The Resistant Origin of Tiehua

Within the immense realm of creative expression forged by humanity exists a unique form of Chinese painting: tiehua. Contradicting what the word “painting” might suggest, the works in this genre are hammered out of metal rather than paint or ink. Interestingly, this form of expression has a very local legacy in the city of Wuhu, Anhui, where it dates back hundreds of years and appears to always have been a medium with which to resist the status quo.

The earliest traces of tiehua point to a specific individual: Tang Tien Chih, or Tang Peng, a blacksmith in the seventeenth century, the early days of the Qing Dynasty. According to A. Estelle Paddock, who observed and wrote on the art form in “House and Garden” in the year 1923, it all began when Tang observed his friend Tung’s painting strategies (2). Paddock even cites their alleged dialogue: Tang remarked, “I wish I could make something beautiful as you do,” to which his friend replied, “You can’t. You see your clumsy hands. You are only a blacksmith.” (qtd. In Paddock 1)

Undeterred by this, Tang set out to utilize his skills as a blacksmith just as painters like Tung did in the skills of painting: he would create art out of iron. Through dedication and constant refinement of skill in both blacksmithing and the Cannons of Art by Hsieh Ho, Tang’s iron paintings eventually outdid that of his neighbors who stuck to only traditional painting materials (Paddock 1-2). Tang, by resisting the way society pursued painting, was able to create something unique and superior. Thus, in this story social resistance is even what created tiehua.

Nonetheless, an element of spiritual mysticism even surrounded this skill in other depictions. In describing Tang Peng, Wuhu local Huang Yue prosed in 1778, “Inspired by star essences and protected by spirit light, /[Tang] eventually equipped his stove with the magic power of jiao.” This mix between trade and art even triggered the imagination due to its originally peculiar, even rebellious style.

Despite modern respect for Tang’s work and skill, he had a hard time in his day, yet he consistently devised ways to overcome this. Paddock asserts that Tang’s neighbors grew jealous and spoke badly of him, though he opened his own workshop and even passed the skill onto his sons, with the art form even practiced to the day of the author (2-3). Here, it is seen that Tang was not deterred by others, but rather moved on without them. Adding to this, Huang Yue noted, “yet [Tang’s] tiehua, initially, was banal and hard to sell” and that Tang gave his artwork as rent after not being able to afford it. Again, despite the lack of conventionality that limited success, Tang as a resistor never gave up in his pursuit.

Given the unique circumstances of this art form, I as a researcher have decided to conduct in-depth research on tiehua as a means of social resistance. The rebellious origins of the art form were just the beginning of a long history of resistance: first among the literati class, then by communists, and finally among consumers in China’s post-socialism consumer culture.

While the composition, subject matter, and message of tiehua has been fluid throughout its history, there is interestingly an ever-present element of resisting the status quo, and thus the social function of the art is worth looking into.

This summer, I will embark on a journey tracking the history of tiehua and what it can tell us about Chinese history.