Artists go large to revive Chinese myths

A painting project organized by the Shanghai Artists' Association produces 50 large-scale works on the origins of the world

Asked how the world came into being, most Chinese people would probably refer to the Greek gods like Gaea and Eros. Compared with Greek mythology, rich in stories about gods and heroes, only a few Chinese myths such as “Chang’e Flying to the Moon” or “Nuwa Mending the Heaven” ring a bell, with many others fading.

A campaign entitled “Creating the World – Literary and Artistic Works on Chinese Myths Interpreting the Origins of the World” aims to revive China’s ancient tales and legends.

Last summer, some 30 comic books by local artists were published with bilingual texts to target the younger generation. Each artist was required to paint about 30 pieces on different Chinese myths.

Now the second phase of the campaign is a painting project with the same theme, organized by the Shanghai Artists’ Association. So far 50 large-scale works have been completed by artists from Shanghai, Beijing, Shandong and Zhejiang provinces, and Inner Mongolia and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.

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Borrowing elements of murals

Zhang Peicheng, a renowned 70-year-old Shanghai artist, created a 3-square-meter work “Battle of Zhuolu.” He spent nearly six months on the painting which, on first inspection, is reminiscent of ancient Chinese murals because of the colors and painting skills.

“I referred to some elements from the ancient Chinese murals, rock paintings and pottery paintings,” Zhang says.

Instead of using a realistic style, Zhang preferred to adopt a feel of “clumsiness” in his work, as he believed it well reflected the mystery of these Chinese myths.

Zhang says such a large piece was not easy to handle. “When drawing the characters and backdrops, it is difficult to retain a strong visual power at the same time.”

Zhang says he spent more time thinking about the whole tableau than actually painting it.

“Commissioned work is often a challenge for artists,” Zhang says. “From my own experience, an artist’s understanding of the subject and his or her technique really matter. The ‘serious’ work can be touching and stunning if the artist finds a right way to express. Actually I really enjoyed the process in creating the battle scene (in the Chinese myth painting).”

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  • Battle of Zhuolu

Chiyou, in his determination to be called emperor, decided to lead an attack on Emperor Huang in Zhuolu to fight for the Central Plains. Chiyou had a large number of metal weapons and resorted to magic that spread a dense fog. So Emperor Huang suffered a setback during the first war. 

Then the Lord of Heaven sent a celestial lady to help. Inspired by her military tactics, Emperor Huang deployed his troops in an eight-sided battle formation. He even created a compass cart to break the magic fog. With the roll of a thunder drum, Emperor Huang gained a huge victory against Chiyou.

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Portraying god as a human being

Hong Jian, 51, adopted a realistic style in his 1.7-square-meter painting “Shennong Tastes Hundreds of Herbs.”

“I didn’t want to treat the immortals in the Chinese myths as something bizarre or supernatural,” Hong says, “but to personify them as human beings, as some real people in life.”

Hong says his work is based on two paintings in the comic book in the same theme that he had drawn.

“But how to enlarge it from a pocket-sized one requires more profundity and richness,” he says.

Due to his tight workload during daytime, Hong had to squeeze his time on the painting after work. “It took me almost two months.”

To better bring the originator of Chinese herbal medicine to life, Hong studied various plants and flowers before he started.

“I am a serious person, and everything I painted should be reasonable in the scenario,” he says.

Hong has experience in writing movie scripts, which somewhat explains why he finished his comic book with ease.  

“Drawing a complete story is totally different from creating one piece,” he says. “But if one has learned scriptwriting before, then he or she will know how to tell the story visually.”

Narrative power is what Hong wants to render to viewers.

“There is always a hidden connection in all the works that I have created for this theme,” he says. “I hope the viewers will find some romance, plus an epic feel, in this painting.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

  • Shennong Tastes Hundreds of Herbs

A terrible plague was raging over the world. People were infected one after the other and couldn’t find a cure. Shennong decided to go around the world sampling different herbs to find medicines. Every day, he sampled dozens of poisonous herbs. Finally, he died from the most toxic herb called Graceful Jasmine Herb. 

The myth praises the sublime virtue of sacrifice for the people. It also reflects the huge progress made from “barefoot doctors” to the herbalism.

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Narrating myth in the form of print

Xu Zengying, 41, drew a comic book based on the myth “Kuafu Chases the Sun,” but he didn’t create a large work under the theme due to his medium ─ woodblock.

“But I did add some colors for the final result to cater to the taste of today’s readers,” he says.

Xu says he read many materials related to “Kuafu Chases the Sun” and even bought all the earlier comic books of the story.

“I needed to understand the character and to avoid any overlapping,” he explains.

Xu used a semi-abstract style in his comic book, instead of his usual style which is abstract and modern. The simply carved Kuafu and animals in the book unwittingly proved very interesting.

“Print is a very unique art genre, and I feel honored that I was chosen. I hope more people would realize the special charm of print.”

Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

  • Kuafa Chases the Sun

Kuafu the Giant had legs that propelled him like the wind. One day he came up with a wild idea to capture the sun so the Earth would forever be filled with light and warmth. 

Kuafu chased the sun until it went down. He was exhausted and extremely thirsty, so he drank up all the water in the Yellow River and the Weihe River and turned north to drink the water from a big lake. But before he even got to the lake, he fainted. So with his last burst of strength, he threw away his cane, creating a beautiful and lush peach orchard. 

The myth shows the great courage of our ancestors struggling with nature and the benefit that they brought to the next generations.

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Inspired by Dunhuang caves

The ancient myth “The Grand Archer Yi Shoots Four Monsters” turned out to pose much difficulty to female artist Luo Ling, 37.

“I didn’t have much idea what it’s about, so I referred a lot to related materials. But surely there is something surrealistic in the myth that can’t be found in text.”

Luo says in order to accurately depict the characters, she painted a big box of drafts for the comic book within a year.

“But I still think I could have done better if I could have more time,” she says. “When I saw the paintings or comic books created by other veteran artists, I rather admired their creativity. They are all superb in techniques and skills, but they never bound themselves with them. For me, it was a rare learning opportunity from these established artists.”

Talking about the work she created, Luo says she has been to the Dunhuang Grottoes three times for inspiration.

“I didn’t want to put too much information in one piece, which might appear too complicated to viewers. I waned to use a unique narrative method, and Dunhuang Grottoes are just a perfect reference.”

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  • Grand Archer Yi Shoots Four Monsters

God summoned Grand Archer Yi to help Emperor Yao to fight against the fierce monsters, and he was given a magic bow and arrows. 

Among those monsters who were harming people, Zaochi, Bashe, Yayu and Fengxi were the most violent. Without fear, Yi found them one by one and then killed them.

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