Originally published in: China Reconstructs, June 1956, p. 15.
Folk Festival Prints
For centuries, one of the best-loved forms of Chinese folk art has been the nien hua - the gay "New Year Picture". It generally takes the form of a big wood-block print which, during the Lunar New Year or spring festival, the peasants hang upon their walls - to stay there for the coming twelvemonth.
Recently, 312 ancient and modern nien hua collected by the Chinese Artists' Union were exhibited in Peking. It was done so designers could study the originality, vigour and characteristic national flavour of these folk forms, and apply them to today's themes.
The origin of nien hua - probably as pictures of gods to guard the home from evil spirits for the coming year - is lost in antiquity. Festive paintings of this type are recorded in art chronicles as early as the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). It was not until the development of wood-block printing in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) made mass production possible, however, that the "New Year Picture" became an independent and truly popular art form. Its most flourishing period was during the early Ching dynasty (eighteenth century), when three places became particularly famous as producing centres - Taohuawu near Soochow, Yangchiapu in Shantung, and Yangliuching near Tientsin.
Famous artists and highly skilled printers often were hired for the work. But nearly every villager in these areas, young and old, could colour the designs or draw their own. Yangliuching alone, where 29 villages were engaged in the work, turned out as many as 100 million prints a year.
Suitable to the holiday mood and method of printing, the colours of these traditional poster-sized pictures are brilliant and striking - vermilion, yellow, blue and emerald, with few subtle shadings and with sharp outlines drawn in black. Sometimes the whole picture is block-printed, sometimes only the black lines, with the painting done later in watercolour. The lines are bold and expressive, and the rhythm lively, to attract distant viewers. But closely scrutinized, the pictures show a variety of detail.
Since the prints are made on inexpensive, frequently rough paper, intended to be renewed every spring, many of the original designs have deteriorated or been lost. But the most popular, which were reproduced year after year, have been preserved. Among their themes were "guardians" for doorways or kitchens, scenes from peasant life, stylized animals, and characters from folk tales, history and the drama. Best loved of all are the wawa hua or "baby pictures", vividly expressing the connection in the Chinese people's minds between children and all good, happy things. They portray charming, plump babies in all sorts of imaginative and frequently mischievous activities.
In the past, the wawa hua usually had allegorical meanings. One of the most popular, showing a lotus flower and a fat baby blowing a sheng (a pan-pipe like musical instrument made of bamboo), was entitled Lien Sheng Kuei Tzu, meaning "Lotus, Sheng and Noble Son". Since lien sheng has the same sound as two other Chinese characters which mean "successive birth", the hidden meaning was that the household should have fine sons one after the other. Similarly, the boy and carp symbolized hope for abundance, since the word "yu" for fish sounds the same as the one for plenty.
With the introduction of massproduction lithography from the West about 1900, the popularity of woodcut "New Year Pictures" declined in the cities. Their vivacity and subtle humour frequently gave place to stereotyped, commercial sentiment. Many of the old blocks were burned as fuel.
After the May Fourth Movement for cultural revival in 1919, the great democratic writer Lu Hsun campaigned for realistic nien hua, done in the national style but freed from superstition. Following the Yenan conference on art and literature in 1942, when Mao Tse-tung called on artists to serve the working people, the nien hua experienced a new birth. Retaining the characteristic folk flavour but with more detail and adapted to modern printing methods, they portrayed scenes of land reform and cooperative production in the liberated areas as well as contemporary events. The baby motif, however, remained popular. Today's wawa hua show children amid rich harvests, climbing curiously over new agricultural machinery, and, as always, happily at play.