chinese and Japanese art. New York: Hacker Art Books.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and artists of twentieth-century China. Berkeley: University of California.

Wang Shucun. (1992). A pictorial album of Chinese folk art. (Zhang Chengmo, Trans.). Zhejiang, China: Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House.

Wang Shucun. (1990). Xiju nianhua [Folk art painting of Chinese operas (2 vols).]. Taipei, Taiwan: Hanshen Zazhi Publishing.

Source: Chou, Diana Y.. (2009). Painting—Folk. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1697–1700. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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