How herdsmen melted his communist soul

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 2010, 12:00am

Chen Jiqun went to Inner Mongolia in the 1960s to convert the herdsmen, but was converted by their nomadic culture. He lives in Beijing but calls Inner Mongolia his real home. He has always been a quiet oil painter, but recently he's become a fearless environmental activist.

What led you to the grassland?

When the Cultural Revolution began, I was studying at the High School of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. Almost overnight, classes were cancelled, and we entered an eternal 'summer vacation'. You can imagine the excitement and happiness in the first few days, but soon idleness set in, and our troubled young minds began seeking adventures. Unlike others, I was not interested in politics, so the popular events organised by the Red Guards - such as brushing slogans on walls, marching on the Tiananmen Square, beating teachers and gun fights among different gangs - failed to attract me. I just wasted time by catching fish in ponds and stealing birds' eggs in the woods.

One day - I don't remember when - Chairman Mao called for the re-education of the youth. He said young men in the city should leave their homes and go to mountains and the countryside to learn and experience the life of peasants. I wasn't interested in peasants, but I wanted to leave so, together with about 400 others, I hopped on a northbound train to Inner Mongolia. Our mission turned out to be quite different from Mao's promise: we were told to convert nomads into Communists.

Did you succeed?

I failed hopelessly. It wasn't that I didn't believe in Communism - everybody had to believe in it in those days - but the warmth and hospitality of the Mongolian nomad tribes melted my steel-hard Communist soul. After days of increasingly wearying transport - from train to open-top trucks, to ox carts, to feet - I finally reached the ranch of destiny on Ujimqin steppe, collapsed and was dragged into a yurt, where I was offered mutton, cheese and tea. Later they let me participate in every activity of their society, from milking the cows to reining the horses, and in the process I discovered how harmoniously they co-exist with nature. They never shot a bird, they respected the wolves, prayed to heaven gratefully for every sheep in the herd, treated the grassland as carefully as if it were their backyard garden, and never lied. Soon I forgot all the principles of Communism and devoted myself to learning and practising their way of life.

When did you pick up your paintbrush?

I never knew my artistic potential until I reached Inner Mongolia. Its boundary-free landscape, waving long grasses, colourful wild flowers, prancing horses, bleating sheep and loitering cows provided me unlimited subjects to paint, and its free, brave, pure-hearted people gave me unlimited inspiration. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, I returned to Beijing and received a degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Then I almost immediately went back to the grassland because all my resources were there. Since then I've produced a constant flow of grassland paintings that were collected around the world, including Hong Kong. In fact, in 1993, my paintings went on exhibition in Central. I was not the only one whose personal success originated from the days in Inner Mongolia. Jiang Rong, author of the nationally best-selling novel Wolf Totem, set most of his works in the wilderness of Inner Mongolia.

Do you still paint as much as before?

Impossible! The beautiful grassland we knew is almost all gone! In the past all I had to do was hire a car, and everywhere I went, there was eye-catching scenery. Now most of the time, I have to confine myself in a studio in Beijing and guide the paintbrush entirely from memory. There are factories with black smoking chimneys, exposed mines that hurt the eyes like the fresh wounds of a knife, dams that have drained almost every river that had a name, highways and telephone poles that have ruined what used to be a perfect landscape, and miners, construction workers, businessmen, government officials and farmers who have driven the remaining nomads to the very northern border. The grassland has disappeared, my friends have died and Mongolian culture is about to become extinct.

What are you doing about it?

I'm fighting. I go to Inner Mongolia several times a year, bringing the latest information about environmental protection to the herdsmen. I've set up a non-profit organisation called Echoing Steppe to help them get organised and to establish a website in several languages to let the rest of China and the world have a glimpse of what's happening in Inner Mongolia right now and pool funding for academic research to address environmental issues of unregulated industrial development in the region. I paint about its not-so-distant past so that it won't be forgotten.