Chinese artist brings characters from classic novels to life

Chai Peike, 83, has embarked on an ambitious project to paint 480 characters from “Dream of the Red Mansion”, one of the four most famous Chinese classical literary works.

Chai is from Guyuan City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, northwest China, and is proficient in Chinese brush painting. Over the years, he got into the habit of transforming the characters of the novels he read into images.

“When I read books, I should be able to visualize the characters as well as practically see their images. My goal in reading is to absorb the stories and turn them into paintings,” Chai said.

He recently donated a set of paintings depicting 108 characters from “Outlaws of the Marsh,” a series of classic Chinese novels, to an archive in his hometown.

A fan of this epic novel series, Chai developed his own understanding of ancient heroes after years of studying their characteristics.

“Every time I close my eyes after reading the book, the characters play in my mind. It allows me to paint them according to my visualizations and sometimes even improvise them,” he said.

“Wu Song, who kills a tiger with his bare hands, is my favorite hero because of his hatred of evil and the spirit of chivalry,” Chai added. “So I painted him as a perfect man.”

According to the novel, Wu Song had an arm severed by a bandit and was eventually disabled, but Chai kept both of his arms intact. Wu Song’s facial expression was also based on Chai’s own interpretation.

Chai’s hometown of Guyuan is the birthplace of a local literary culture called “Xihaigu Literature”. Xihaigu, a region long deemed “uninhabitable”, has bid farewell to poverty in recent years.

“Guyuan is not only the center of the Xihaigu region but also the source of its literature,” said Wang Lun, dean of Guyuan archives.

“The fighting spirit of the heroes of ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ inspired us to fight poverty and improve our lives, which is in line with the local culture,” Wang said.

Irene B. Bowles