The Tiger Art Village That Won’t Change its Stripes

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.


Wang Jianfeng counts the delivery forms in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

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.


Wang Ximei works on the mounting machine in Wanggongzhuang Village, Minquan County, Henan province, July 11, 2018.

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.

Why China’s Elderly ‘Huddle to Stay Warm’

HUBEI, Central China — Shen Exiang was feeding his six dogs with some minced pork and rice at home when his former colleague Deng Chao rode over on his motorcycle. It was a chilly February afternoon, but the snow was melting around the village, and Deng wanted to know if Shen and his wife would go hiking with him.

It’s a relaxed pace of life for the 60-somethings, who’ve recently swapped life in Wuhan, a city of nearly 11 million, for a new kind of retirement in the countryside. They “huddle to stay warm,” as the phenomenon has been dubbed. Unable to rely on their only children or state care facilities, they depend on each other for social support.

The concept of “huddling retirement” has aroused interest among middle-aged people ready to retire soon — China’s retirement age varies between 50 and 60 depending on one’s occupation. A couple in the eastern city of Hangzhou made headlines earlier this year when they invited five other retired couples, who shared a fondness for playing mahjong, to live in their three-story suburban home. They charged at most just 1,500 yuan per month for room and board, and cleaning services.

When Shen, 64, was getting ready to retire in 2012, he spent a year searching for the perfect place to start the new chapter of his life. One day, while hiking with friends, he came upon the area around Hanzi Mountain, about 100 kilometers east of downtown Wuhan. When passing through Hanzishan Village on their way down the mountain, he learned that the majority of the hamlet’s 800 residents worked and lived in the city, leaving their houses empty most of the year.

Shen retired after a 43-year career as an engineer at Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation, one of the largest state-owned enterprises in central China. He loves nature — hiking, hunting, camping, fishing, and looking after pigeons and dogs. “I can’t do any of these in the city,” Shen tells Sixth Tone. With his energetic demeanor, he organizes a range of activities and has a lot of friends who, like him, wish to stay active in retirement. “Our apartments in the city are just not big enough,” Shen says.

On the top of a hill overlooking a reservoir, Shen and his wife Yan Shifeng, 61, found their own retirement home. The single-story brick building had been abandoned for 10 years — the surrounding land was overrun with weeds and the fish in the nearly dried-up pond had long since died. The owners agreed to rent the 200-square-meter house and the land around it for 1,000 yuan ($160) a year for a decade. “It seemed incredibly cheap,” Yan says. “But we’ve spent over 100,000 yuan on renovating the house and cleaning up its surroundings.”

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of Hanzishan Village on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

As an engineer who used to be in charge of large-scale experimental energy projects, Shen considers the village’s “huddling community” his retirement project. Shen spent nearly two months converting the dilapidated house into what he and his wife now affectionately refer to as their “mountain villa.” Most of the work went into repairing the ceiling and installing a new bathroom and kitchen.

After local media reported on Shen and Yan’s hilltop abode, more than a thousand people have come to visit, many of whom were thinking about moving to the countryside themselves. Shen invited them to stay in one of his six spare bedrooms to experience rural life for a few weeks before making their decision. Since the couple moved to the village in 2013, more than 30 retirees from Wuhan have followed suit.

Traditionally, Chinese live with and depend on their children to take care of them later in life. However, most people who are currently entering retirement started their families in the 1980s, when China’s strict family planning policies only permitted one child. Many of today’s pensioners have realized that it is unrealistic to rely on just one child, who might be also raising children of their own. Official numbers reflects this, too. In 2016, over half of seniors nationwide were so-called empty nesters — seniors who live apart from their children. The proportion exceeded 70 percent in cities.

As a result, China’s youngest pensioners are more open-minded about their retirement plans— from spending big on high-end apartments in luxury senior housing to “destination retirement,” where seniors move around to different locations each season. Luo, the sociologist, sees “huddling retirement” as a response to inadequacies in state-provided elderly care. “China’s old-age welfare system was mainly built to fullfill material and service needs, but very little attention is paid to elderly people’s spiritual and social needs,” Luo says. “Huddling retirement satisfies precisely these requirements.”

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Shen Exiang poses for a photo on the Hanzi Mountain on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

For Shen, life in the countryside is certainly fullfilling. He wakes up around 6 every morning, eats breakfast, and exercises. Donning his favorite camouflage outfit, he then feeds the chickens, ducks, dogs, and sheep. For lunch and dinner, the couple and the other “huddling buddies” take turns to cook, and eat together in each other’s house.

Deng, 62, moved to the village four years ago. He raises hundreds of chickens in his yard and sells them at the market every weekend. “The high prices, traffic congestion, and poor air quality in the city are not suitable for retirement,” he says. “The natural environment here is a great attraction to me,” Deng adds.

Shen admits that he wouldn’t have moved to the countryside if it wasn’t for his sister, who is taking care of their mother in the city. His son, who is unmarried and loves to travel, also fully supports his parents’ move. “Many of my friends envy my carefree life in the country; however, they can barely step out of the urban center as they have to take care of their grandchildren in Wuhan,” says Shen.

Huddling retirement is still rare in Luo’s eyes, and she doesn’t think it’s a realistic alternative for most people. “These retirees are the ‘young seniors’ who are in good shape,” she says. “When they are ill and their health condition won’t allow them to live in the countryside for very long, they will have to move back to the city.” Though the government has promised improvements in rural health care, the best hospitals are still in the city.

But while Shen is concerned about health, he hopes he will never have to leave. “I think that when I’m old and need professional medical care, there will be good nursing facilities in the countryside, so that I could keep living here instead of moving back to the city,” he says, as he sips his favorite green tea.

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A view of a newly renovated cottage bought by a couple, who are both doctors, in Hanzishan Village, on the outskirts of Wuhan, Hubei province, Feb. 7, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But if that doesn’t happen, Shen has another plan.

A five-minute walk down the hill from his home stands a house that’s currently being renovated. Its walls are now stark white, but the most eye-catching feature is the wood-paneled walls and terrace on the second floor reserved just for pigeons. Shen says that a couple bought the house recently and is planning to move in later in the year, when they retire. “They are both doctors,” he says. “I think it’s a really good thing for us to have them here.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.