Army administrator Wang Zirui spends her spare time traversing the country, looking for folk art that she houses in a Beijing museum she founded. Zhao Xu reports
Five years have passed, but Wang Zirui still feels the impulse to lick her lips when she recalls walking for three hours on the sun-baked Yellow Earth Plateau of Shaanxi province.
"The sun was searingly hot," she says. "We walked until I had no strength left to ask: ''''How far do we still have to go?''''"
Wang was encouraged by her companion who, judging by the wrinkles in her face, was about 40 years her senior.
"This old lady didn''''t show any sign of exhaustion," Wang says. "She was the most celebrated paper-cutting artist in the area, and I was following her all the way from the county museum, where she temporarily worked, to her home on the wind-whipped bank of the plateau."
The Beijing army administrator has spent nearly all her spare time crossing the country to find hidden folk-art treasures.
"I would take a weekend night train to whatever place I intended to go and get back to work on Monday morning," she says.
For the past 19 years, Wang has visited 83 counties in 25 provinces for "the most authentic and indigenous" forms of Chinese folk art.
"Only when I saw these people at one with what they did against a bucolic, totally unspoiled background, did I realize where my roots lay," she says.
In 2002, during a business trip to Shaanxi, Wang managed to steal some time to look around for artifacts. After a bumpy car ride, she found herself standing in the middle of local artist Li Jiyou''''s home, with all four walls covered by painted masks.
"I didn''''t know exactly what they were, and I didn''''t have much time for much thought. The sight of them sent my heart racing," she says.
It turned out the masks, hand-painted on the cross-sections of tree trunks, used to be worn by worshippers dancing around huge bonfires during their annual celebration of the "God of Earth". These days, they are simply hung on walls to fend off evil spirits.
Some of the biggest ones, 50 cm in diameter, have since found their way to Wang''''s home, in a big military compound in southern Beijing.
"Those are the last ones of their size, because trees that big are hard to find today. Unlike fine art, which may take quite some time before it grows on you, folk art elicits an immediate reaction and takes your breath away."
Wang grew up in a border town between China and the former USSR, which she refers to as "a frozen land of immigrants". Like her parents, the majority of residents settled as part of a government initiative in the 1950s to marshal its resources in the northeast.
There was little "indigenous art", just giant portraits of State leaders, smiling broadly near the local train station. But a twist of events soon offered her a glimpse into a colorful, enchanted world.
"I was 5 when tension was rising between China and the former USSR, and the situation on the border became volatile," Wang says. "We all had to move inland. For the first time, my parents took me to their hometown in Shandong."
There were revolutionary posters there, but people also decorated their windows with elaborate paper-cutting works, and ate moon cakes made from hand-cut wooden molds. Wang was given a pair of new shoes, with flower patterns embroidered on both sides.
But it was the sight of a newlywed woman, heading to her husband''''s home that left the most indelible impression.
"She was wearing a red jacket and green trousers, and was carrying a small bundle folded in printed wrappers. As she moved further away there was only this red dot constantly dancing in and out of sight."
That fiery red dot has stayed in Wang''''s mind. Two years ago, when she and some friends opened a 150-sq-m space dedicated to folk art and furniture outside the Fifth Ring Road, in northeastern Beijing, Wang called the lifestyle boutique-cum-mini museum "Phoenix Charm" - as the phoenix is a powerful symbol for Chinese women.
The boutique has since expanded and was relocated to South Yuhui Road last November.
Sofas and chairs are upholstered in cloth, hand-dyed in a shade of indigo known simply as "Chinese blue". Ferocious Peking Opera masks guard the wall, their long, thick, hand-braided beards reaching to the ground.
Inside a space known as the "boudoir", dim light emanates from a bedside lantern, with an intricately-carved leather shade. There is old furniture and elaborate wooden carvings.
"We Chinese used to live with art, and folk art is the most genuine, heart-melting form of poetry. It''''s time we found our way back home," Wang says.
"Before a child is born, a grandmother used to prepare hand-sewn shoes and embroidered them with tiger images. When the child was 1 year old, the family made flour cakes and dough figurines to celebrate," Wang says.
"When art and life are so seamlessly merged, you don''''t see the kind of pretension and cynicism that plagues contemporary art. Instead, you feel the richness of an ancient culture, and the raw power of life."
Folk artists that Wang has visited over the years have invariably opened up and let her into their world. One of them is Ku Shulan, a near-mythical figure known as the "Goddess of Paper-Cutting".
Wang paid a visit to her rundown earthen house in Shaanxi in 2002, two years before her death.
"Like all great artists, she seemed to be locked in her own creative mania. I didn''''t really understand her dialect and before she picked up her scissors, everyone present had to go through this strange ritual where she recited a prayer."
As a young lady, Ku fell off a cliff, by accident, spent days in coma and later came around claiming to have been reborn as the "Goddess of Paper-Cutting".
Wang approached all these artists with a humble heart and a pilgrim''''s devotion.
"They may not have had halos on their heads, but these people were true masters," she says.
One master embroiderer Wang met had a set of shoe patterns handed down to her by her great aunt, who used to do needlework for the royal court.
The patterns were probably drawn with a magnifying glass and were then hung on the wall in a mirror frame.
After much persuasion, the woman agreed to lend her family legacy to Wang, who took them to Beijng, enlarged them and sent them back with thread and silk cloth.
"I wanted to see the beautiful patterns coming down from the wall and be sewn onto some child''''s shoes. I want to see art alive."
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