Painting tradition helps reconstruction in Sichuan

August 2008 -

One tent looks different from all shelters scattered around in Zundao village, the epic center of China's devastating Sichuan earthquake which took place in May 2008. It is decorated with colorful paintings. Inside, Zhang Shengyi, surrounded by a dozen of villagers, is demonstrating how to fill water colors into the already sketched picture of Guan Yu, the ancient Chinese god of war. Originally from the region of Sichuan, pictures like this are called 'New Year paintings' in China - usually with vivid myth characters and bright colors.


Painter Zhang Shengyi

People put them on their walls during Chinese New Year to ward off bad luck. Ever since the Qing dynasty in 19th century, Zhang's family has been well-known in the region for their exquisite work. "The painting skills used to be kept within our family only", says Zhang, "but the disaster makes me believe that we have to share the skills with more people: it's the best way to make a living in the current circumstances."

It was the Beijing-based organization of folk art development OFAD which first came up with the idea and got in touch with Zhang after the May earthquake. The plan is to establish a whole chain – painting, exhibition and sales - by teaching survivors from the villages basic painting skills and sell the pictures to galleries in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Hu Yulian, OFAD's chief manager says that they chose Zundao village as an experimental spot. If successful, the mode will be extended to nearby villages which were also gravely damaged in the quake.

Why New Year painting? Mr. Hu gives two reasons: practicality and popularity. All houses in the village were damaged in the earthquake so villagers can only take shelter in tents. This situation – which may last for another two years – makes it impossible to develop businesses that are too sophisticated. New Year painting, on the other hand, has a very low entry barrier. Moreover, New Year paintings are traditionally popular all over China, especially in coastal developed cities such as Shanghai. Yang Huan, vice manager of Shanghai's Yulan folk art gallery is now organizing an exhibition named 'Survived', devoted especially to the pictures by Zhang and his students. "We are very optimistic”, he says, "many potential buyers are already in touch with us."

And this is definitely not only about business. Eighteen-year-old Qiu Yundi lost her parents in the earthquake and is now a new student of Zhang. "I never imagined that I can paint too, like an artist", says Qiu with a smile, "it makes me feel that the world is still there."