Until 1989, the village of Dafen in the city of Shenzhen, China was little more than a hamlet. It now has a population of 10,000, including hundreds of peasants-turned oil painters. In the many studios, and even in the alleyways, Dafen’s painters turn out thousands of replicas of world-famous Western paintings. Nobody thinks anything of an order for 200 Van Goghs. To meet their deadlines, painters sleep on the floor between clotheslines strung with masterpieces. In 2015, the turnover in painting sales was over $65 million. Directors Haibo and Kiki Tianqi Yu followed one of the painters, Xiaoyong Zhao. He and his family have painted around 100,000 Van Goghs. After all these years, Zhao feels a deep affinity with Van Gogh. He traveled to Europe to see the original works at the Van Gogh Museum, and to visit one of his best clients, an Amsterdam art dealer. This debut film is a fascinating, at times picturesque portrait of a village where artists pursue their dreams, but also have them shattered.Their journey is emblematic of of China’s Dream for the 21st Century: to go from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’.


Director Statement

While China is still associated in the minds of many with fakery and imitation, China's van Goghs shows that the continued existence of the oil-painting village, Dafen, is itself a piece of contemporary art, a work-in-progress, constantly transitioning. With its intimate focus on the painter Zhao and his family, China's van Goghs seeks answers to fundamental questions about the nature of art.

Can Dafen become home to one of China's successful creative clusters, or will it remain reliant on the work of dead Western artists? Are these made-in-Shenzhen Sunflowers a violation of the principles of high art, or a democratization of art for a global audience? Can the copier become the creator? 

China’s van Goghs is a portrait of self-realisation, about the journey of artists creating art that reflects their own identity as individuals living China now. It is not just a film about Dafen. It is a film that explores the relationship between the local and the global, the copy and the original, craftmanship and creativity. It questions the very meaning of art in an era when China is transitioning from ‘made in China’, to ‘created in China’.


Director's Bio

Haibo Yu

Haibo Yu is a filmmaker and photograph artist and curator. He’s the Director of Shenzhen Professional Photographers Association and the Chief Photo Editor of Shenzhen Economic Daily. His most prominent photo story China Dafen Oil Painting Village won the 49th World Press Photography Contest 2006, and was collected by San Francisco Modern Art Museum, V&A Museum, London, etc. Yu is the pioneer in surrealism photography in China for his work “on the other riverside of the illusion chain” which won the top prize at the 15th National Photography Exhibition in 1988. Since 1989, he has been working on documentary photography, and his photo stories including “Tibet”, “Music Youth”, “China’s urban expansion”, have won many prizes and been exhibited internationally. Yu published a book Living in China’s Shenzhen (2008), and a photo-essay film One Man’s Shenzhen (2012).


Kiki Tianqi Yu

Kiki Tianqi Yu is a filmmaker, scholar, and film curator. She is currently associate professor of Film Studies at USC-SJTU Institute of Cultural and Creative Industry, based in Shanghai. Yu received PhD in Film from the University of Westminster, and MPhil in Sociology from Cambridge University. She publishes on Chinese documentary, first person documentary, amateur cinema and cinematic memory on Studies in Documentary Film, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, etc. She is the co-editor of China's iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for the 21 Century (Bloomsbury, 2014), the author of the upcoming book ‘My’ Self On Camera: First Person Documentary Practice in 21st century China (Edinburg University Press, 2017). Her film works include Photographing Shenzhen (2007), Memory of Home (2009), and the feature length documentary film China’s van Goghs (2016), Best Documentary (international co-production) at Beijing International Film Festival, TRT Documentary Award, Best Director Award at D3 Cinema Film Festival, Japan.