The Chinese peasant who never abandoned her artistic dream

(Xinhua) 17:06, January 19, 2024

XI'AN, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- The peasant woman had never given up on her painting dream, even during her most miserable moments. "When can I paint freely on the canvas without having to worry about my life?" Chen Xiaoling asked herself hundreds of times when she was selling eggs, making bricks or collecting garbage.

Decades later, Chen, at the age of 64, sat in her study against the backdrop of a Chinese landscape wash painting. She felt satisfied with how far she had come.

"I have been in love with painting since childhood," she said. "The love has nothing to do with my age or my profession."

Born in a village in Xi'an, capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, Chen said her interest in painting has been inscribed in her genes. "My great-grandfather was a carpenter and good at painting, while my granny and aunt were both paper-cutting experts. My two elder brothers both learned art at school," she recalled.

When she was a child, her second brother used to spread white lime on the slope of a canal and let her "draw" on it with footprints.

In the following years, she would face some of the biggest struggles of her life. In addition to farming, she used to transport coal, sell wool and eggs and even collect garbage. While eight months pregnant, she even trekked on a mountainous road for more than 15 km to find a good apple type to grow.

But her tough life would not stop her from seizing every chance she had to paint.

On a rainy day in 1983 Chen got married. Her husband was from an impoverished family where rooms were without much decoration. She spent three days completing a painting on the wall of her bedroom, which depicted travelers among mountains and streams, suggesting the freedom of her spirit.

She finally had enough time to paint at the age of 53 after she bought a new apartment and her son and daughter got married. She called herself a layman back then.

"I have never received any systematic training," Chen said. To learn how to paint, she frequented art exhibitions and enrolled in painting courses both at a seniors university and online.

Once she saw a portrait inside a restaurant and went to have a look. "The waitress kept talking about their dishes to me. To silence her, I asked for a bowl of noodles," she recalled. The noodles cost her 28 yuan (about four U.S. dollars), which, in the eyes of Chen were quite expensive. But she saw it as a "tuition fee" to learn painting.

In comparison, the farmer never hesitated to spend money on painting tools and courses. She would spend more than 2,000 yuan to buy rice paper, and more than 10,000 yuan for paintings she liked.

In her paintings, she combined the traditional freehand landscape with the real life of farmers, completing more than 30 long scrolls to depict the improvement of rural life in the past decades after the reform and opening up.

Seeing a woman like her engaged in painting, her fellow villagers felt surprised. "Can you fill up your stomach with paintings?" They used to ask. "But after they saw my paintings, they began to understand," said Chen. "No matter in cities or the countryside, people would admire those who have real abilities."

On the occasions of funerals and weddings, she was always invited to write or paint something. "She also likes giving paintings to others as presents, saying that art ignites people's lives," said her husband Xu Keyong.

Chen's friend Wang Zhaohui compared her paintings to pictures through a wide-angle lens. "She has a passion for life and her paintings are powerful," Wang said. "Under her brush, even the past life full of hardship became colorful."

In her spare time, Chen taught in kindergartens and formed an art society. Under her influence, more peasant women picked up brushes, like the retiree Fu Weiwei.

"Thanks to Xiaoling, I am now enjoying a richer senior life," she said. "Xiaoling encouraged us to be brave enough to chase our dreams, and not to be bound by age or profession."

As for Chen, painting has brought her a rich spiritual fulfillment. She once brought home the trunk of a dead tree and rocks by a river because they "look like paintings."

"How to live your life? There is no fixed answer," she said poetically. "Like doing a freehand landscape painting, I would like to paint on a limited piece of paper boundless scenery." 

(Web editor: Zhong Wenxing, Liang Jun)


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