Yi Qian '18

Life Drawing

a thesis film by Yi Qian


Family is of the utmost concern to me. I started making art works using my family members as the main subject at the very beginning of my career as an artist. For my thesis project I decided to make a film based on my family history. There are three generations of artists in my family tree, going back to my grandfather on my mother’s side. This film is about roles artists play in culture and history which can be manifested in how we walk on the road to becoming artists. I hope it will give viewers an opportunity to learn about what it is like to be an artist in China and that encourages them to think about their own future developments.

As artists, my grandfathers on both my father and my mother’s side, my parents and I are different in many ways. Why and how did we enter the gate of art? How did we learn the skills of making art? What do we think are the biggest challenges artists face? For those watching the film, all those questions will be answered or discussed. And viewers will not only learn about the personal experiences of the artists in my family, but also understand a bit about the dramatic changes that happened in China after World War Two and how we each formed our worldviews and sense of values under the influence of the political and economic environments of the time periods we’ve lived in and through.


Speaking of worldviews, there are huge experiential and aesthetic differences between the different generations in my family. To be more specific, painting posters for the government was my grandfather’s job to make a living. The most influential event during his lifetime was the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). At that time, not only artists but all highly educated people were considered dangerous to society by our government. They and their families were humiliated and persecuted like public enemies. Before that era started, my grandfather spent his spare time painting portraits for my grandmother and going into nature to make landscape paintings. But in 1966, he was forced to stop painting landscapes and the only portraits he could paint were of the great leader of the Communist Party and the country, Chairman Mao.

My grandfather has no desire to fight for free will in his heart, because he thought there was nothing wrong in the idea that all art related activities were serving the government as the party’s propaganda tools. What he chose to believe in kept him and our family out of the harm’s way. But not every artist or those who did art related works was as ‘lucky’ as he was. Giving up making his own art was not the only compromise he made. When my mother showed her interest in painting, he was not happy about it at the very beginning, because he thought becoming a painter was not a good career choice for a girl. But after my mother proved her determination, he chose to respect that and gave her his full support. Coincidently, the same plot twist happened between my father and me, after I told him that I wanted to be a filmmaker. How history repeats itself fascinates me.

For my parents, they had the chance to make their own art and their love for painting came from the bottom of their hearts. Unfortunately, after the Economic Reform and Opening in 1978, Chinese society changed again, and this time was filled with and shaped by material desires. In order to survive, lots of artists in that curtail moment had to abandon their dreams and having no relationship with art or just used their art making skills to make money. My parents joined at second group of people. When my parents were young, they learned how to paint at masters’ homes and they didn’t need to pay their mentors anything. There were no organizations or schools to teach children painting skills. The whole art world at that time was based on one-on-one master and apprentice relationships. After 1978, Chinese society became extremely competitive. Parents started investing more and more money in their children’s education. And painting was one of many skills they thought their children needed to master in order to give them competitive advantages in the future. My parents, for example, built up a school to teach children to paint and, as result, economically benefited from it. Since then, they had no spare time for making their own arts for a very long time because they were busy with teaching and managing. They promised themselves that they would pick up their brushes again, once they were sure that I would have a promising future.

Speaking of my generation’s experience, the College Enrollment Expansion program implemented by our government in 1999 played a huge rule in our lives. In most cases, the results of this one test shape a student’s destiny. Getting high scores of this test in order to be accepted by college became most of Chinese parents’ ultimate goal for their children’s education. Both parents and their children are under huge pressure and willing to do almost anything to achieve this goal. For example, students who have neither interests nor talents in becoming artists choose to apply for art academies, because you can get in with lower scores than regular colleges require, as long as you pass special exams designed specifically for art students.

My parents started training me in their school, as well, when I was around ten. And in order to give me an even better chance to get into the best art academy, they even sent me to another more ‘professional’ training center before I took the test. I tried my best and passed that exam, even though I clearly understand that painting wouldn’t be my choice as a way to make art. The psychological struggles I experienced while doing something against my will was the price I paid for getting into a college located in Shanghai, one of the most international and developed cities in China. Fortunately, it’s now possible for the people of my generation to go abroad. And the years I spent in Shanghai really opened my eyes and helped me find the courage to pursue my dreams as an artist in America after I graduated.


As I mentioned in previous paragraphs, there are neither total ‘heroes’ nor ‘villains’ in my family tree. And my film will not be about critiquing the decisions my family made and the opinions we held before. In reviewing how we faced challenges as artists living in China, I realized that the beauty of humanity is not only found in extreme situation and reactions, but also in the compromises we make and the struggles we each have. I believe when people are focusing on doing one same thing, like watching a film together, they will create a special energy. My long-term career goal is making films that can help people build connections with each other and call on them, especially artists, to develop their sense of social responsibility.