Nostalgic murals help village paint a future

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A wall painting of happy villagers playing musical instruments, accompanied by an attentive dog, draws the eye the moment one sets foot in Duqu village. The mural graces the wall of a power distribution room near the entrance to the village on the banks of Dianchi Lake, about 50 kilometers to the southwest of downtown Kunming, capital of Yunnan province.

Walking a bit farther inside, two larger wall paintings reveal themselves. They face onto the village square, which doubles up as a parking lot and as a place to dance.

One features scenes of residents singing and dancing together, and the other a panoramic view of the village that highlights landmarks, such as its lotus flower pool and an old temple.

Others telling the story of Duqu's origins, the local way of life, as well as folk culture, are scattered around the village.

They are all the work of Li Kunwu, 69, a well-known cartoonist, who won the 2010 best history cartoon award at the Les Rendez-vous de l'Histoire in France, one of the largest historical book fairs in Europe.

"When I was young, I also lived in a village next to Dianchi Lake, and the first time I entered Duqu, I felt its rustic, quaint atmosphere, untouched by commercialization, which I really liked a lot," says Li, from Kunming, who was named a cultural ambassador for Dianchi by local authorities in March last year.

The role has since given him incentives to conduct research and field trips to villages along the banks of the lake.

Li's original plan was simply to hold an art exhibition in Duqu, but upon arriving in the village, he decided to paint directly on its walls, so his work would be better integrated with the village setting.

"I have published many books abroad and organized art exhibitions, in the hopes of making our culture and customs known to more people. But I have always had a wish, which is to bring my comics about nostalgia back to my hometown. So, these murals can be considered as fulfilling that wish," Li says.

The endeavor was something of a challenge, as Li had never painted on walls before. The biggest difficulty was the difference in perspective.

"When I draw on paper, I can see the overall effect at a glance, but with murals, you need some distance to see clearly. It was difficult to grasp this at the beginning, such as how large a figure should be drawn, which required me to adapt constantly," Li says.

Other challenges included needing to rely on his intuition without making drafts, and improvising as he went along.

His goal was to convey a sense of nostalgia, which he says is "a complex, yet rich sentiment that needs diverse content and formats to express".

In order to save time commuting back and forth, Li decided to stay in Duqu, immersing himself in the daily lives of the villagers.

"After I arrived, they were very happy and welcomed me with open arms," Li says. "They felt a sense of familiarity seeing their lives depicted on the walls."

At the beginning, he leaned more toward rural landscapes, without much of a narrative, but in the process of painting, he says he came to understand that there were many interesting aspects about the village.

"For example, some people told me about a legendary white cow in their village, which is very rare for locals. The villagers are proud of it, so I painted an image of it," he says.

He also drew inspiration from the villagers themselves.

"While I was painting, an elderly couple holding hands walked past me. I found this very moving, and conveniently, there was a wall nearby, so I painted this real-life scene on it," he says.

Li takes pride in this mural, since it is a favorite for many villagers.

Additionally, he created a series of Pristine Era-themed murals depicting scenes of livestock roaming without being fenced in, and children carrying baskets to collect manure and using oil lamps to do their homework.

"These things have almost disappeared now, but I have experienced them all in the past. So, if they are not recorded, they will truly be forgotten," he says.

As Li's interactions with the villagers increased, they began to treat him like one of their own.

"They often brought me vegetables and fruit. When I was painting, people passing by would greet me, and even children going to school would shout 'uncle' when they saw me," he says.

So far, Li has completed just over 100 murals of differing sizes that the villagers have come to view as treasures.

Some are in black and white, some in color, some in the form of comics, and some in the form of ink paintings.

All were created based on Li's understanding of the history of Duqu village through multiple surveys. He wanted his paintings to not only depict the joys and sorrows of its people but also to reflect the development of rural areas along the coast of Dianchi Lake, especially traces of rural vitalization.

Zheng Sicong has grown very attached to Li's murals.

"The things he has painted are really true to life," says the septuagenarian, who has lived in Duqu for more than five decades and for whom the paintings have been among the great changes over the years.

"In the early years, the village was full of dirt roads. Some people made a living fishing, while others relied on farming to support their families," Zheng says.

In recent years, improved policies have resulted in dirt roads in the village being paved with cement, and clean public toilets built.

"Everything is much cleaner, and now we have these beautiful pictures painted on the walls," he says.

Since the murals were completed in September, the number of visitors to Duqu has risen significantly, says Li Lifen, a village official.

"We had more than 800 visitors one day during Spring Festival, which is rare for Duqu, since no outsiders came to the village unless it was to see relatives or friends," she says.

Li Lifen often shows the wall paintings to visitors, and can tell stories about them, as many characters they depict are real people.

Some historical buildings, now in disrepair, have also been featured in the paintings, and she says they will be restored in the future.

Business owner Shang Ziwen has noticed the emerging boon from rural tourism. The 20-something man with a gardening background has started a plant business in Duqu and sells to customers via livestreaming.

"Now that our village has undergone (infrastructure) upgrades and renovations, I also want to integrate my business with tourism," Shang says.

He is considering changing his business model. "For example, using my existing high-quality plants, I plan to create a landscape attraction in Duqu, and also serve drinks and snacks, to attract more tourists," Shang says.

Duqu is one of 46 villages along the banks of the Dianchi that local authorities have chosen as rural vitalization models.

They are precious resources with unrivaled environmental charm thanks to the extensive wetlands and green belts in the area, says Li Shaojun, a senior official with the Dianchi resort area.

Each of the villages will highlight a distinctive theme based on their own particular characteristics.

Li Shaojun says artists are welcome to join the rural vitalization drive around Dianchi Lake and favorable policies will be offered to facilitate their work.

Even now, Li Kunwu still gets invitations from Duqu residents, asking him to come back and spend time with them.

He is reviewing his murals and doesn't rule out a second round of painting in the village.

"I particularly hope that the younger generation will be interested in these nostalgic paintings. I hope they are able to understand our past lives, the yesterday of our cities, and our nostalgic feelings," says the artist.

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