Yan's fine line between art and preserving tradition

Yan Yongfang's paintings feature memories from his childhood which he hopes will educate the youth in the district's traditions.
Li Zhuoxiang / Ti Gong

Yan Yongfang (right) spreads out one of his drawings on the old, square desk in his living room and studio in Huating Town. His art records traditional events and customs that are part of the district’s history.

People miss their hometowns when eating local food in other cities. Just like the past Spring Festivals, hundreds and thousands of workers in Shanghai traveled back home to share their best wishes with families during the traditional holiday.

The inscription on a picture depicting a scene of purchasing goods from markets at the Spring Festival says: “The Spring Festival is the most important traditional festival in China. People buying varieties of nianhuo (New Year goods) such as cane, oranges, fish, dried bamboo, water chestnuts, dates and cabbage, to celebrate these days. Nianhuo has the meaning of expecting richness in the future year so these goods were regarded as luxuries at that time.”

Today, more and more youngsters are finding a more modern way to entertain themselves and release the pressure throughout the oneweek holiday — traveling, avoiding boring traditional activities — with the result that traditional events and the Spring Festival culture in their hometowns are becoming unfamiliar to them. Hence, the promotion of these traditions plays an important role in the hope that youngsters can continue to carry them on.

Yan Yongfang, painter of the nianhuo picture, is such a promoter, featuring hometown traditions in each painting as essential elements. He was born into a farmer’s family in Jiading’s Huating Town, so farmland was the inspiration behind his paintings at the beginning.

“Catching fish and shrimp, digging up bamboo shoots and straw weaving were my interests in childhood,” Yan said. “All paintings are based on my memory and my love of Jiading, so the figures in paintings are real. Some are my neighbors, while some show myself.”

Yan Yongfang / Ti Gong

Left: Wheat harvest Right: Stepping on vegetables

He began his hobby by featuring flowers and farm animals. He once painted a series of pictures on growing rice, including transplanting seedlings, weeding and the autumn harvest, presenting a farming way of life that people today have little chance of seeing for themselves.

After retirement, he continues to paint, focusing on Jiading’s customs according to his memories of childhood. Although he wasn’t educated in painting, he has a flair for art. He records Jiading’s customs and traditions because of his love for the hometown, which contributed to his success and recognition by residents and professionals.

His living room, with its old, square desk, is his workshop. Pens, paper and ink are set out waiting for him. “I first draw a draft by pencil and revise the draft several times under careful observation and consideration. At last, I use a pen to finish the work,” Yan says.

“I finished the first long roll painting in 2012, depicting the past of the community,” he said. “When I showed it to my old neighbors, they found their houses, which gave me a sense of accomplishment.”

Xu Zhengwei, chief researcher at Jiading Museum, was excited when he saw Yan’s paintings. “With the fast-pace development of Jiading, turning from rural to a modern environment, varieties of tradition, events and landscapes were lost,” Xu said. “Yan’s paintings are the key materials for discovering Jiading’s culture and are educational materials for new generations to learn what’s special about the district.”

Yan Yongfang / Ti Gong

Left: Hanging garlic Right: Digging up bamboo shoots

Recently, Yan spent three months completing a 1.5-meter-long by 0.6-meter-wide painting showing the busy farming season that children born in urban areas have never seen.

With the development of the countryside, people are moving downtown to make a living, and new generations may have little chance to enjoy the beauty of rural areas or even don’t acknowledge those important parts of Jiading’s history.

“Yan’s paintings always remind me of my childhood in Jiading when women worked on the farm,” said Tao Jimin, a Jiading history expert. “Black lines on white paper is Yan’s style. Simple but you’ll feel warm and calm. I can always remember it.”

Last year, a series of Yan’s best work was presented on a wall along Shuangzhu Road, depicting various traditional events and customs in Jiading including making firecrackers, affixing Spring Festival couplets, hanging a rabbit-shaped lantern and worshipping ancestors.

Yan is now 84 years old but he still keeps creating in his own workshop despite his illness and age. He wears a big smile when drawing with pen and paper and will continue to promote Jiading culture to today’s youngsters.

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