Liu Yi-fang, Chinese Woodcuts - Old and New

Originally published in:
China Reconstructs March 1955, pp. 14-15

Wood engraving in China has a tradition that goes back over a thousand years. In the fifteenth century, when it had already reached a very high degree of maturity, the art was conveyed to Europe. There it underwent considerable development. In China, however, tradition held it in a somewhat static form, and towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the introduction of modern photo-engraving techniques, it declined almost into oblivion.

It was not until the 1930's, when the famous revolutionary writer Lu Hsun began to popularize the work of Kaethe Kollwitz and other democratic European artists in this medium, that the new, progressive Chinese woodcut began its development. Breaking completely with tradition, it took a militant form from the start, serving the cause of the Chinese revolution. Lu Hsun opened a training class for young artists in Shanghai with a Japanese instructor, and sponsored many exhibitions of the work of European wood engravers.

A Fighting Art

Young artists and students, dissatisfied both with the old society in China and with the decadent art theories being taught in the academies, seized upon the woodcut eagerly. They recognized it as a powerful art form which could be produced with inexpensive tools, provide many copies of each work, and bring the message of struggle for a better life even to the illiterate. So, from the very beginning, the new woodcut was taken from the "salon" into the streets, where the working people lived.

In form and technique the work of the early and middle '30's, influenced by French, German and Soviet woodcuts, was somewhat western in style - and therefore in some respects unfamiliar. But its content, revealing the sufferings of the people and the necessity of fighting fascism and national enslavement, awoke a passionate response. The Kuomintang authorities, alarmed by this effect, resorted to suppression. Art societies were disbanded, students expelled and reproductions burned. The mere possession of woodcut tools was considered sufficient reason for imprisonment, torture or even execution. But the number of works produced continued to increase.

Amid Fires of War

During the War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression in 1937-45, woodcut artists worked both in the liberated areas of the country and the rear areas ruled by the Kuomintang. At Yenan, the old revolutionary base, a new style of woodcut developed, combining the most vital elements of Chinese tradition - the robust manner of the New Year pictures and the folk design of the peasant papercuts - with the graving-strokes and composition that had been learned from western artists. Following the historic conference of writers and artists that took place at Yenan in 1942, the wood engravers began to relate their work more closely than ever before to the life of the people. They pictured the awakened people fighting the invaders, reforming the feudal land system, and laying the foundations of a new life and a new outlook amid the fires of armed struggle. In the

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War of Liberation which drove out Chiang Kai-shek and his American backers (1945-49) these themes were further developed.

Artists in the Kuomintang areas, on the other hand, continued to suffer difficulties. The Chiang Kai-shek regime interfered even with the work they did to mobilize the people for more effective resistance to Japanese aggression. As before, they were often persecuted and unable to make a livelihood. After the Japanese surrender, the persecution increased. Nevertheless, they took an active part in the general democratic movement against the renewal of civil war by the reactionaries. They produced woodcuts of a strongly progressive character, and played a part in bringing about the ultimate collapse of the reactionary regime.

New Life and New Moods

In the five years that have passed since China's liberation, fresh themes have appeared in the subject-matter chosen by the wood engravers. At the National Exhibition of Graphic Art held in Peking last September, a remarkable change of mood was to be noted. It seemed as if sunlight had suddenly flooded the world of the woodcut, and the fire and fury of protest had been changed into a boundless energy and joy.

Woodcuts constituted the great majority of the prints displayed at the Exhibition. The themes were drawn predominantly from the living experience of present-day China. The building of factories and of great new machines to provide prosperity for the people, big tractors turning up the soil - these and many other subjects showed the forward march of China's new construction. Not all the artists, perhaps, have yet the depth of experience which can enable them to show in terms of people the conflicts and struggles involved in the task of building up our country. This will come. Altogether new to the Chinese woodcut were portrayals of the country's lovely scenery, the colourful life of the people of the national minorities, working people at recreation - subjects which were very rarely chosen in the past.

This new mood, with the further development of the synthesis of Chinese traditional line with western techniques, is giving rise to a strongly national style remarkable for its simplicity and clarity. China's younger artists are displaying an astonishing mastery of technique, while the mature style of the older ones is undergoing a change that gives their work a youthful freshness.

Among the new works that won high praise in the Exhibition were Ku Yuan's Boulevard in the Peking Suburbs, a pleasantly lyrical print of some new buildings under construction, viewed from a distance between the branches of some willows, and Li Huan-ming's Weaving the Flowered Carpet, in black and white with strong contrasts of light and shade, portraying two beautiful Tibetan women at their work. Huang Yen's Building the Han River Bridge shows one of the great bridges now being built in China; and The Place Where Nobody Has Set Foot, by the young artist Liang Yung-tai, captures the moment when a railway train passes for the first time over a bridge at the top of a rocky gorge, frightening the birds and wild animals with the roar of its passing. Here is a landscape with something of the Chinese classical style, but suffused with entirely new emotions.

The Exhibition was the first of its kind to be held since liberation. The fact that 30,000 people visited it is sure proof that the popularity of the woodcut is continuing and growing. So far, most of the woodcuts have been done for reproduction as individual prints, but the engravers must now begin to make woodcuts for what was one of their traditional purposes in China, the illustration of books for the millions of readers who are demanding them.

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