2011 Student-Faculty Fellows: McDaniel College
Mentor: Qin Fang
Students: Dani Allen, Scott Camuto, Brooke Freeland, Monika Lemke, Yichong Li
Hammering Art in Iron:
Wuhu tiehua (1670s–2010)
This research group spent twenty-two days in Wuhu, Hefei, Beijing and Shanghai working on a group research project focused upon Wuhu tiehua, a unique local art form hammered out of iron yet following genres and subject matters of traditional Chinese brush paintings. Our focus was to better understand the history of this art form and the current status of tiehua in China’s new and challenging market economy. We focused our investigation on exploring: 1) the techniques and methods used to produce tiehua, 2) the close relationship between master and disciples in creating this art form, 3) the challenge posed to tiehua by the market economy, and 4) the role of family and gender in the tiehua business. We met and discussed the production of tiehua with artisans, designers, merchants and local government officials in arranged interviews. Students made their own tiehua with the assistance of tiehua masters in various studios. They also visited museums and art markets in Wuhu, Hefei, Shanghai and Beijing to investigate to what extent tiehua are valued locally and nationally. We attracted quite a bit of local attention in Wuhu and a front page story about us was posted in the local newspaper. In ten days the story received 12,000 hits on the paper’s web link. We shot 3,000 images of our experiences, are producing a short 30-minute video, and purchased several tiehua in preparation for a planned exhibit on Wuhu tiehua on our Maryland campus. Students will write ten short biographies on tiehua artists for a website about their experience. We also plan to visit local schools to discuss our experience.
Through interviews with tiehua masters, artists, and factory workers in Wuhu, China, I was able to gain an understanding of the role that gender plays in tiehua production. I found that this is a meritocratic field and that women have an equal opportunity to produce tiehua. As tiehua developed during the planned economy into a factory based product, women were able to enter in production, and their skill in producing tiehua is recognized. The industry is a small one which can ill afford to exclude talented women if it is to survive. Chu Jinxia, a tiehua master and heir to her father’s business, began her career as her father’s apprentice in his factory and then later established her own studio to become a tiehua master.
My research focuses upon the positive and negative effects that government economic policy has on the production of tiehua (iron painting) and on discovering new ways to provide financial support for this important historical art form. We spent most of our time in the city of Wuhu where the art form has been practiced for at least 400 years, after which we travelled to Beijing and Shanghai to view tiehua in national museums and study preservation techniques being used for iron painting in the Shanghai Public Library. We discovered that there is little evidence of the art form outside of Anhui Province. Museums that preserve culturally significant objects seldom display tiehua because they perceive iron painting as being unpopular. Although government officials profess their support for ongoing production, few government policies actually facilitate this. The pre-1979 Chinese economy provided insulation from market forces and set government prices for tiehua art and encouraged artisans to produce this art regardless of its profitability. However, artisans were at times coerced into producing specific art for political purposes. My final research paper will explore more fully how current economic policies are impacting the production of tiehua art.
The focus of my research will be on the history of the development of tiehua as an artform and especially the study of the history of Tang Peng, the father of tiehua. I will also study the connection between tiehua and traditional brush painting by studying the mindset of tiehua artists, their style and subject matter. Part of the analysis of my work and that of our research group is to focus on the challenges posed to this art form by the current market economy in China which discourages young artisans from working with tiehua masters to learn the skills of production.
Because my interests lie in family and gender roles, my research focuses upon on the role of kinship and family in the tiehua industry in Wuhu, China. Relying upon the interviews, observations, photos and notes taken while in China, I am considering the expectations and traditional formulas linked to passing down a family business in China, and now, faced by a market economy, how these are being adapted to ensure the survival of tiehua production. One of my most engaging discoveries is that in one family Master Cho is a woman, who learned the trade of producing tiehua from her father. This suggests that in producing tiehua gender roles are not a major issue and there are almost no gender divides. What counts is that the art form continues and qualified and capable artists are welcome whatever their gender. Another issue of importance is that a tradition is passed down for generations within a family because consumers view the products produced by a given family to be more credible and authentic.
My research has been informed by first hand observation of tiehua production in Wuhu, conversations with executives on the management board and those in the merchandise chain working with Wuhu products, visits to museums in various cities where I took the opportunity to see some of the earliest tiehua produced, and casual conversations with locals in Wuhu. My major task as a participant in this research project is to produce a 30-minute documentary of our experience. This required a lot of preparation beforehand, the formulation of appropriate interviewing questions, and a careful consideration of the filming process. The history of Wuhu tiehua as an art form is interesting and directly linked to government support. The Qing emperor Qianlong is said to have discovered tiehua and through his patronage production boomed. 200 years later, Premier Zhou Enlai suggested that a large tiehua piece featuring the Yellow Mountain greeting a pine tree be produced for display in the main hall of The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This gave another boost to the industry after the damaging effects to it caused by the disruption of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Currently, the greatest challenge to Wuhu tiehua are market forces which may lead to an unhealthy competition of inferior tiehua pieces undermining quality pieces produced by the skilled artisans of Wuhu.