“Bark of fallen trees and rotten wood can be turned into beautiful handicrafts through the deft hands of our local sisters. These skills are our secret of becoming rich,” Li Yanhong, a 44-year-old bark painting instructor, told People’s Daily.
Li Yanhong (middle) teaches people bark painting techniques. (File photo)
Li teaches her fellow villagers in Linsu village, Bailang township, Arxan, Hinggan League, north China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, to create bark paintings and handicrafts with materials such as white birch bark, pine bark, and moss.
Their bark paintings featuring beautiful women, flowers and birds depicted in traditional Chinese style and landscapes are so lifelike that many tourists are attracted to these products.
Li was born in the family of forestry workers and has been interested in bark painting since her childhood.
Endowed with rich forest resources, local people in Arxan often create various articles of everyday use with bark, such as cigarette cases and containers.
Since she was young, Li has seen local women make bark paintings with white birch bark to give to their relatives and friends as gifts or to decorate their home.
Under the influence of the older generations, Li has also created quite a lot of bark paintings featuring beautiful woman and cartoon characters when she was young.
After studying tailoring at a vocational school in the 1990s in Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia, Li worked in a garment factory after graduation.
Although she did not give up bark painting, she couldn’t earn a living through her craftsmanship, for there was no stable market for her products then.
Thanks to China’s natural forest protection project, forests in Arxan were rehabilitated after the year 2000. When tourism industries in the city started to embrace rapid development, many local forestry workers turned from lumbering to tourism for income.
In her spare time Li started to sell her bark paintings, increasing her income significantly each year.
At the end of 2017, Xie Caiyun, general manager of a local culture company based in Linsu village, saw Li’s works and persuaded her to return to her hometown to help people in the village achieve prosperity through bark painting techniques.
Li became an instructor of the company in May 2018, but found that there were not enough trained people on the job, and the bark painting products of the company could find no buyer at all because of their poor quality, outdated style, and high prices.
Realizing that the key to a breakthrough in the business of the company is to find outstanding bark painting craftsmen, Li and Xie started to look everywhere for capable artists and invited them to work full-time on bark paintings. Zhao Guihua, a 48-year-old local villager, is one of them.
Zhao could make bark paintings since she was young. She has become one of the first-class masters of the company in merely two years since she joined the company.
“I devote most of my time to bark paintings. My works are paid by piece. Now I can not only enjoy flexible work hours, but earn 40,000 ($5,864) to 50,000 yuan a year, which is much more than I used to make,” Zhao said.
In 2018, bark painting of Linsu village was included on the list of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of Inner Mongolia. Later in March 2019, the region held a pilot training course for the integration of ICH into poverty relief efforts, inviting experts from Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology to train local bark painting producers.
“We have learned knowledge about various aspects of the handicraft, including innovation in techniques, proportioning of colors, integration of styles, and utilization of materials. The training broadened our vision,” Li said, disclosing that she and her colleagues are adding new materials to their products and developing various cultural and creative products based on bark painting techniques.
In an effort to involve more people in the business and guarantee stable growth in people’s incomes, Li has designed bark painting products that are easy to make and can be produced in large quantities.
At present, over 100 local people are working in the local bark painting industry, with their works being sold to several cities across the country. Each worker in the business can now earn an average of 1,000 to 2,000 yuan more per month than they could make in the past.
“We hold training courses every month and teach students in accordance with their aptitudes,” disclosed Li, who has tried to improve the artistry of bark painting works by integrating traditional Chinese painting styles, traditional Chinese cultural elements, and the characteristics of the local forests.
“As our products become more beautiful, our sales volume and prices can surely rise. With more people being attracted to learning the techniques, incomes of our fellow villagers have increased significantly,” Li shared.