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Wednesday, March 14, 2018, 11:31
Myth and life
By Yang Yang
Wednesday, March 14, 2018, 11:31 By Yang Yang

A bookstore owner in Xi'an is selling his paintings to support his business during sluggish trade. Yang Yang reports.

Lyu Chonghua, owner of the Fangyuan Bookshop in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, takes to painting to uplift him from his daily routine. His ink paintings cover legendary figures from Chinese mythology, and details of everyday life such as eating watermelon or catching fish from a river. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

To attract more visitors amid a sluggish book business in China, many bookstores are renovating furnishings and decorations, and are selling coffee, cake and cultural products such as bags and postcards, as well as hosting events or lectures.

Lyu Chonghua, owner of Fangyuan Bookshop in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi province, however, has decided to sell his paintings.

"My dream bookstore should be like a literati's study, so jampacked with books that many of them have to be stacked on the floor, unlike the fashionable stores with many seats and bars. Besides, it costs a lot to upgrade the look of a bookstore," says Lyu, 47.

He has run the 200-square-meter bookstore dedicated to fine arts, which is located near the south gate of the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, since he graduated from that college 22 years ago.

In the style of traditional Chinese painting, Lyu draws inspiration from legends, myths, fairy tales, arts, cartoons and everything that he finds interesting in daily life. He uses his free time at the store to paint mostly on a "crude" kind of paper that measures 34 centimeters wide by 138 cm long.

"Year after year, I stay behind the counter, unable to go anywhere else, even when there are no customers in the shop," he says. "I dream of flying but can only fly in my paintings."


In one of his works, he and his wife, Liang Bing, appear as the images of Fu Xi and Nyu Wa, the Chinese mythological equivalent of Adam and Eve.

In this painting, Lyu's character is wearing an azure knee-length shirt and Liang's a floral cheongsam, but instead of legs, like the mythical images, both have serpent tails that twist around each other. Lyu holds a red plate with a raven design representing the sun, and Liang holds a white plate with a design of cherries and a toad, symbolizing the moon.

"The image is an ancient Chinese totem that can be seen on the walls of ancestral houses or vaults from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220). The copulation symbolically gave birth to the Chinese nation and Chinese culture, represented by the things in their hands," Lyu explains.

In another piece called Nyu Wa Fixed the Sky, Lyu, as a replacement for the mythological Earth goddess, takes to the air wearing nothing but a ribbon as he tries to fix a hole in the sky with a heavy book.

"The story and ribbon are Chinese, but the naked muscular body comes from Western paintings," he says.

His ribbon is inspired by the apsara (heavenly creature in Hindu mythology) frescoes in Buddhist artworks in Northwest China's Dunhuang Grottoes.


In other paintings, he appears as Zhong Kui, the mythological demon-killer; Kua Fu, a giant trying to catch the sun; Hou Yi, an archer in Chinese mythology who saved people by shooting down nine of 10 suns; Su Wu, a legendary Han Dynasty diplomat who tended sheep after being captured and detained for 19 years, and so on.

In some others, he recreates scenes from everyday life such as his family members eating watermelon or catching fish from a river.

"Some people have told me to have a particular theme in my paintings - pumpkins, eggplants, Chinese watermelon or chillies - that masters like Qi Baishi have painted. How can I match them in technique? But I do have my own strengths," Lyu says.

Although Lyu's paintings cannot be considered original, they seem to carry a sense of humor, especially the caricatured images of himself and his family, such as the naked male version of Nyu Wa.

"All these mythological or historical figures are me - buzz cut hair, round face with a mustache and a pair of round glasses," he says, laughing.

When he drew Guan Yu, a famous general from the Three Kingdoms (220-280) period, who had a long beard, he ingeniously created a man eating noodles, which are pulled from the bowl to appear like a fake beard.


Lyu did not start creating large paintings until June. Before that, he was into caricatured portraits, which are included in his book Order: The Story of Fangyuan Bookshop. In 2016, the book won the gold medal for Best Book Design at an annual book design competition, Best Books From All Over the World, in Leipzig, Germany.

He has drawn one picture per day since June, and in December, an exhibition of his paintings was held at the Wanbook Store in Xi'an. The humor in the pictures attracted many visitors.

Wu Wenli, the deputy director of the Research Center of Literature and Art Creation in Xi'an, says Lyu's works are both idealistic and romantic.

"He represents his feelings and life freely. Seeing these paintings, I believe there's nothing he can't depict. He has the spirit of the ancient Chinese literati. Although he is stuck at the crowded bookshop and his life is full of trivia, his mind is unconstrained. I like the lightheartedness and freedom in his works," Wu says.

Chang Chun, an assistant professor of calligraphy at the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts, says Lyu lives a rich spiritual life.

At the December exhibition, Lyu also sold his paintings at prices ranging from 500 yuan (US$79) to 3,000.

"Due to the bleak book business, I have the time to paint, which is both good and bad. Selling paintings may be a way to save my bookshop," Lyu adds.

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