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January 17, 2011

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Vivid palette of folk culture on offer

FAR-FLUNG Jinshan District with its scenic coastline made a splash at the Shanghai World Expo with its folk culture, notably the quaint and colorful farmers' paintings.

The district is also cultivating the folk art of modern storytelling with themes that can range from farm life and arranged marriage to family planning and awareness of legal rights.

A third notable art, lian xiang or bamboo dancing (also known as the overlord's whip), is practiced by children, adults and the elderly and now is an elective in district schools.

Here's a look at these folk arts.


It's story time after supper every day for villagers in Fengjing Town where telling tales has become a hobby. In recent years a host of farmer storytellers have become fabled yarn spinners.

Although storytelling is an ancient pastime and a way to hand down traditions, there's modern twist in Jinshan. Around 30 years ago modern folk tales arose from chitchat after supper. It came to incorporate all kinds of stories, current events, folk tales and myths.

Villagers set up their own story-telling teams and created interesting stories about love and marriage, family life and strife, one-child families, farming, buying property, legal rights and etiquette. Some are instructive and all are entertaining.

The stories are simple, candid, neatly worked out and easy to understand, all reflecting village realities.

"I love story-telling and regard it as my career," says 66-year-old farmer Tang Xiufang, who has been telling tales for about 20 years. "I read almost everything - news, novels and autobiographies. That's where I get my ideas."

In 2004 Jinshan launched the East China Storytelling and Creation Competition and in 2007 it hosted China's first storytelling festival.

Bamboo dance

Another native Jinshan folk art is lian xiang or bamboo dancing, also called the overlord's whip. A 1-meter-long bamboo staff, the width of a thumb, represents the whip. The bamboo is strung with copper coins that jingle and decorated with colored ribbons.

The dancing arose around 300 years ago. It's very flexible and freestyle, involving singing, pacing, jumping, leaping and squatting, all the while wielding the bamboo in designated moves. Small groups and crowds of as many as 1,000 people perform.

The Langxia Town government has invested in preservation, opening a lian xiang studio in 2006 and supporting a team of veteran village dancers to teach.

Lian xiang dancing is an optional course in many primary and middle schools in the district.

More than 30 groups, with dancers as young as seven and as old as 70, dance in villages, in rice paddies and at town squares. They have developed lian xiang games, cross-talk comic dialogue, poems and stage plays.

More than 20,000 residents in Langxia Town are dancers; that's more than half the population.

"It's rewarding to see the government paying such great attention to this 300-year-old folk art," says Wu Yunming, a researcher from the China Art Research Center.

In 2007 the district held its first lian xiang festival and in 2008 it held China's first lian xiang dancing competition.

Farmer Picassos

In recent years, producing paintings has grown from a cottage industry to a more established one. Many families have a tradition of painting and now it is taught in schools and can be ordered online.

"These farmers' paintings may not be as avant-garde as those works downtown, but they are unique in their primitive style and we are proud of them," says Jiang Weilin from the district's cultural department.

The scenes are captivating - bringing in the harvest, working in rice paddies, fishing in a pond, chasing a pig, eating dinner or celebrating a wedding.

Jinshan is sparing no efforts to preserve and promote its folk arts among the locals and "they survive and thrive," says Jiang.

During the six-month Expo that ended on October 31, 2010, more than 20 Jinshan farmer painters worked together in the Expo Park and millions of visitors got a close-up look at the homegrown art.

The VIP room of the Theme Pavilion was decorated with two huge farmer paintings - "Spring" and "Fishing Fun" by Cao Xiuwen from Zhonghong Village in Fengjing Town.

"It was a giant step for our remote district to display its village art on an even bigger stage," says Xi Jiping, director of the Jinshan Farmer Painting Academy. "It is a way to preserve, promote and carry this unique folk art forward."

Farmers' painting is a hobby among many locals, from youngsters to seniors, and in the 1970s it began to attract attention for its touching countryside scenes.

Around 30 years ago, some farmers in Zhonghong Village created paintings that combined traditional Chinese elements, such as paper cutting, paper folding, wood carving, dyeing and embroidery.

Subjects include village celebrations, landscapes, harvesting, frolicking children and kite flying.

In 1980, several villagers held a Shanghai Jinshan Farmers' Painting Exhibition in the China Art Gallery in Beijing and they got rave reviews.

In the same year, this art form appeared on the international stage. Exhibitions were held in the United States, Germany, Japan and many other countries.

Most of these first painters were older women skilled in the various folk arts and crafts that had been passed down through generations. Some enjoyed an international reputation. In 2006, a painting by peach farmer Lu Yongzhong was auctioned for 125,000 yuan (US$15,625), a record for farmers' paintings.

Back in 1996, farmer Zhang Xinying, 78, was named Goodwill Ambassador of Chinese Folk Arts by the UNESCO. Her paintings have been collected by the Belgian Royal Art Institute and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Today Jinshan has an estimated 600 farmer painters, including more than 100 full-timers. Around 20 of them have held exhibitions downtown.

The 300-hectare Chinese Farmer Painting Village was set up several years ago in Zhonghong Village where farmers turned their houses and courtyards into studios and galleries.

The district government invited farmer painters from other parts of China to open studios, provided facilities and offered preferential policies. They came from Luxian County in Shanxi Province, Dongfeng in Jilin Province, Huangzhong in Qinghai Province and Qijiang in Chongqing Municipality. These places are also known for their distinctive farmers' paintings.

"Each painting shows love of hometown, love of children, love of festivals, love of animals and love of work and chores," says Xi from the painting academy. "The art form is traditional Chinese but also a universal celebration of life."


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