ROME, April 11, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – He does not accuse, this little boy with the haunting expression, solemn eyed, gazing directly out from the canvas. He does not ask, as he might well ask, ‘Why am I alone?’ but merely stands still and straight, looking steadily forward at the viewer as his imaginary siblings play around him. 

The little boy’s face is that of 38 year-old Chinese painter Li Tianbing, taken from photos of himself as a child; the other little boys are his imaginary playmates, brothers and sisters who were never born, who populated his solitary life. Li’s work – huge canvases of ghostly children playing in landscapes that evoke both China’s ancient artistic tradition and its conflicted industrialised present – focuses consciously on the impact on individual lives of the country’s One Child Policy. He was five when the government issued it in 1979.

An exhibition of Li’s paintings, titled “A Game as Pretense of Being,” is currently making an impact in Paris, but could perhaps more appropriately have been titled, “A Childhood of One”. The focus of his work, Li says, is not on the large statistics whose immense scale can depersonalise, but on the policy’s impact on individual human lives. Children in China now, he says, for the first time in the country’s history, know only the life of solitude. No one is allowed to have brothers and sisters, and there are no large families in a country where for thousands of years family was all.

Li studied international relations in university, then came to Paris at the age of 22 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began painting from his memories and his tiny cache of photos. He said in a video interview that when he was a child, using these photos of himself, he created a whole other imaginary self, a life that included siblings and a large and happy family.

“My paintings are about childhood, but a childhood that is conjured up. The childhood I paint is not what happened in my real childhood,” he says.

“I think the One Child policy was a unique social phenomenon of our generation. What I want to express now is how this generation of people sees the world. The signs he carries in his body, his knowledge of the world and his experience of the world.”

When I was looking at the paintings on the internet, and I read that these children were the images of the imaginary siblings Li never had, my first response was, “Oh, he did that too?” Because I was also an only child, raised by a divorced single mother in the 1970s, and I recognised the expression, that of a child immersed in his own inner world, peopled with imaginary friends, pursuing fantasy adventures far away from lonely reality.

Li Tianbing grew up in rural China in the 1970s, the era following the Communist takeover, when the government issued a decree that no one could have more than one child. Government statistics, widely acknowledged to be unrealistically low, show that the policy has resulted in the loss of at least 400 million people, more than ten times the population of Canada.

The single-minded focus of the government at the time was forcing the country to industrialise, to prove to the world the superiority of Marxist principles. To the ruling class of the time, and up to today, the ideology takes priority over the human needs of the people. As a result, China has the world’s highest rates of capital punishment, abortion and suicide among women. In fact, it is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women exceeds that of men.

While the policy is overt in China, it is merely a more brutalised version of the societal norm of the West. Here it is not forcibly imposed on the people from above, but it insinuated itself into the minds and hearts of the people I grew up around, where it is every bit as entrenched. To the people of my generation, born in the late 1960s to hippie parents whose rejection of the old values has infiltrated every aspect of our societies, being alone, being “only,” is our norm.

And it produces much the same result: adults whose loneliness is deeply embedded, who take solitude for granted, for whom family life is no more than a hazy fantasy gleaned from books and films, less likely to marry and have children of our own, less interested in engaging in the boisterous unpredictable arenas of the active world, always feeling vaguely like an observer rather than a participant. 

The loneliness wells up from the faces in Li’s paintings like a deep, suppressed groan.

These are the faces of children, some of them obviously very small children, but there is little evidence of innocence. These are not the sun-drenched dreams of golden-haired, apple-cheeked poppets playing sweetly in meadows and country gardens.

The children in Li’s paintings are not starveling, they are not ragged or grubby or neglected. But they are distant, perhaps envious, and a faint but persistent undertone of anger rings incessantly in the viewer’s mind when he looks back at their eyes.

These children live in another world where we are excluded. Who are we to bring our adult reality, with our macro-economic theories and their overbearing imperatives, into their private realm?

Why have we imposed ourselves in this moment, intruding and breaking their concentration? A concentration that is needed to keep reality at bay. The children wait for us to be done looking at them, so they can get back to their play, their thoughts, their world.

In some of the paintings, it is difficult to tell which is the fantasy, which the ghost, and which the reality. A grayscale little boy, holding a toy, runs down a railway track that cuts through a dimly rendered countryside, with ghostly translucent buildings looming up over him as if in a mist. A group of little boys, in bright pink chroma, follows behind him like a school of glittering fish. Which is the reality, and which is the ghost? Where does the child’s imagination end and the real world, the world of gray industrial scenes, begin?

In another, vaporous children stand before snow-covered tree branches, reading communist newspapers. Of the three, only one looks up and over his paper towards the viewer, an expression of surprise on his face, having seen us watching him, perhaps, and wondering where, what world, we have appeared from.

In nearly every painting, one little boy, Li himself, always with the same expression of surprise and disbelief, looks directly at us, as though we are the apparitions intruding into his world.

The paintings have an almost dystopian quality to them, even those showing apparently idyllic natural surroundings, their palettes largely monochromatic, the expressions of the children never joyful but mostly preoccupied and distant. Some of the faces, even those looking directly into the eyes of the viewer, seem closed, as if these children have already made up their minds, already judged the world created for them as a disappointment, and closed the door on us.

Li’s work is an attempt to highlight the reality that the policies that have shaped the macro-picture of demographics, of the economic and social realities on a grand scale in a country with over a billion human beings, have their greatest effect on the individual souls. The human world is not made up of faceless masses, but of one person at a time, living in a unity of a human society made up of other individual persons. In a sense, the existence of “society,” and “culture” and “economics” are all abstractions. Human society can never be about these intangible ideas, but about human beings, one human being at a time.

What a policy that focuses only on these abstractions does to a single, unique human being is the question with which governments never concern themselves, and academics only rarely.

But a single painting is like a single person, and its message, no matter how many see it, is always personal. The children in these paintings assert that they are not instruments or products for use in a grand socio-economic experiment.

See more of Li’s paintings here.