When talking about folk paintings in China, many people would instantly think about the farmer-artists of Jinshan, in the suburbs of Shanghai, or of Huxian County, in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
The two localities, boasting a rich tradition of farmers' paintings, are regarded as representatives of folk arts in China.
But as folk painting has come to the foreground of cultural activities in China, researchers have discovered that the painting tradition among farmers exists far beyond the two best-known localities.
Today, the Ministry of Culture of China has designated 51 counties across the country as Homes of Painting for their notable artistic output.
And many more provinces, also with distinguished artistic abilities, are applying to be recognized by the government.
The Beijing-based Foreign Language Press, a publishing house which has devoted itself to introducing Chinese culture to other countries in foreign languages, has recently put out an English language album called "Folk Genre Painting."
The book, from one of the press' newly published "Culture of China" series, includes more than 200 paintings depicting farmers, herdsmen, fishermen and housewives.
The images were chosen from about 10,000 works, which have been completed in recent years throughout various parts of China.
As the most comprehensive and authoritative book on the subject in recent years, it offers art collectors, connoisseurs and enthusiasts an opportunity to experience a world of charm with a perspective totally different from that of the secluded Palace of Art.
A skim through the book quickly shows the rich imagination and varied expressions of the rural artists.
Most of the colourful works are free of staleness and conventionality, yet simple and without pretension.
Most of the artists at the grass-roots level tend to paint in an exaggerated, distorted and surrealistic way.
Cao Zhenfeng, vice-chairman of the Chinese Folk Art Association and vice-curator of the National Art Gallery, said the farmers did not distort life.
On the contrary, they gave a feeling of truthfulness and closeness.
Their simplicity, purity and straightforwardness are frequently seen in children's paintings.
Cao believes that is where folk paintings gain most value.
"A folk painting's local flavour emits a light fragrance of mountain flowers in contrast to urban bustle and noise," Cao said.
Cao, as a renowned scholar in the field, has been advocating the use of the name "modern folk painting" to replace the old title of "peasant paintings."
According to Cao, with the ranks of the painters expanding from merely farmers to herdsmen, fishermen and others, it is simply incorrect to describe the category as "peasant paintings" any longer.
More importantly, the so-called "peasant painting" of the past was never on a par with the modern style.
The biggest distinction between the two is that the latter has absorbed the essential folk art idioms that are also popular in folk embroidery, batik and papercuts, which are used on clothing and during festivals.
The modelling and designs of peasant paintings are not solely aesthetic decorations, but symbolic wishes for luck, a good marriage and sons, respect for ancestors and religion and as charms against evil.
Today's modern folk painting, however, has begun to transform into a distinctive artistic language and even goes beyond even its aesthetic value.
According to Cao, the themes of modern folk painting are basically the customs, habits, legends and work practices of the various ethnic minorities of China, with changes emerging as tradition evolves.
Although artistic styles differ from place to place, they are all intensely local and reflect the feeling of the local working people.
While other artists may follow the modern Western style, departing further and further from everyday life, modern folk art always sticks close to the land.
How did the farmers, who in many people's minds are unsophisticated and have never set foot in an art academy, pick up brushes and the colour palette?
Jiao Yongfu, chairman of the Chinese Folk Art Association, believes it is all to do with the improvement of people's living standards.
Jiao said: "The spiritual vista of the broad masses of farmers, herdsmen and others has undergone tremendous expansion and uplift. They want to participate in creative life themselves."
In the past two decades, folk painting has blossomed in an increasing number of locations. It flourishes in almost every province, municipality and autonomous region, from the relatively better-off Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces in the eastern coastal regions to Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces in the west, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the northwestern border areas.
In the 1970s, many well-meaning artists tried to train farmers to paint by using a Western art teaching method. It was hoped that the farmers would embark on a scientific path, but satisfactory results were never achieved.
In some places farmers were coached in techniques used in literary circles. It too turned out to be a dead end since the farmers had different aesthetic values from those in the literati.
Wu Tongzhang, a painter in Jinshan County, discovered after many failures in coaching farmers that the countryside had its own store of folk art resources.
Many village women are skilled embroiderers and papercutters. During the quiet season they embroider hats and clothes for their children.
Wu urged farmers to paint freely, using colours like they would use thread. Their hands, more accustomed to a pick and hoe or needle and thread, were initially at a loss with a brush.
But after a short period of time and through patient coaching, farmers' painting ability blossomed.
And with prosperity came more acceptance for the art form.
While professional artists are showing increasing interest in studying folk painting, market traders are also paying attention to its economic value.
It has caused mixed feelings for some experts.
They were glad the art form had acquired status in the eyes of professionals and laymen, but feared painting might become too driven by the lure of money to be of artistic value, Jiao said.
( China Daily August 8, 2002)