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70-year-old Chinese woman volunteers as art guide for 2,000 hours

(People's Daily Online)    16:51, March 11, 2019

Chen Shaoqin offers English guided tour. (Photo/Beijing Daily)

Sometimes she jumps around and gesticulates, and other times she quietly points out the intricate details of a painting. When she gets excited, she moves quickly in front of the enormous piece of artwork to help the audience understand the connection between different parts of the painting. This passionate guide currently volunteers at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing.

At almost 70 years old, visitors recently started filming Chen Shaoqin’s brilliant explanations of art, and she quickly became a hit online with the title of “passionate grandma guide”.

Becoming a grandmother and becoming interested in contemporary art

At less than 1.6 meters in height, Shaoqin always ties her white hair behind her head. With a beautiful silk scarf against a dark coat, she is elegant, just like many people involved with the gallery.

After listening to her simple but profound explanations, many people can't believe that Shaoqin only possesses a middle school diploma. In fact, it wasn't until she became a grandmother that she first became interested in contemporary art.

“In 2008, I came to Beijing with my family. As I lived in Wangjing area to look after my granddaughter, I thought about finding something to do in my local area,” Shaoqin explained, noting that when she learned that she only lived one stop away from Beijing's 798 Art District, she began to take her granddaughter there for days out. Attracted by the three red dinosaurs in front of the UCCA building, she walked into the art gallery with her granddaughter for the first time.

Soon, fascinated by the exhibitions, lectures and other activities, Shaoqin became a UCCA member, explaining, "I come here more than 40 times a year. As long as I am in Beijing, I will be here with my granddaughter every weekend." Shaoqin said that except for singing and dancing in primary school, there was no such thing as "art" in her former years. “At that time, there were no art classes in our elementary and middle schools. Later, when we were educated and went to work, the atmosphere hardly had any connection with art.” So, when she found that she had a passion for art, Shaoqin indulged herself in 798 and learned as much as she could about the art scene.

From fan to top docent

Being a UCCA member for eight years, Shaoqin was offered opportunities to get involved in the UCCA community. In 2016, UCCA recruited volunteers for the “Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours” exhibition. “Whether you are a student, employed, or a retiree, as long as you are enthusiastic about art, your participation is a welcome addition.” These recruitment words moved Shaoqin. “I always admired the college student guides, but I didn't dare apply myself.”

At that time, she was encouraged by Wang Zi, the director of the guide program. "Can I invite you to be our guide? No tests or interviews needed for you," he asked, after noticing that Shaoqin had not been absent from an activity for some time.

The training materials for the Zeng Fanzhi exhibition were printed on seven or eight pages of A4 paper. Shaoqin used it as an index and searched for more information, expanding her cultural information and art history knowledge. She prepared much more than the original explanation materials, and her efforts were instantly recognized.

Offering English guided tours

Hard work pays off, and as Shaoqin's public praise gradually spread, more people got in touch with the gallery to book in on her tour directly.

On her tour, visitors can hear the basic information about the artist and the analysis of artistic techniques, as well as the horizontal connection with the hot events at art galleries around the world in recent years. Last year, during UCCA's major annual exhibition " Xu Bing: Thought and Method ", she volunteered 300 hours, eight times the normal workload.

On March 5, Chen Shaoqin had planned to take a well-deserved break. Unexpectedly, a foreign delegation specifically asked for her to give them a tour. So, back to work she went as an English guide.

“When I was a worker, I used to learn English on my own via the TV. Because of this, I also worked for a trading company from 1981 to 2008, the year I retired,” Shaoqin was a little embarrassed to say that she was a good guide, and said she put more effort into learning English, which helped her confidence when preparing a foreign tour.

During her two years as a guide, Shaoqin has volunteered for nearly 2,000 hours.

When asked whether she will consider job-hopping as she becomes more popular, she answered with a firm “No”.

“I am an ordinary person. Although I get recognition from many artists for my hard work and my understanding of art, all of this owes to my learning in the UCCA. I am very grateful to this art center for giving me the opportunity to get into art." 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Sheng Chuyi, Bianji)

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