Illustrator Chenyue Yuan digs deep into social histories to tell the story of Chinese labourers living and working in factories
In the latter half of the 20th Century, thousands of women left traditional agricultural backgrounds to become part of the wider economy. Here, the London-based illustrator tells their stories.
- Jyni Ong
- 16 September 2021
A recent graduate from London’s Royal College of Art, Chenyue Yuan previously studied archival science at Sun Yat-Sen University in her birth country of China before moving to the UK capital. In her emotive practice digging into social histories, the illustrator combines her two degrees to tell stories with a heavy cultural resonance. “I always get excited by stories,” she tells us, “especially those from ordinary people.” Looking to archives and personal histories to find out more about a place or routine, she enjoys collecting stories and teasing out connections between the characters and the social context.
For her graduate project, Chenyue created a beautifully illustrated publication titled Pearl’s Daughters. Here, in this intricate weaving of drawings, she tells the story of female labourers working in industrial factories in China. Immersing the viewer in the work and lives of these factory employees, the illustrator paints a picture of their busy days, delving into archival resources to create an informed, multi-voiced narrative. The publication relies on personal narratives gathered from others’ memories, so Chenyue importantly notes that Pearl’s Daughters is not a work of documentary but rather a series of illustrations pieced together by intermittent fragments which amplify alternative voices from marginalised communities.
On the whole, the body of work represents a movement in China during the latter half of the 20th Century where women left traditional agricultural ways of life to become part of the wider economy. “These stories I’ve collected have been re-edited in the form of a literary collage,” says Chenyue. She drew the characters from old photographs and set their expressions and actions as if she were directing a movie. She wanted to portray the everyday moments, the times when the workers sat in their shared bedrooms, wrote letters back home and tried on each other’s clothes. Elsewhere, she depicts large gatherings around circular wooden tables set with homely tableware and a delicious feast awaiting the workers.
Other scenes show the workers don the assembly lines, stuffing teddy bears to be shipped out to the West, stitching garments with industrial sewing machines, or making their way out of the workplace after a long and tiring day. The uniformity of Pearl’s Daughters is striking, pulling the viewer in to look closer at the hands and faces of the people who manufactured so many of our trivial consumer goods. Chenyue sensitively pays attention to the emotion of the workers, visually describing their aching joints and crooked postures through painstaking details which, in turn, build a larger evocative image of what it would be like to live and work in one of these factories.
Prior to moving to London, Chenyue lived in Canton which is where she was born and grew up. “It has been developing so fast,” she says, “becoming another brand new city after every few years.” Because of this, the illustrator is hyper-aware that “scenes will pass me by without leaving a trace” and in this way, she uses her creative practice as a way to explore the past and what came before her. As a child, she liked Japanese cartoons and picture books. She scribbled on textbooks with pencils and used drawing as a way to record life. “The most charming point of illustrations as a medium,” she goes on to say, “is that it allows magnification of interesting details through consciousness.” Whether it be an awkward gesture or funny face, Chenyue leaves hints to her audience of who her characters are and their stories have been so far.
She also demonstrates this ethos in another recent project, Excruciating. This time, the project derives from two documents found at the Bishopsgate Insititute. The first document belonged to the playwright August Strindberg and details three failed marriages through the drama The Dance of Death. The other is a painful monologue written in 1848 by a husband who chose to divorce his wife because he was addicted to the church. Encapsulating these contrasting emotions of love and hate, Excruciating is a collection of heartbreaking illustrations framed by blurry contours and bound in a concertina book. And as for the future, Chenyue aspires to work as a freelance illustrator, hopefully in publishing. “As a new graduate,” she finally goes on to say, “I still seem a little lost about my future,” but with that being said, she has a lengthy to-do list and aims to embark on new creative ventures very soon.
Chenyue Yuan: Pearl’s Daughters (Copyright © Chenyue Yuan, 2021)