Song Peilun is the archetypal Chinese artist: he is slim, has long, loose hair, always dresses in a traditional changshan tunic and scatters old proverbs throughout his sometimes-hard-to-decipher discourse. But his great masterpiece was inspired by a European.
Song’s Yelang Valley has something in common with both Park Güell and the still-unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral – two of legendary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s most prominent creations – in Barcelona, Spain. Like the first, Song’s surreal park, which is full of scary representations of faces, is built on the gentle slopes of a hill; in this case, a hill on the outskirts of Guiyang, capital of southern China’s Guizhou province. And, like the second, its creator will not live to see his creation completed.
Although Song started on the artworks and constructing the buildings spread around the 20-hectare lot 21 years ago, only half of his master plan has been completed.
“I will keep working until the day I die, but I’m already 78 years old and I know I won’t live much longer,” Song tells Post Magazine, while sipping from a cup of green tea. “Gaudí could not foresee his death and was killed by a tram [in 1926, at the age of 73], when the Sagrada Família was still in the early stages of construction. But his spirit carries on, almost a century after he passed away, and the world is yet to witness the opening ceremony of his masterpiece. I hope the same will happen with Yelang Valley. My wish is that someone will love it as much as I do and keep the work going once I’m gone.”
Not far from the two-storey building in which Song talks, villagers work on a five-metre-high sculpture under the scorching sun, carefully adding layers of stones to what will soon be another gigantic head overlooking the stream that runs through the valley.
“Most of the workers are from the Miao and Buyi ethnic minorities. They are experienced stone-structure builders, use only artisanal techniques and work for free, because they want to take part in the project,” says Song, who claims to have spent his life savings on the endeavour. “It makes them feel a sense of achievement they never had before. There are fathers and sons working here, side by side. Yelang Valley belongs to them, too.
“Villagers even donate their own money, because I’ve always been in debt. I’ve invested more than 3 million renminbi [US$436,000] here, and at times it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to continue building.”
Once the main structure of a figure is complete, Song will cover it with mosaics made of broken tiles, also a characteristic of Gaudí’s work. The technique, known in Catalan as trencadís, involves covering the surface with shards of china or clay.
“I use pieces of old jars, and even discarded construction materials I take from nearby developments, to give the figures their unique look,” Song explains. Flowerpots become eyes, and old roof tiles form noses. “I’ve always been aware of the need to reuse and recycle. Now, someone would make a selling point of that.”
It may look as though the planning behind Yelang Valley is random, but that is not the case. Song is bringing ancient Chinese legends to life.
“As a kid, I was fascinated by the stories my grandparents used to tell at night,” he says. “I was also terrified by the masks Nuo opera performers wore to play those legends. And there were some small, mysterious castles in my hometown [in Meitan county, Guizhou]. So I dreamt of having my own heavily guarded castle from which to fend those monsters off.”
His dream is now coming true; although in places it resembles a nightmare. Mythological creatures hide in the trees of the forest and behind walls. Ancient deities, good and evil spirits confront each other. Faces split with a chilling rictus beneath threatening eyes scare children and intrigue their parents.
“It’s like stepping into a different world – a magical one,” a middle-aged visitor says.
“I’ve never seen something like this before,” adds his wife.
“They’re frightening,” complains their eight-year-old daughter, with a grimace.
It all started in 1993. Self-taught Song was switching jobs as an art teacher when an agency in Hong Kong got in touch and asked him to replace another artist on a trip to the United States.
“They were opening a Chinese-culture theme park in Florida,” says Song, referring to Splendid China, in Orlando, which was a sister park to one with the same name in Shenzhen and closed down in 2003. “They needed Chinese artists to guide the work first, and to then pose for visitors, to lend the place authenticity, later. I was reluctant to go because I didn’t speak any English and even my Putonghua was broken,” recalls Song. “But my family and friends encouraged me, saying it was a good chance, and I took the job.”
He ended up staying in the US for a year – much longer than he had expected – and brought back many ideas for a culture park in his native Guizhou.
“Along with a partner, I designed an art village where we would hold all kinds of exhibitions. But we argued and finally split,” says Song.
The artist received 300,000 yuan in compensation for a breached contract.
“I had to pay for my daughter’s education, but I managed to leave 100,000 yuan aside and I decided it was time for me to do what I really wanted.”
Song discovered a tranquil valley for rent and, in 1997, signed a contract. He then started to sketch out his most ambitious work of art.
“Two decades ago, it was a good place, because it was far from Guiyang,” he says. “Also, the land is very rocky, so I could get construction materials on site and save a lot of money. And, of course, the local community was eager to help.”
His sculptures started to attract the attention of both the authorities and investors.
“The government offered subsidies and financial aid to develop the place into a tourist attraction, but I refused. Investors started to come and still keep coming. They want to pour money into the project so it can be finished fast and turned into a moneymaking machine. But this is not a theme park, this is art,” explains Song, who charges adults 20 yuan for entry, and 15 yuan each for balloons bearing an image of one of his sculpted faces. “This just helps to maintain the place.”
With uncharacteristic venom, he adds, “I hang up all the calls from developers and investors. They would just force me to change the place and take over once I’m dead.”
Song is also critical of both the excessive commercialisation of modern Chinese art and development of the country’s cities, especially as the bulldozers are drawing nearer. A few years ago, the government took away some of the land he rented to build a campus for Guizhou University. And not far from there, Guangdong-based developer Country Garden is building luxury flats for Guiyang’s rapidly growing middle class. Already home to about 4.5 million people, the provincial capital is spreading fast into the surrounding hills and will soon reach Yelang Valley.
The offer of riches holds no allure for Song, but he has worried about the ramifications of rejecting offers of financial support. In fact, just a few metres from Yelang Valley’s entrance gate, the Chinese character chai, meaning “demolish”, has been painted on a concrete water tank. It has been deemed an illegal construction and will soon be torn down. Many old buildings in the area will follow suit.
“I was worried about the fate of the place before,” Song says. “The thought of a possible eviction made me upset. But now I just enjoy the process of building it and hope the government will understand the advantages of preserving Yelang Valley.”
No multinational franchises will open in Yelang Valley on Song’s watch, but he has allowed some of his friends to develop small businesses on site, including a restaurant and a spartan guest house that is currently being finished, “although it will most likely be used by my special guests rather than commercially”, the artist stresses. When we visit, a sculptor from New Zealand, who helps with construction, is the only occupant of the rooms already habitable.
Despite growing interest in Song’s work, Yelang Valley still feels remote – the only way to reach it is by car or taxi – and it is not listed in official leaflets or online guides published by the China National Tourism Administration. Nevertheless, a steady stream of families is arriving.
“It’s a pleasant park and a place full of surprises,” says a mother of two girls, one of many locals who are familiar with Yelang Valley. “You may walk around the trees and find unexpected things. I thought most figures were African or American, but I was surprised to know that we also have this kind of thing in our culture.”
Summer in Guiyang is hot, so a highlight of Song’s park during school holidays is the stream that flows through it. Children splash around in a natural pond while their guardians upload photos to social media.
“I like to see the place full of life,” says Song, with a satisfied grin. “Visitors enjoy the art in a way that makes them part of it.”
A group of visitors spots the artist and rushes over to take selfies with him. Song greets them with a gentle bow and smiles patiently for the cameras. When they ask about the future of the place, he promises to keep working on Yelang Valley as long as he is able. “I’ve drawn a master plan, but it’s not detailed. A bit like Gaudí did, designs are rough sketches which I shape in detail when I get inspired,” he says.
And inspiration can come from anywhere: opera scripts, history books, art exhibitions and even his granddaughter’s drawings have given form to sculptures in the park.
“I have a daughter and a granddaughter. They enjoy what I’ve created, but I won’t push them to carry on with my work,” says Song, ready to tuck into a lunch of chicken and vegetable soup, pork with chestnuts and stir-fried vegetables with chilli at the park’s restaurant, where he is joined by a couple of poet friends visiting from Chengdu.
They are all nostalgic for a China in which money was not the driving force behind every endeavour, and they wish they could create freely, without the constraints of censorship.
“My book was banned in China, so I had to publish it in Australia,” says Zhi Fu, who shows me a copy of his erotic poetry collection. “Only allowed in [China] for research purposes,” says the poet, with a laugh.
Song nods in silence. Then he says, “I just want to let people know about a forgotten part of our history and create a utopia. An oasis of art in a world moved by commercial instincts.”
Song smiles when speaking about his own mortality, which is a recurring topic. But there is one last thing he would like to do before the time comes.
“I’ve studied and been inspired by Gaudí’s work,” he says, “but I’ve never been to Spain to see it for real.”