Beijing — Someday, historians may look back on Liang Shuo's sculptures as relics from China, circa 2003, when blistering economic growth drove millions of peasants to the cities to become migrant workers in their own land.
To Liang, China's move toward urban life is fodder for creative inspiration. His latest exhibit -- life-sized fiberglass figures of citified peasants, right down to the dirt smeared on their clothing -- is part art and part historical document.
The sculptures tell the fictional story of eight brothers with the family name Wang who venture, one by one, to the city from the country. The renderings are realistic, but humorous and humane. They depict people whom China's city dwellers see on the street every day but may not give a second glance.
While these peasants perform much of the muscle work behind China's economic boom -- building the office towers and providing cheap child care -- they aren't endearing to most city folk. They often live on the margins of city life, but Liang puts them front and center.
There's the weary construction worker in a rough, old-style cotton jacket over a tattered Chicago Bulls T-shirt. There's the small-time entrepreneur who shows off his newfound wealth with garish jewelry. There's the poorly paid security guard whose baggy uniform puts him one step above the dusty peasants he's paid to keep out.
These are new clothes for China's age-old peasant class, but still "a little awkward," in Liang's view. "The clothes may be suitable," he says, "but they somehow don't quite fit."
Just 27, Liang has grown up in a rapidly changing China. He and other young people are using what they see around them to make art, says Brian Wallace, director of Beijing's Red Gate Gallery, where Liang's sculptures are on display through February.
"They're all grappling with the changes and trying to understand it, and, of course, they're all a part of it because they are the babies," Wallace says. "They think about it rather than just reacting to it, and that's how it comes out in their art."
Liang Shuo was born in 1976, the year Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong died. He grew up in a farming district near the northeastern city of Tianjin, and later attended high school in Tianjin and college in Beijing, the hectic capital.
His generation has known only a China less driven by revolutionary campaigns and more by leader Deng Xiaoping's exhortation to "reform and open up."
Liang remembers well, in the early 1980s, "when people's thoughts and hearts started to change."
It was a time when many Chinese started to think of their own needs as well as society's. They began to make money and became curious about the world, spending new earnings first on leather shoes and televisions, and later on hairdos and pop music.
While some rural residents couldn't adapt to the changes sweeping China, many would just go with the flow, Liang says. They became citified, but only on the outside -- in dress and appearance.
"Fundamentally, they were still peasants," he says.
China tries to keep city and country separate with a strict residency-permit system that discourages migration, social interaction and, the government hopes, social unrest.
About 80 percent of China's 1.3 billion population are peasants. The vast majority still make their living as farmers or supplement their farming income with tiny businesses.
But a growing number constitute migrant workers and street-side entrepreneurs. According to the government, China has a floating population of more than 120 million -- people who have left the towns where they are registered in search of jobs or better lives.
They are the canvases of Liang's imagination.
Despite the trappings of modern life -- the sunglasses, the sneakers, the fake Adidas jackets -- these mobile peasants have little sense of their place in the world, Liang says.
Liang considers the rapid change necessary because China is still poor and needs growth. However, he says, "a lot of people have no sense of culture; they only focus on economics."
"Maybe," he suggests, "we should turn culture into something of value, too."
The government already works to preserve historical houses, but what about more mundane items that will become obsolete as China develops? "Cargo-carrying tricycles are also a kind of culture," he says. "But, they're just seen as transport."
With brother No. 4 of his "Eight Brothers" series, though, even the cargo-carrying tricycle has been turned into art -- as has the beleaguered peasant who uses it to ply his trade.