Tue, March 30, 2010
City Guide > Exhibitions

Champion of the poor and vulnerable

2010-03-30 06:07:53 GMT2010-03-30 14:07:53 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

Yu Jianrong in the study at his home, which is filled with his paintings of petitioners. Wang Jing / China Daily

Yu Jianrong's paintings

Yu Jianrong's paintings

Yu Jianrong knows firsthand about China's social and political realities, and the grievances of the nation's disadvantaged. Zhao Yanrong reports

An unassuming courtyard house in Songzhuang, an hour's drive from downtown Beijing. It looks nothing special from the outside, but to thousands of people who come to Beijing seeking to petition the government about their grievances, it is.

They know the house is the home of Yu Jianrong, director of the rural development institute's social issues research center at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences.

"If I stay at home more than three days, petitioners from all over China will knock on my door," said Yu, who studies the social and political impacts of social conflict, which he believes is still viewed as a kind of social disease.

"Sometimes, they stay in my house for many days. I love to listen to their stories, he said.

After conducting research into social stability issues for 10 years, Yu is something of a celebrity. He is commonly called "a pioneer" and labeled an "expert" by the media, which often go to him when they need comments on social issues.

However, Yu said: "It doesn't matter what titles we have. It is the roles we play in society that matter."

Since the day he started his academic career Yu has focused his research on the interests and needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged social groups whose voices are often dismissed or ignored. He says his childhood experiences are the reason for this.

Yu didn't have a residency permit when he moved from the countryside to the city as a child during the "cultural revolution" (1967-1977).

"I couldn't register in any school because I didn't have a hukou, and without it, people couldn't get the food and clothes allocated by the government at that time," Yu said.

Yu now spends two-thirds of his research time in the field. He will even disguise himself if necessary in order to be to be accepted as a member of the petitioning group. He said a pair of broken glasses, a tattered old jacket and his strong Hunan accent provide the best cover.

He has spent two Spring Festivals in Beijing's Dongzhuang area, known as the "petitioners village", to find out why the petitioners persist in their usually futile quests for justice. In a survey of 632 petitioners, he found only one complainant whose case had been successfully resolved. He has followed some of the cases for more than 10 years. Besides Beijing, Yu has also visited many counties and villages in Hebei, Shandong and Liaoning provinces to gain firsthand information from people.

"I have the names and time of each person I have interviewed," Yu said, pointing to six document cabinets in his house. All the cabinets are full of folders and packages. There are so many of them that Yu can't say the exact number.

Yu started painting two years ago, and there are a number of petitioner portraits in his living room. Living in Songzhuang, which is known as an artists' neighborhood, Yu has made friends with many painters. But he said their comments about his painting are not always favorable.

"Some artists said Yu doesn't know how to paint, but there are also some who say he is the only one who can show the soul out of a person," said Li Xuewen, an experienced reporter who has known Yu for many years.

For Yu, painting is just a way to express the sadness in his heart. All the portraits are based on photographs he took during his meetings with petitioners.

"I have interviewed so many petitioners and heard so many sad stories," he said. "But as a scholar, I can't directly solve each case. I can't even mention any of their names in my report."

Waving his hands in the air with a frown on his face, Yu added: "I really need a way to express my feelings. I am a human being."

Yu's favorite painting is a mother wearing a white headband. "Injustice" is written in big characters on the middle of the band.

"Looking into her eyes, they are so empty and helpless," Yu said.

One of the China's most famous paintings is the portrait of a father by Luo Zhongli. The father's face is covered in lines and he holds a bowl in his rough hands. "He is both a farmer and struggling with property, but you can still find hope in his eyes. Well, for the mother, hope is missing in her eyes," Yu said, taking a deep breath and touching the painting.

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