Long March Project- The Great Survey of Paper-cutting in Yanchuan County, A Case Study

The Great Survey of Paper-cutting in Yanchuan County

Lu Jie


Conference:2004 Taiepei Biennial International Conference

Time: Oct.23, 2004- Oct.24, 2004

Location:TFAM Auditorium Venue, Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Speaker:Lu Jie


Yesterday’s discussion was very interesting, I wanted to add that when the question “Do you care about reality” is broached in the context of international art biennales and similar events, the immediate follow-up question that must be asked should be “Do you care about contemporary art?”. This is a question that should be posed without expecting a response, but what does require a response is the question as to whether amongst the people discussing “contemporary art” are they all discussing the same “contemporary art”?


This is a question for Long March and has been the starting point for much of Long March’s work. It has now been five years since the initial curation/execution of “Long March --- A Walking Visual Display” and the project is still slated to continue without rest. Long March is a metaphor. It is a process, a movement, an international collaboration, a cumulative artistic undertaking. Participants were mostly drawn from artists active in China, but also included a few foreign “Long Marchers”. Amongst the participants were artists, theorists and other art workers, as well as individuals and organisations from outside the art world, including from government. The event more or less traced the 6,000-mile trek of the Chinese Red Army from 1934-1936 that changed the course of Chinese history. Taking the historical occurrence as a theoretical and geographic framework, the twenty-plus stops across thirteen provinces were thematically chosen in communion with the grand narrative of the historical Long March. The revolutionary practice achievable when the modern clashes against the traditional cannot be realised in a locality close to the centre or the metropolis, nor in elite groups or at the level of the individual; the role of the intelligentsia as an intermediary should be placed at the roots of community, in the wide-open expanses of rural and remote areas, places better suited for the search for a possibility for an alternative model of society, a road to utopia, turning failure into a romantic ideal of success; the people, leaders, and soldiers together building a new sort of democratic society. In the flux linking the intelligentsia with the people, external concepts and strategies intermingled with lived local realities, aiding in the establishment of a new and strong cornerstone around which modern China was built. The original Long March formed a part of globalised reality. What is today often simplistically reduced to a romanticised tale of military heroism was in fact a key grand narrative foundation of an independent Chinese movement inexorably linked to contemporaneous global movements: Anti-imperialism, feminism, ethnicity and migration, revolution in social structures and resource redistribution, alternate interpretations of democracy, the individual and the collective, vanguardism and elitism, the boundary between the body and ideology, all of these issues touched upon in detail during the Long March remain critical battlegrounds of Chinese and global contemporary art and culture today.


Our new Long March is an attempt to explore contemporary art as viewed through the site/platform that is “China”, given its increasingly prominent position within the context of globalisation. Five years have already passed between the preparatory stages and implementation, with the project already having involved numerous Chinese and international artists working both in and outside of the high art canon.  A number of artist projects have already been completed along the course of the March alongside numerous study sessions, roundtables, neighbourhood-based initiatives and other Long March methods. These particular methods include individually anonymous and collective creative processes under the non-artistic acts that we call Long March installations and Long March happenings. Participants in the March together with the people transposed local resources/memories/questions into the international contemporary art context, while meaningfully translating the international context onto the local situation. Such actions brought a key sense of vitality to the development of Chinese art at a crucial moment, while calling into question a contemporary art system divided and defined by notions of centre and periphery, geography and ethnicity, institutionalisation and the over-concentration of power and resources. The purpose of Long March is not to be anti-establishment, but to achieve a new system attained through long and arduous yet concretely vigorous work. Specifically, this is to say that following five years of concerted effort, Long March has developed into an economic entity in China and internationally that encompasses the spirit and functions of a foundation/independent art space/small-scale museum/curatorial organisation/publishing house/platform for residencies and art creation through exhibition/theory/documentary/performance/communication/consumption/production, incorporating an independent and distinct cooperative identity. Long March constructs space for discourse as well as material, featured frequently at international art events, museums, biennials, academic symposia and seminars. In Beijing, Long March has established China’s most vital space for artistic practice and discourse, one that has never strayed from the commitment to the public realm that was at the centre of the 6,000 miles of the original Long March.


Long March’s newest project is being shown simultaneously at the Shanghai and Taipei Biennials: “The Great Survey of Papercutting in Yanchuan County”. Yanchuan County is located to the Northeast of Yan’an City in one of Northwest China’s most impoverished areas. The county covers a total area of 1,941 km2 and has a population of 180,000, of which 144,000 are agricultural workers. The “Long March” art project carried out with the cooperation and support of the Shaanxi Province Yan’an Region Yanchuan Provincial Government, organised cultural cadres, leaders from the art and cultural sphere and local volunteer farmers who, over the course of six months, visited every family to make a comprehensive survey amongst all 180,000 county residents, documenting from each a sample of their papercutting (each persons’ most beloved or favourite piece) along with a photo of the individual and a verbal description or written record. An image of the local historical and economic landscape composed of documents collected via the survey and visual documentation of the creative process of this cultural practice composed of recordings, archives, images etc., together create a rich visual and textual archive. Amongst the 15,006 individual papercutting samples compiled in the census, one can see the influence of the great political movements of 1940s’s revolutionary Communist era, as well as the influence of specific social mobilisation efforts of the late 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and how in the interplay between politics and art, an effect was cast by a style of woodblock printing attributed to art school training, or through the exchange of ideas with professional artists who have come to the region study paper-cutting and the more recent impacts tourist and commercial markets have had on the production of different visual styles and themes since the late 1980s. The 15,006 samples in the archive represent the output of an astounding 20% of the population still engaged in the art form (papercutting is almost exclusively carried out by women, so the 15,006 individual samples correspond to approximately 20% of the county’s female population), while simultaneously opening up the material of papercutting to contemporary art history. The results of the survey can thus be understood as constituting a macro-structure of visual exhibition, or as a working material for academic research or cultural strategy.


The Great Survey of Papercutting in Yanchuan County was a social project, mobilising contemporary artists and grassroots culture, sending art cadres down to the countryside and drawing together artistic and sociological mechanisms to undertake a comprehensive survey of papercutting across the entire county, the result of which was a sample analysis of the state of local folk art that was later showcased in a large-scale exhibition. At the same time, The Great Survey of Papercutting was itself an artwork, it was made by members of Long March Foundation and Yanchuan government officials, and by the more than 15,000 papercutters and 170,000 residents in the county who participated in the survey but did not practice papercutting themselves. In such an undertaking, each and every person plays an important role; the individual and the collective will always exist and will continue to be interdependent, continue to be inextricable from each other. With the involvement of the local government, this project became not just an artwork but a socio-cultural project. All of these complex elements of authorship form a part of Long March’s long-term thinking and practice.


The survey was a “performance”, revealing in the shape of social fabric and social form a latent politics through the movement of the undertaking. Relying on government support, it surveyed the government’s immense organisational and mobilisation capacities, and in the implementation of cultural strategies, it exposed the endless struggle and the collaborative result between art and government played out on the field between the power of skill and the power of art. It revealed the completely disparate social milieus and belief systems that served as the starting points for the 80 survey workers in their approach to surveying, papercutting, and the relation between their understanding of and interest in art. The impetus of the survey resided in the 100,000-plus people surveyed, in their understanding of documenting and being documented, collecting and being collected. Oftentimes, the first reaction of people in the county when they saw such a large-scale surveying and recording effort being undertaken was to think it must have had something to do with the one-child policy, that the mention of art was just an artifice. There were also cases of villagers who walked many miles to be included in the survey, submitting papercutting they had worked through the night to complete. When participants provided information on their migration background, marital status, family composition, and economic predicament, some of what they provided was true, some less so. Under the questions related to their history of cutting paper, the content of the responses included habitual praise of the government or at times, tragic family life stories, opening up a very personal space, a space for philosophical musings and feelings of art, but most of all, it captured the continuously shifting contradictions between authenticity and reality. In the space between real life and art, the survey fashioned itself into a sociological text, leading the visuality of social life to become embodied and take on structure in the process of surveying.  At the same time, it was perhaps a case study for rethinking the concepts of “action/performance”. In a time and space in which visual transmission is a key medium of social interaction, the performative aspect of visuality in the context of China is most worthy of focus. The effectiveness of the social agency of intellectuals who employ papercutting as a medium; the mediating function of art between life and the individual; the function of documentary and archiving in the collective consciousness and in the recollections of the individual; of curatorial brigades, artists representatives, the government, the survey takers and the tens of thousands of people: all are objects of the survey, which are themselves being recorded in the process of recording.


The Great Survey of Papercutting in Yanchuan County is a work full of questions, which, in its implementation also raised many questions at the social level. For the people of Yanchuan County, the encounter with the outside world via the process of the survey constitutes a very important memory in their lives, and at the same time the interior world of the individual is fully revealed through a confession achieved through language and images. Because it touches upon the awakening of subjectivities and claims to power, the survey exercise brought about changes to the roots of society. At the same time, there were economic and political developments that required time to be unravelled. Historically, the creators of papercutting were also the consumers of the product, but in future the creators will likely no longer remain the consumers of the finished product, the value of the papercutting instead coming to be found in the mechanisms of the market, their practical function thus fading as the aesthetics of papercutting gain in complexity as a result to their commodification. Following survey completion, the county was left with a file of the 15,006 papercutting samples. Taking this as a starting point, the county government could feasibly undertake an analysis of the documents from their own perspective and use it as a means to develop a county-level cultural strategy and potentially promote local art industrialisation.


Left with Long March, the 15,006 archived documents resulting from the survey collectively form one artwork. Employing a contemporary art perspective to vocalise the contemporary identity of papercutting, the tradition was brought onto the power stage of contemporary art which in turn presented a critical question that could be directed to the state of all of China’s “protected” folk art traditions. The art world elite and their authoritative attitude towards so-called folk art, to a large extent, place these traditions in the realm of “the other”, thus by preserving it, it is being sentenced to death. If we are unwilling to move beyond the orthodoxies of tradition (folk as opposed to elite, amateur as opposed to specialist, utility as opposed to pure art), we quickly fall into another form of orthodoxy brought on by globalisation: what is art, and who has the right to interpret contemporary art.


A typical example comes from questions that repeatedly arose over the course of the survey of who has the power to choose and who the power to name. The means through which papercutting is transmitted also touch upon notions of the recreation and reproduction of imagery, tradition, and a population’s symbolic processes and rituals, festivals, costumes, language etc. and how these are gradually made manifest over the prolonged course of transmission and inheritance. Within these processes, the development and dissemination of papercutting is repeatedly retold and revised, the classical form undergoing a continued process of rupture.  During the implementation of the survey, survey workers came across a few papercutting works that were completely “identical” but came from different people, this pointed to an interesting predicament, namely, how to define the concept of knowing how to cut paper vs. not knowing how to cut paper (e.g. those people whose understanding of papercutting is purely a matter of copying and reproducing existing works). Throughout the course of the survey, we were faced with the realisation that papercutting represented the most direct media of social intercourse within the local social structure, one whose temporal and spatial relationship was shifted and given new form through the survey, re-structuring the parameters of public and social life and reconstructing social relationships and collective memory. With papercutting, as the most widespread form of directly visual text in Yanchuan, the relationship between the principle of image composition and the ideologies from different historical periods, how the collective unconscious and aesthetic principles of a given era mutually shape one another, the way the artform is being seen/orated/located, not only result in an individual visual experience, but more interestingly reflect the inherent vitality and points of collision hidden in the cultural patterns behind the papercutting format, the dialogue and mutual misappropriations between the historical and contemporary, between life and art, between imagery and text. The survey touches upon the myriad levels of China’s contemporary social structure, penetrating through the interior boundaries of China’s contemporary visual culture, building a link of profound significance between “folk art” and “contemporary art” and between the metropolitan centre and the agricultural periphery.