Man's lucky break with tiger painting helps village roar to life

Xinhua
When he learned to paint as a teenager, Xiao Yanqing, a farmer in Henan Province at the time, did not think that would lift him out of poverty.
Xinhua
CFP

Residents of Wanggongzhuang Village work on a painting at a studio on September 17, 2017. The village in Henan Province is famous for its tiger paintings, as most of its residents make a living from drawing the big cats and selling their work. The business is worth US$15 million a year. Their tiger paintings are popular in China and abroad.

When he learned to paint as a teenager, Xiao Yanqing, a farmer in Henan Province at the time, did not think that would lift him out of poverty.

Residents of his home village of Wanggongzhuang used to draw and sell new-year paintings, a business that dates back to the early 20th century, when a retired imperial palace craftsman brought the technique to the village.

In the 1980s, Xiao learned to draw such paintings. In his free time, he would paint and travel to cities to sell his works, which sold so cheaply that he could barely make ends meet.

However, 1998, the year of the Tiger, was a turning point in his life after a client ordered a painting of a tiger.

“I used to draw flowers and birds, but not once had I drawn a tiger,” said Xiao, who is 52 years old.

With no real tigers around, he borrowed a painting of a tiger from a neighbor to copy. Xiao’s painting sold for a good price, and he realized that he was on to something that could benefit his whole village. “Chinese people love tigers and are willing to hang tiger paintings in their homes as they believe the powerful tigers can scare away evil spirits,” Xiao said.

So he began to visit zoos in northeastern China to observe tigers and dedicated himself to painting them.

It was a great success. In 1999, he was the first in the village to buy a color television. A year later, he bought a computer.

Using the Internet, Xiao managed to sell his paintings abroad, first to Singapore, then to Japan, Europe and the United States.

He surprised the clerks of the local bank when he brought in US dollars to change for Renminbi. 

“I guess they thought I was a criminal,” Xiao said with a smile.

Impressed by his success, some friends followed suit, and other villagers joined later.

Tiger paintings have become a trademark of the village and more than 60 percent of the 1,366 villagers are engaged in the business.

The village now sells thousands of tiger paintings every year, 40 percent of them to overseas markets, including Japan and Bangladesh. It generates yearly revenues of about 100 million yuan (US$15 million) from doing that.

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