HARBIN — During the day, Guo Lihua is a farmer in Heilongjiang province, toiling in the fields to grow crops. When night falls, however, she picks up her brush, and turns into a painter in front of a canvas.
In her paintings, the sky is blue, the corn golden, and the farmers look joyful in their colorful attire.
"I am a farmer and I have lived in the countryside all my life," says the 54-year-old. "I would like to show people real rural life through my paintings."
Growing up in Heilongjiang's Binxian county, Guo dropped out of school as a third-grader to help her parents. "I liked drawing as a child, but we could not afford brushes and paper then," she says.
In her spare time, she would find a twig to use to sketch on the ground. At the time, it never occurred to her, even in her wildest dreams, that one day she would become a painter.
The turning point came in 2012, when her son wanted to learn to paint and asked her to buy him a brush and some paint. He soon gave up, but his mother's dream was revived.
Contrary to Guo's expectations, her paintings impressed her neighbors and resulted in them taking some of them home.
She soon became a regular face at the stationery shop, where she would buy more paint. The shop owner became curious. "You are just a farmer. What can you paint?" he asked. Surprised by the quality of the paintings, he decided to introduce Guo to a local art teacher.
"At first, I knew next to nothing about painting. I just painted whatever was in my mind, using the brush like I was painting a wall," she says.
After learning from the teacher, she quickly mastered better techniques.
She has never seen painting as difficult, and is able to instinctively paint the sky, the trees, and the cotton-padded jackets worn by people like her in northeastern China.
During farming season, she does farmwork by day and paints by night. Sometimes, until the crack of dawn.
Her pictures have drawn praise from professionals impressed with their bright colors and strong personal style. Guo has won numerous awards, and some of her pieces have been exhibited overseas.
In her village, people used to call Guo "the technician", because she liked using her brain. Fellow villagers always asked when they should start growing vegetables, and which seeds they should choose.
Now, her nickname has changed to "the painter". Guo also likes using her brain to improve her skills. "She never feels tired," says her husband, adding that sometimes his wife forgets to eat or sleep.
She is frequently asked why the people in her paintings are all smiling, and seemingly happy.
"Of course we are happy," she replies. "In spring, we sow the seeds of hope in the field, and watch the crops grow like our children. In autumn, we harvest with great happiness. I paint what I see."
In her paintings, it is possible to detect changes to her village, such as the introduction of new technology and the increasing number of homestays in rural areas, which mirror rural vitalization taking place across the country.
"Our life in the countryside is constantly improving," Guo says. "I will keep painting for as long as I can, to let people see the reality of our lives and feel our happiness."