HENAN, Central China — The sweltering July heat, the passing trucks, and the loitering pigs cannot distract the dozen painting students from the task at hand. The villagers, young and old, are sitting around a table in their teacher’s studio, putting the finishing touches on their tigers’ whiskers and fur with the utmost concentration.
The village of Wanggongzhuang’s love for the big cat is announced to every visitor by a giant boulder situated next to the corn fields and the road into town. Engraved into it, giant red characters spell out “Formidable Tiger Village.”
The hamlet has several ties to the animal. Most people here, even those that are not directly related, are surnamed Wang — a character that means “king.” Tigers are considered the king of all animals, and — with some imagination — the stripes on their foreheads resemble the character wang (王). In Mandarin, “tiger” sounds similar to “good fortune,” and so the animal represents a king’s bravery and power.
In one Henan village, more than half of the residents are involved in creating and selling tiger-themed paintings. By Liu Jingwen and Han Xinyu/Sixth Tone
But the strongest connection is painting. Most people in Wanggongzhuang make their livings from tiger art: Among its 1,366 villagers, over 600 paint tigers, and at least another 200 are engaged in related businesses.
Wang Jianmin, 52, is considered the industry’s pioneer, the artist who first realized that tiger paintings could mean big business. His spacious, stark-white art studio is covered wall-to-wall by paintings, from tiger portraits with almost photorealistic detail, to giant mountain-and-river landscapes with hundreds of animals skulking around the scenes. Wang has his own distinct style for the animals’ fur — flowing and elegant, but with thick layers of paint.
Painting techniques, Wang says, are passed down and improved upon from generation to generation. When he was little, he learned the craft from his father and grandfather, who would paint tigers because the animal is part of the Chinese zodiac. “But they had never seen a real tiger,” he says. “The tigers they painted were not as vivid as mine, because I’ve had the chance to see real tigers in the zoo.”
Different compositions carry different meanings. Tigers painted going uphill imply continuous progress, such as getting rich; tigers painted moving downhill are believed to help ward off evil spirits and ensure the safety of the people living in the house; tiger portraits represent leadership, which make them popular among soldiers, entrepreneurs, and government officials.
Wang has kind eyes and a mild dispostition, which is reflected in his style of painting. He doesn’t see the tiger as a fierce animal. Instead, in his art, tigers are confident, carefree, somewhat gentle, and presented in calm, natural settings — surrounded by reeds and a lotus pond, for example. “We are peasant painters who combine tigers with rural elements,” says Wang.
In his early twenties, Wang and three other villagers, who were somewhat accomplished painters, were no longer satisfied with selling their work in the nearby town. They expanded their horizons to urban painting markets, where they realized there was an untapped market for their wares. “We noticed that most of the paintings in the markets were portraits and landscapes, and that we were the only ones selling tiger paintings,” he recalls. Few artists seemed interested in painting tigers, which demands a high level of technical ability and patience due to the intricate fur and other fine details.
Some 20 years ago, Wang first hit it big when a 6-foot (1.8-meter) tiger painting — China’s art world uses imperial measurements — sold for a price of 100 yuan ($15 today) at one of the urban markets. Since the village’s farmers made less than 30 yuan per month at the time, the sale created quite a stir. Suddenly, relatives and neighbors came looking for him and his three companions — now respectfully called the village’s “Four Great Tiger Kings” — to learn their craft.
Hundreds of villagers are now painters, though the majority of work is still created by the four “kings” and their 20 or so best students. The others merely copy their work to meet market demand. Last year, the village collectively sold around 90,000 tiger paintings, with a revenue of nearly 100 million yuan, according to local government figures. Prices range from a few hundred yuan to nearly 1 million yuan apiece. Most paintings are 6 feet long, but some can be huge, with hundreds of tigers in one frame. Forty percent of the works are exported to Japan, Bangladesh, South Korea, and other countries where tigers are also worshiped.
The village is a collection of neatly arranged two-floor houses and art studios. Walking around, it’s common to see a husband and wife, or a parent and child, painting together at home. Though many villages around China stand nearly empty as people have moved to cities in search for better-paid work, villagers in Wanggongzhuang have stayed home to paint. Many locals now own multiple properties and drive luxury cars.
Wang Jianfeng, 35, started painting at age 13. In 2000, after years of practicing with Wang Jianmin, he finally sold a tiger painting for 80 yuan. Nowadays, his paintings sell for 10,000 yuan on average. His atelier is filled with piles of artwork that are destined for buyers all over the country.
Compared with painters of his teacher’s generation, Wang Jianfeng says painters his age prefer different styles. Instead of tigers that look relatively gentle and are painted in soft, muted tones, Wang Jianfeng enjoys using bright colors to paint tigers who have their teeth bared and claws brandished.
Wang Jianfeng is also one of the first villagers to use livestreaming to sell his works. His wife broadcasts him painting and manages the accounts, which have a combined follower count of nearly half a million. According to local government figures, about one-third of all paintings are now sold through the internet. In a good month, Wang Jianfeng can make over 1 million yuan in online sales.
According to Wang Jianjin, who became the village’s first agent around the time when Wang Jianmin made his landmark 100-yuan sale, the growth of online sales hasn’t affected offline business. “The works sold online are mostly mid-to-low-end paintings,” he explains. Buyers of more expensive pieces usually prefer to see them with their own eyes. The village’s 70 or so agents travel around the country promoting and selling the local artwork, and — just as importantly — staying on top of the latest trends to make sure Wanggongzhuang doesn’t fall behind in the market.
People who discovered that they lack artistic dispositions have found ways to join in the windfall. Wang Ximei tells Sixth Tone she dreamed of a lucrative painting career, but failed to master the brush. She then changed plans, and went to Beijing to learn how to frame and mount paintings. In 2004, she opened the village’s first mounting shop and saw orders rise steadily ever since. “I have to work over 12 hours a day to meet demand,” she says, not taking her hands off a mounting machine.
Though the tiger art trade has given Wang Ximei a relatively comfortable life, she doesn’t want her 2-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to get involved in it. “I stepped into this industry because I had no other options to make money,” she says. “But they now have access to study at university, and will have many more opportunities in the future.”
Because everyone caught up in this feline art world has no time to tend to their fields, villagers who still farm have been able to rent large plots of fallow land, and thereby increase their incomes, too. However, differences remain. “The income gap between painters and farmers like me is incalculable,” exclaims 60-year-old Wang Peifeng, who grows corn and peanuts. When pressed for a figure, he says that artists earn about ten times as much as farmers do.
To help the farmers with their incomes, in July, the local government started renovating farm houses so that they can receive lodgers — improving the look of the village in the process. Some land will be set aside for urban tourists to pick their own fruits and vegetables. “We hope it can attract more visitors to our village who aren’t here for professional reasons,” Wang Peifeng says.
The government is also working to promote the village by encouraging art classes — something it’s been doing since 2006. But just improving skills won’t take the village to the next level, says An Desheng, the government official in charge of promoting the village’s cultural industry. “Most villagers paint tigers just to make a living,” he tells Sixth Tone. “We need more villagers who truly love painting tigers.”
Luckily, a new generation seems poised to take tiger painting to new, unexplored places. Wang Jingheng, 23, is one of a few villagers who have attended an art academy. “Our elder generation didn’t master the basics of painting,” Wang says, sitting in his father’s studio. “If all of us young villagers just stay home and learn from our fathers, we will have a limited outlook, and it will be hard to keep pace with the market.”
It doesn’t concern Wang Jingheng that his paintings are not yet priced as high as his father’s. He’s convinced creativity and innovation will bring him success. “Tigers with flying wings in bold colors are probably shocking to the senior village painters, but for us, it’s where the future stands.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.