Sep 6, 2012
Chen Jiqun's artistic
career was inspired by his stint in the Inner
Mongolia Autonomous Region during the Cultural
Revolution. Photo: Guo Yingguang/GT
Chen Jiqun has fond memories of 1967 when, during the
Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the then young artist
relocated to the rolling grasslands of the Inner Mongolia
Autonomous Region. He would spend the next 13 years there as
a zhiqing, or intellectual young person, before returning to
Beijing to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Chen
was among 17 million young urban residents sent to rural
areas during the Cultural Revolution as part of the Down to
the Countryside Movement to learn from the farmers.
The 65-year-old artist, renowned for his oil paintings of
portraits and landscapes, has devoted himself to preserving
Inner Mongolia's environment, local people's rights and
nomadic cultural traditions through the sales of his
Down to the grassland
Last month, Chen attended a nomadic culture preservation
workshop in Beijing. Modestly dressed in a plain T-shirt and
sitting among the audience, Chen carefully listened to
presentations and diligently took notes like a student. It
wasn't until the end that his identity as an expert was
revealed and people turned to him for suggestions.
As the CEO of Echoing Steppe, a charity that promotes Mongol
nomadic culture, Chen is cooperating with several NGOs in
Beijing on cultural and environmental protection programs in
Chen's artworks of the region's landscape and people adorn
the walls of his studio in Tongzhou district, while books on
Mongolian language line his bookshelves.
"I'm a fluent speaker of Mongolian, but my literacy of the
language is poor," Chen said, offering biscuits and milk tea
from Inner Mongolia as he settled in for our interview. "I
visit [Inner Mongolia] once every few months, but it's never
like before when I was there decades ago."
After graduating from a Beijing high school affiliated with
the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, Chen was
dispatched to Ujimqin grassland as one of the first 400
zhiqing assigned to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural
He immediately embraced the nomadic life, living with ethnic
Mongol natives, riding horses, learning Mongolian and
teaching at a local primary school. For Chen, life as a
zhiqing wasn't as difficult or boring as some of his peers
"I had three horses of my own and I learnt to ride from
local kids. We never felt hungry as we always had enough
meat and milk," recalled Chen. "Ujimqin is one of the finest
grasslands in Inner Mongolia. The grass was above my knees
during that time, and every morning you could see dew
lingering above the ground. It was such a beautiful scene."
Environment under threat
But much has changed over the past two decades, with the
ecosystem of Ujimqin damaged by human factors. Mongolian
gazelles, which used to be one of the most common animals in
Inner Mongolia, have had their numbers decimated due to
Locals have turned to raising camels due to desertification,
and grasslands are now leased to farmers for so-called
wasteland cultivation. The region's industrial development
has resulted in factories and coal mines sprouting in once
farming areas, contributing to pollution and placing a
strain on precious resources such as water.
Most alarmingly, Chen believes local people are losing their
own culture, citing that nomads are settling permanently in
fixed locations instead of being perpetually on the move.
"Many ethnic Mongol kids don't speak their native language
and attend Chinese-language schools. Some schools offer
Mongolian-language courses, but their teachers lack
experience of nomadic culture," Chen said.
The number of Mongolian-language schools has been shrinking
in the region since the State Council launched a national
policy to integrate schools in rural areas in 2001. The
policy aims to improve rural education amid decreasing birth
rates in rural areas and increasing migration to cities.
Chen's concerns about the fading nomadic culture and the
worsening environment of grasslands led him to establish
Echoing Steppe in 1996.
It started by selling Chen's paintings and eventually became
a charitable website in 2000.
The website, available in Chinese, English and Mongolian,
introduces Inner Mongolia's culture to people outside the
region and highlights legal knowledge for local people. Chen
also posts cartoons about nomadic life with both Chinese and
Mongolian captions so children can better understand their
ancestors' way of life.
Inspiration for Wolf Totem
Mongol culture was thrust into the global spotlight by Wolf
Totem (2004), a semi-autobiographical novel by Lü Jiamin
under the pen name Jiang Rong, which was translated into
over 20 languages.
The book, which details the author's experience of leaving
Beijing to work in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural
Revolution, includes descriptions of the folk traditions and
life of ethnic Mongol nomads and farmers on the steppe.
Lü and Chen have formed a friendship based on their common
experience, with some literary critics even speculating Chen
is in fact the narrator and major character in Wolf Totem -
a matter Chen would rather keep it a secret. "It's a story
about all the zhiqing there, including me," he said.
Chen and Lü have jointly established a foundation for the
grassland preservation. Chen is currently writing and
illustrating a book comprised of decorative plates depicting
nearly 700 types of plants, among which many have already
One of the threats to nomadic culture is the lack of legal
awareness among natives who don't know how to protect their
rights and property when they are infringed, said Chen, who
has cooperated with the Central Compilation and Translation
Bureau on ensuring the translation of a series of books,
including environmental protection laws, from Chinese to
He's also helped Inner Mongolian residents who have
petitioned over land acquisitions and livestock deaths due
to excessive industrial pollution.
"I'm happy there are people who see how difficult cultural
preservation is and are willing to help," Chen said of
volunteers from both Inner Mongolia and Beijing who help run
Chen plans to open a nomadic culture museum and tourist
route in Inner Mongolia to boost tourism and raise public
awareness, but these endeavors are currently on hold due to
financial constraints and a lack of government support.
"In the meantime I'll keep painting scenes from Inner
Mongolia, which is my second hometown. With help from
locals, hopefully we'll be able to make it," he said.