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China Struggles to End its Image as Capital of Art Copies

Ma Chunyan works on reproducing a masterpiece from an image of the original displayed on her mobile phone at her studio in Dafen Oil Painting Village in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China December 5, 2018. (REUTERS/Thomas Suen)
China Struggles to End its Image as Capital of Art Copies
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Ma Chunyan’s hands appear to hold Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting “The Starry Night.”

But it is not Van Gogh’s masterpiece. The 32-year old Chinese artist is holding a $145 reproduction she made in one day from an image on her cell phone.

Ma is from Dafen, a small, but heavily populated area in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. She is one of an estimated 8,000 painters there who specialize in creating copies of Western art.

Dafen was once home to 300 rice growers. Then it became an international center of painting reproductions. The change began a few short years after former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy in 1978.

The town once claimed 75 percent of the world’s oil painting reproductions. Dafen has 1,200 art businesses and galleries, which employ about 20,000 people. Its yearly output reached $601 million in 2017.

But many people there are wondering about the future. The local economy has shrunk since the financial crisis in 2008, when foreign demand for art reproductions fell and never returned.

The local government has launched a plan to rebuild Dafen businesses. The goal is to have artists stop copying masterpieces and instead create their own original works of art.

But success is difficult. There are few artists who want to create original works. And there is little demand for the work of the few who do.

To change this, and to bring in newer artists, the government of Dafen has invested 100 million yuan in an art museum. It has also built 269 apartments for artists. The town now has 300 artists making original works.

One of them is Chen Jingyang, who has lived in Dafen for 12 years. He does not believe the new plan will be successful.

“The big buyers know that the market here used to be famous for copies, and it was a low-end market, so not many are coming for the original paintings,” he said.

I’m Susan Shand.

Reuters reported this story. Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

masterpiece – n. a great book, painting, piece of music, movie,

gallery – n. a business that sells paintings, statues,

output – n. production or work

original – adj. made or produced first; not a copy

museum – n. a building in which interesting and valuable things are collected and shown to the public

apartmentn. a room or series of rooms usually used for housing