People story of Li Dacheng

People call him "Father of the Peacock" on rice paper. Now, after two decades of silence, artist Li Dacheng has finally unveiled his first solo-exhibition.

Li Dacheng’s “cuihua qinglu” is a 5-meter-long painting featuring his favorite subject — peacocks.

People call him “Father of the Peacock” on rice paper. Now, after two decades of silence, artist Li Dacheng has finally unveiled his first solo-exhibition at Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy.

The exhibition features nearly 60 of his large-scale traditional Chinese realistic paintings he created in the past 20 years. It is in the two exhibition halls at the academy through September 16.

Born in 1966 in Liancheng County, Fujian Province, Li says he was a boy from the countryside and hoped to change his fate through joining the army.

“I thought that I might learn some basic techniques at the army to feed myself, such as driving or repairing,” Li recalls.

A book he read during that time altered the course of his life, and he immediately became addicted to art.

Later he enrolled at the People’s Liberation Army Art Academy in Nanjing, and was fortunate to be tutored by Yu Jigao, one of China’s top traditional Chinese realistic painters.

Although Li’s daily job mainly focused on TV directing, he never gave up his artistic dream.

“I am grateful that the training and experience at the army give me a strong body that I could sleep less than the others,” he says with a smile. “Most of my creations were done from six o’clock in the evening to midnight.”

Finally, his passion and efforts paid off when his painting “Who accompanied me under the red maple tree?” won the gold medal of the 4th National Chinese Realistic Painting in 1998, the top award in China.

However, unlike his peers, Li lives a quiet and simple life, shying away from the spotlight.

“I am really not the kind of sociable person, and I hate to talk those superfluous words at dinners,” he says. “Art is my blood, and nothing else.”

Perhaps it is only because of his reclusive lifestyle that he is able to display many large scaled paintings for his exhibition.

“Have you seen the 5-meter long painting on the first exhibition hall?” Li asks. “I spent nearly a year to finish it.”

Peacocks are Li’s favorite subject, and under his brushstrokes they become seemingly personified like beautiful and elegant women.

Li’s painting technique is perfectly manifested through the depiction of the soft and intricate feathered tail of the peacock.

Q: Unlike other artists, you have served in the army. How did army life change you?

A: I feel that I am more responsible with a positive force. I usually don’t think too much of loss and profit. I am grateful that the army fuses a kind of spirit deeply into my heart.

Q: You rose to early fame through the epic painting “Dajialunbu.” Looking back, what’s our comment about this daunting piece?

A: Oh, what a work! The painting features the Honor Guard of Emperor Qianlong on his way from the Forbidden City to Temple of Heaven for the worship of heaven. There are about 3,700 figures.

From 1993 to 1996, I slept four hours every day to create this epic piece that’s 60 meters long and 1 meter wide. To tell you the truth, today I am so reluctant to mention this work, because every detail, varying from the clothing, the sedan and even to the cup, was strictly based on the historical materials.

Imagination? Definitely no. Every week, the historians and experts would have a check on the painting. You know what, the brother of Puyi, China’s last emperor, was the team’s consultant. In my eyes, this work is more like a restoration of history. I felt that I was quite shackled. Thank God, I didn’t turn out to be a painting idiot later. Hahah!

Q: Who inspired you on your art path?

A: Believe it or not, it was an album titled “How to paint peony on rice paper.” At that time, I was repairing airplanes in the army. When I first read this album, I was immediately taken — how beautiful a painting could be!

As a child born in the countryside, art was nearly a mystery to me. I had the least idea of how art could be done. But that album changed me, or to be more exact, it changed my life.

Q: Why did you choose peacocks as your main subject?

A: Birds and flowers are the traditional subjects on rice paper. However the peacock is the “King of all birds.” I went to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province in 1992 for sketches, and it was the first time that I saw a real peacock. I was overwhelmed by its beauty and elegance.

Originally I just planned to stay for a week but, guess what, I stayed there for half a year to observe the gestures and routines of the peacocks.

Q: You came to Shanghai in 1997, but your first solo exhibition in town came nearly 20 years later. Why are you seldom exposed to the public?

A: There are many reasons. First, I am a very cautious person and I don’t want to be entangled with those “art circles.” Secondly, painting is my true passion, and I wanted to save every minute on the rice paper.

As you know, traditional Chinese realistic painting demands a great deal of time, each brushstroke to depict the feather and petals needs a full focus and patience. Some are wondered by the number of large works that I created. I am proud to say that I did it.

Q: You once mentioned that you prefer to be away from the market. What does that mean?

A: I lead a very simple life, and I don’t like those luxurious things. I am a person who doesn’t care much about fame and money. Of course, occasionally I sell several of my small paintings.

However, I feel a bit guilty for my family and wife. Today, I still remember my wife’s complaint when I refused one buyer. Now she fully understands me, and I told her that those big paintings were akin to my child, and I wanted to find the best resort for them.

It is my hope that most of my large-scale paintings will be donated to museums in the future.

Q: Besides the peacock paintings, this exhibition includes some figure and old house paintings. Do these subjects also attract you?

A: Yes, sure. I am glad that you see the variety in this exhibition.

For example, one of the paintings showcased at the exhibition features an old shabby house. Actually it was the house in the countryside where I was born. I have such a strong emotional link toward the house that I wanted to “freeze” it permanently under my brushstrokes.

Another painting titled “Red Pepper” features some old men sitting at the door of an old house. There is a string of dried red peppers hanging on that door, which serves as a symbol to echo with the seniors beside — although “dried,” they are still brilliant.

Q: In many people’s eyes, traditional Chinese realistic painting usually asks for a superb technique. What’s your understanding toward technique?

A: Of course, technique is a priority. Because all your thoughts and ideas could only be implemented through technique. But once you grasp the technique, then what to reflect and how to reflect largely counts on one’s self-cultivation.

And I think that is the real gap between artists. I know my disadvantage, so I keep studying and reading to enrich my knowledge in different areas. Self-cultivation never ends until life ends.

“Yulin chenxi,” or rainforest at dawn 


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