Popular Chinese prints are commonly known in the Western hemisphere as Chinese New Year prints. The Western term is a bit misleading. These nianhua - New Year pictures - were by no means restricted to the celebration of the New Year.
First Publication: August 2003
Latest Update: March 2014
Many of these prints were attached outside of doors and were renewed for the New Year. Others were burned in New Year celebrations. Thus the term "New Year Prints". But also lanterns or fans were decorated with nianhua.
The popular Chinese print has prevailed in China for centuries. The subjects and the woodblock printing techniques made it an art form with very distinctive features of its own. And it has been rooted among the common people from its very beginning.
The early origins of Chinese New Year Prints can be traced at least back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Images of gods were pasted to doors of temples and common houses. A scientific analysis of the images of Buddha found in the Mogaoku Caves showed that woodblock printing was on a high level at the time of the Tang Dynasty.
From the Song Dynasty (960-1127 AD) on, woodblock printing of popular Chinese prints had become a widespread commercial business and habit for the common people. Their use spread throughout China. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD) the Chinese New Year prints continued to exist, but showed a low profile.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) saw a major renaissance of the popular Chinese print. The themes, the techniques and styles were subject to major variations and rejuvenations. Celebrated centers for the production of New Year prints were Yangliuqing of Tianjing, Yangjiabu of Weifang and Taohuawu of Suzhou.
Up to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) the pictures were thriving. Comparable to the popular Japanese print during the Edo and Meiji era, the Chinese folk print emerged with new subjects from such fields as the traditional Chinese opera, novels, real life events, landscapes and flower-and-bird paintings.
Popular Chinese prints can be well categorized by their subjects. The subjects have their origins in the Buddhist religion or old folk tales. And although there are wide variations, certain iconographic patterns prevail.
Prints with door god motifs were posted on doors outside and inside the house. Their function was like that of the foo dogs - keeping the evil spirits out and inviting the good ones to come in.
The typical Chinese house had a huge front gate door with two wings that opened in the middle. Therefore door gods always come in pairs and must be placed properly. Otherwise you are in for trouble, or as a Chinese saying goes "Door gods wrongly placed - trouble to the right and to the left."
This print category showed symbols of good luck, longevity and fertility. The image of the chubby baby belongs to this category.
Traditional Chinese homes had a small shrine above the kitchen stove. Inside the shrine was a printed image of the Stove God. The Stove God was something like the good buddy of the family.
Daoist and Buddhist subjects.
This category of prints was not connected to any deeper religious meaning or customs. There were thousands of different print images that could be bought from little print shops in the streets.
The subjects were from legends, folk tales or operas. Merchants and artisans offered the designs mostly requested by the common people. The images of this category are the best representatives for the concept of the common popular Chinese print.
The printmaking process is practically identical to the technique that art aficionados of Japanese ukiyo-e know well. Also the concept of cooperative teamwork of three different skills - artist, carver and printer - was the same in China.
An artist makes a design on a piece of thin, translucent paper. A skilled carver pasted the paper on a woodblock and carefully carved a key block with the outlines of the design raised and everything else removed.
From this key block a black and white print copy or several of them were pulled. The artist then marked the different color areas. For each color a separate block was carved.
The final printing was done by the third member in the team. The printer was responsible for bringing the color evenly on the paper. Until the late nineteenth century vegetable colors were used; later aniline dyes.
During the Cultural revolution under Mao Zedong, the art of the popular Chinese print was virtually eradicated. Worse than the systematic hunt for old prints was the destruction of the old woodblocks, from which they had been produced.
Some of the design patterns like the image of the Chubby Baby were transformed into Communist propaganda prints. They were painted by academically trained artists and produced as posters in large quantities.
In hindsight, they were a very specific, short-lived sideline of the popular Chinese print, produced with modern mass production methods. Nevertheless they are a part of the history of the Chinese print and as such worth collecting.
Since the 1980s the art of the popular Chinese print has seen a remarkable revival. Artists like Tai Liping have revitalized the old tradition - literally out of ashes.
Under a Chinese administration that began to see New Year prints as an important historical and cultural heritage of the Chinese people, several artisan centers emerged.
A major area of woodblock printing is Shanxi, celebrated for the pictures of door gods, with artisan workshop centers in Hanzhong, Fengxiang, Shenmu, Pucheng and Changan. Today's most distinguished representative is Fengxiang.
In Fengxiang alone, about 40 different kinds of door-god pictures are created. Their characteristics are a bold and uninhibited style in design and the use of bright colors.
Outside China the British Muban Foundation in London is in possession of a larger collection of "New Year Pictures".
Through several hundred years of development, the Chinese popular print is a reflection of aesthetic standards and thoughts of the Chinese common people and a part of their way of life - especially for the rural population.
From a historical and cultural point of view, the Chinese New Year prints are more than just pictures. They are a distinctive art form of its own that represents both local culture and history.
In the Western world, the popular Chinese print is still waiting to be discovered.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
Ellen Johnston Laing, "Art & Aesthetics in Chinese Popular Prints, Selections from teh Muban Foundation Collection", Center for Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, ISBN 0-89264-154-1.
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