In the mountainous area of Jixian County north of Tianjin Municipality lives a local clay artist by the name of Yu Qingcheng. Primarily taking ordinary countrywomen as his subject matter, Yu creates vivid sculptures with his skilled hands, conveying his decades of experience through his work. Now a folk artist of considerable repute, he enjoys prestige both at home and abroad.
Happiness in Hardship
Beginning his artistic career in 1977, Yu Qingcheng was designated as a "Trailblazer of Folk Fine Arts" by Chinese Ministry of Culture in 1988, and was further honored by UNESCO as a "Folk Arts and Crafts Master" in 1996.
Drawing mainly on the countryside for his inspiration, most of his works embody a distinctly country flavor. The elderly subjects of his works are depicted generally as having weathered and wrinkled skin-they have experienced the vicissitudes and hardships of life-but one can still detect in the sculptures a sense of joy amidst sorrow. By portraying his human subjects in such a manner, Yu is able to express at once the physical scars caused by the hardships of life; and the dogged courage of human beings facing a life of adversity. Most of the children in his works are full of childish delight and have delicate, almost satin-like skin. This manner of representation reinforces Yu's view that children begin their life as innocent and tender beings, yet their growth into adulthood hardens them physically and mentally as they encounter the hardships of life. Then they will become, perhaps, the weather-beaten elderly people depicted in Yu's sculptures of aged country-dwellers. Yu's approach is to acknowledge hardship while at the same time celebrating life. It may be a constant struggle, he seems to be saying, but this is life.
In his magnum opus Yangtze River and Yellow River, a bare-breasted plump woman with a rather large bosom simultaneously suckles two children: One stands at her front to feed, whilst the other stands on the mother's ample protruding rear to suckle from a breast which is slung backwards over her shoulder. Yu likens the mother's breasts to the Chinese nation's two mother rivers of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. With the sculptures' clear metaphorical meaning, one can easily connect the profound love of a mother towards her children to the greater message conveyed. This particular work was very well received on the occasion of the International Arts Exhibition held in Beijing in 2003.
Love is another common motif in Yu's works. His piece, Two Flowers, reflects on the life of an old couple. Her face full of wrinkles, an elderly woman sits on the ground holding a mirror in her rough hands. Behind her stands her husband, his face a picture of deep emotion, placing a flower on his partner's head. From this we can see the old woman is still a beautiful flower to the old man, despite her weathered face, perhaps a shadow of the youthful beauty the old woman saw many years ago in her reflection. Another interpretation may be that the old woman is a flower and the old man another. Whatever opinion one holds, Two Flowers is a piece full of an optimistic joy for life. It effectively portrays how, when nourished by love, two flowers will continue to flourish.
Another one of Yu's sculptures, I Live on the Loess Plateau, portrays another subject popular with the artist-the image of a mother with children. The wind blowing through her hair she sings to the heavens, her arm outstretched to the sky, to her heart's content. Imbued by their mother's enthusiasm, her two children are also singing happily together. The positive and stoical spirit of today's countrywomen is expressed directly and efficaciously in this aesthetically and mentally uplifting work.
A Soul of Clay
At the age of 16, Yu Qingcheng moved to the countryside with his family, where he endured great hardships. But it was here that years of farm work gave him a good understanding of clay. He was inspired by the scenes and characters he encountered on an everyday basis, and decided to attempt to capture the diligence and simple purity of heart of the Northern Chinese farmers through the beautifully expressive medium of clay. He said, "Using the nude lends the countrywomen in my works a simplicity and innocence. I sculpt the images of fathers and mothers with the heart of a child. My sculptures capture the character of the countrymen: Simple, honest and laborious." Yu's works have been on display in his village, and his name eventually became familiar with art lovers. Many admired Yu and his works, and visited his village to see the art for themselves. To the villagers' great surprise, Yu's fame has made their village a tourist attraction, and last year alone tourism delivered to the village 2 million yuan.
(China Pictorial August 21, 2006)