SHENZHEN, March 2 (Xinhua) -- Zhao Xiaoyong was once called "China's Van Gogh," as the farmer turned oil painter made over 100,000 replicas of Van Gogh's work over the past 20 years.
However, he never saw a single authentic piece of the Dutch post-impressionist painter until 2014 when he finally saved enough for a trip to the Netherlands.
The trip inspired him to think over his business and create his own works. "The masterpieces that I saw at the European museums made me realize that I have to develop my own style."
Zhao is from Dafen, a village known for oil paintings in southern China's Shenzhen City. Home to 1,200 studios and 8,000 painters, the village produces millions of replicas of Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso that are sold at home and abroad. According to statistics, 80 percent of oil paintings exported from China come from Dafen.
While the market demand for replicas is shrinking, Zhao and other painters in the village are creating their own art styles and attracting tourists.
Neighboring Hong Kong, Shenzhen is one of China's first special economic zones for the country's reform and opening drive. The painting industry started in Dafen Village in 1989 when Hong Kong purchasers sought to establish an oil painting base nearby.
Zhao, who quit his job at a craft factory, started learning how to paint from scratch in 1996. He imitated Van Gogh's works via a painting album, including "sunflowers" and "almond blossoms."
He sold his first works in 1999 when an American buyer ordered 20 paintings. More orders later came from abroad, prompting Zhao to recruit apprentices.
"My wife and my younger brothers are all my students," he said with a smile. "I was even called 'China's Van Gogh' in a documentary."
Zhao and his team worked from 1 p.m. to 3 a.m. painting eight pieces per person every day at most. Prices for the replicas ranged from 200 yuan (30 U.S. dollars) to 3,000 yuan per piece, depending on the size.
In 2008, when the economic recession hit most parts of the world, a drastic reduction of foreign orders forced Zhao to explore the domestic market. Profits kept shrinking after 2012 due to consumers' diversifying tastes and rising costs.
Since then, many painters in the village have given up making replicas and turned to innovation and creation.
Chen Qiuzhi, who used to paint copies of masterpieces like Zhao, has worked hard to develop his own style, combining Chinese calligraphy with painting. To support him, his wife sold two apartments and had an art center built.
The center, located at the far end of Dafen village, covers an exhibition area of over 3,000 square meters and has become a landmark of Dafen. Some 100 calligraphy works are exhibited at the center with other craftwork.
Ten years of hard work has won him fame, with his works popular in the auction market. Now, one piece of his calligraphy is worth tens of thousands of yuan, almost 100 times the value of replicas he painted in the past. The art center also draws visitors.
"Only by creation can one's works be remembered," said Chen.
Today, Dafen has gathered nearly 300 art creators. In 2017, the annual output value of Dafen reached 4.15 billion yuan, among which the original works have accounted for 20 to 30 percent.
From imitation to creation, Dafen Village has been making the transition from a low-end oil painting workshop cluster to an art center, said Liu Yajing, director of the village's oil painting office.
She said an oil painting museum, a performance theater, a training center and a hotel are being built to develop the village into a tourist resort featuring oil painting production, trade, training and exhibition.
Compared with his Van Gogh replicas, painter Zhao finds his own works hard to sell. But he believes that he will finally be recognized someday in the future.
"Imitation leads me nowhere. I will continue to concentrate on creation for the market and also for my dream as a real artist," Zhao said.