Chinese New Year Prints – Good Fortune all year long!

Last month the Ashmolean Museum celebrated Chinese New Year with a range of colourful activities. The Eastern Art Department showed a selection from the reserve collection of Chinese New Prints at the Jameel Centre. This included prints from the late Qing dynasty to the mid-20th century.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival.  © Ian Wallman

Chinese New Year prints, or as they are called in Chinese “nianhua” are an important part of traditional Chinese New Year rituals. They are called New Year prints as the sales for these colourful inexpensive mass-produced single-sheet woodblock images peaked around New Years’ time, even if they were actually in use all year-round. In order to prepare for the arrival of the New Year, the most important celebration in China, it was crucial to clear the house of misfortune and to invoke the blessings of the gods. To that end images often depicting terrifying guardians, gods (they are also referred to as “Paper Gods”) or auspicious motifs such as images depicting children were placed outside and inside the house. These images would be kept in place and worshipped during the whole year in order to protect the home from evil spirits and to bring good fortune to the family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Figure riding a lion dog, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.c © The artist’s estate

The quality of New Year prints varies, some were intended only for ritual use and not for display at all. On New Year’s Day Paper Gods would be presented with offerings and each member of the family would pray to them, and later on the Gods would be burned. It was believed that by burning them the Paper Gods would be sent off to Heaven, where they would watch over the family and intercede on their behalf throughout the year. These types of prints were often bought in sets of several dozen gods representing the Chinese pantheon of deities.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Man and boy riding a qilin, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.d © The artist’s estate

The fact that they were objects used for worship and not considered as works of art explains why despite their mass production only few have survived, often in bad conditions. Foreign travellers would bring them back home as curiosities and this is how they often found their way into Museum collections. The exact dating of the prints is difficult as the same woodblocks would often have been used for printing over an extensive period of time.

Visitors viewing Chinese New Year Prints at the Jameel Centre during the China Festival. © Ian Wallman

Door Gods (Menshen)

The Door Gods are one of the most common subjects for New Year prints. Worshipping Door Gods dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) when the two loyal and brave generals, Qin Qiong (also known as Qin Shubao) and Yuchi Gong (EA1970.85.a+b), were watching over Emperor Taizhong’s sleep, finally enabling him to rest without being disturbed by ghosts and demons. To honour and relieve them from their duty the emperor painted their portraits on his door. The two generals can usually be identified by their respective weapons and face colour, Yuchi Gong has a darker face holding a steel whip or batons while Qin Qiong has a pale face and carries swords.

Military Door God Qin Qiong, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs, 1970. EA1970.85.a

In general images of Door Gods always come in pairs and are pasted facing each other. Placing them back to back is considered to bring bad luck. They are placed to face the visitor when entering the house. Back entrances would equally be watched over by fierce looking Guardian Gods such as the popular demon queller Zhong Kui.

Guan Gong with sword, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013.

Another widespread Door God is the general Guan Yu (also called Guandi or Guan Gong) who lived during the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd century AD). He played an important role in the establishment of a new dynasty under the warlord Liu Bei. His life has been fictionalised in one of the most famous Chinese historical novels, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, dating back to the 14th century. For his achievements as a general Guan Yu received the honorific title emperor – Di. Guan Yu is even today seen as an epitome of loyalty and righteousness. He is usually depicted wearing a green robe and often has a reddish face.

The deity Guan Gong, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.a

Other military door gods (generally recognisable from their orange coloured faces and heavy weapons) are depicted together with five children. The children represent the five talented sons of the scholar Dou Yujun, who lived during the Five Dynasties period (907–960 A.D.). In one the Ashmolean prints (LI2022.282.k) the child in the middle wears a civil official robe and rides a Qilin. This suggests the wish that a successful scholar should be bestowed upon the family by the mythical animal.

The Door God with five children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.k

New Year prints would often depict a selection of gods from the vast pantheon of deities Chinese people believed in. This enabled families to obtain the favours of as many gods as possible at the same time. The supreme deity of Heaven, the Jade Emperor, generally occupies the most important position in the centre of the picture. He governs the enormous heavenly bureaucracy of gods often behaving in very human ways. The strict hierarchic organisation of the gods is influenced by Daoist and Confucian beliefs and includes influences from traditional folkloric religions.

Gods on an altar, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.i

The Star Gods (Sanxing)

Fu, Lu, and Shou are the gods of the three stars symbolising the three attributes of a good life: Prosperity (Fu), Status (Lu), and Longevity (Shou). The first depictions of the three Star Gods in human form are said to date back to the Ming dynasty. Each Star God can easily be recognised through an individual set of symbols. The God of Prosperity or good fortune holds a baby boy in his arms as male heirs were seen as a great blessing in Confucian culture. The God of Status stands tallest with his official cap, scholars robe and a ceremonial sceptre (ruyi) in his hands.

Three Star Gods: Fu, Lu, Shou (Prosperity, Status and Longevity) with children, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.h

The God of Longevity takes the form of an elderly immortal with an extended forehead and long white beard holding in one hand a staff and in the other hand a peach. The mythical peach is said to come from a fabulous tree which blossoms only once every three thousand years in Heaven. Eating the fruit is reserved for the gods as it brings immortality. The clothes of the God of Longevity are often decorated with the Chinese character Shou meaning longevity. Sometimes only one of the gods is represented in human form while the others would be symbolised by animals. The crane, because of its longlife expectancy, is a symbol of longevity. The bat (fu) is a homophone for good luck and the deer (lu) stands for status. The deer often carries in its mouth the mushroom of immortality (lingzhi) as it is renowned for finding the rare magical plant.

Yueying Zhong (b. 1960), The God of Longevity, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.a © The artist’s estate

The Stove God

Stove God with five children, early 20th century, EA1975.15

Traditionally the preparations for the New Year would start with sending off the Stove God to Heaven on the 23rd day of the last month. It was believed that in Heaven he would report to the Jade Emperor on the behaviour of the family he observed in the kitchen from his place above the oven during the past year. Based on this report the supreme deity would then decide on how much prosperity he will give to the family in the coming year. In order to make sure the Stove God would deliver a positive report the family would bribe him with sweet treats before burning his image. Seven days after the old Stove God has been burned, a new image would be installed above the stove. Even if officially he is a lower rank god, the Stove God was one of the most popular gods which even poorer families would invest in buying.


Images of Children

Displaying pictures of chubby baby boys is believed to bring male offspring and abundance. The babies are often depicted holding the peach of immortality, surrounded by magpies and mandarin ducks, both symbols for joy and happiness. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, this healthy-looking youth would symbolise a rosy future. The images of children in Chinese New Year prints were intended in particular for those who wished to accomplish the chief Confucian virtue of raising a large family.

Yueying Zhong (born 1960), Boy with a bird, 2012, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.266.b © The artist’s estate

The immortals He and He

The image of the immortals He and He exemplifies the practice of depicting objects that are homophones of the desired result. This motif of the two immortals derives from the Daoist pantheon. One of the “He” is the immortal of harmony and the other “He” is the immortal of union. They are generally associated with a happy marriage. These prints symbolise double happiness or happy children and would be pasted on or near the bedroom door.

Children for conjugal blessing, 19th – 20th century, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.282.c

Taohuawu Printing Workshops

The picture of a young round shaped boy is associated with the Taohuawu woodblock printing workshops in Suzhou. The roundness of the boy implies completion, perfection and harmony. The boy is wearing a lock, a common protective accessory worn by children to keep them away from harm. In this example from the Ashmolean print collection the boy is holding a banner stating that the embodiment of harmony brings good luck.

Chinese wooblock print , early 20th century, Presented by Mrs Dubs, in memory of Professor Homer Dubs in 1970, EA1970.84.b.

The production of New Year prints in China was particularly thriving in the late 19th and early 20th century and specialised workshops often with their own distinct style could be found all across China. Taohuawu is one of China’s most famous and oldest New Year Print production centres. It was already printing and distributing woodblock New Year Prints as early as the Ming dynasty. During its most productive period the annual production of Taohuawu New Year woodblock prints reached more than a million pieces which were distributed across the country. It enjoyed popularity equal to the Yangliuqing New Year Printing workshops in Tianjin. The two workshops were famous and often referred to in one breath: “Taohuawu in the South and Yangliuqing in the North of China”.

Within the printing workshops work was divided: the designer drew the motif; then the carver transferred that drawing to the woodblock; next the printer printed the black outlines and sometimes areas of colour as well. In some workshops stencils were used to colour the prints and additional details were painted on by hand.

New Nianhua

With the appearance of the more effective modern lithography studio technologies in the late 1920s many traditional workshops went out of business. However the technique was reviewed when the Chinese Communist Party, in an attempt to find a language to communicate its ideology to a wider population, identified New Year prints (nianhua) and other forms of folk art as a central component of its new arts and culture policy at the Yan’an forum in 1942. Consequently, the function and use of New Year Prints changed; they became effective vehicles of communist political messages and ideals. Their designs and technique became much more elaborate, often illustrating model behaviour. Their aim was to “emphasize labouring people’s new, happy and hard-fought lives and their appearance of health and heroism.” The new directives issued in 1949 by the Ministry of Culture stated that ostentation was to be avoided and costs should be kept down so that people could afford the pictures. Regarding the print circulations the old New Year print distribution networks such as incense shops, small book stands, or itinerant peddlers were to be used.

Ming Chu, artist, Weichen Shen, block cutter, Yanli Shen, block cutter, A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside, 1964, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.a © The artist’s estate

Taohuawu Workshop, publisher
Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers,  Suzhou, before 1965, Bequeathed by Michael Sullivan, 2013. LI2022.466.b © Taohuawu Workshop

The two prints entitled Changing the Appearance of Mountains and Rivers and A Woman Transformed Into a New Person by Being in the Countryside dating from the early 1960s demonstrate that the colourful images were meant to inspire behavioural change and praise the great achievements of the Communist Party visibly introducing modernity, such as electricity poles, into the landscapes.

Another major change was that prints were no longer the result of an anonymous production line, but they were carefully designed according to official propaganda by professional state artists. In 2006 the Ashmolean purchased a group of 12 colour woodblock New Year prints. This group was compiled by the National Art Workers Association of China in Beijing and distributed by Xin Hua Bookstore in1950.  The group of works includes prints by Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993) or Zhang Ding (1917 – 2010), depicting scenes linked to the Chinese New Year such as in A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day or Greeting the New Year.

Jin Lang (1914 – 1998), artist Huabei University Art Workshop (active 1948 – 1949), printer New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer Greeting the New Year, EA2006.272  © The artist’s estate

Shi Zhan (1912 – 1993), New Rongbaozhai (established 1949), publisher International Bookstore (established 1949), retailer, A Village Delegation Presents Comforts to the Troops on New Year’s Day, EA2006.273 © The artist’s estate

Learn more about the Ashmolean Museum Chinese print collection on Eastern Art Online.

Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme

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New temporary display of works by Xu Bing

From 2 March

Gallery 10 | Admission Free

Xu Bing (b.1955, Chongqing, Sichuan) is a leading contemporary artist from China renowned for works of art that explore language. To mark his visit to Oxford in March for the 2018 Oxford China Forum and the launch of Professor Peter D. McDonald’s Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing (Oxford: OUP, 2017), the Ashmolean is displaying three important works by Xu Bing.

Xu Bing, Beijing, January 2013 © Xu Bing Studio

Most famous is his Tianshu ‘Book from the Sky’ (1987-92), which presents 4,000 unintelligible ‘Chinese’ characters created by the artist in four bound volumes, each printed in traditional format using fine materials.

View of temporary display in gallery 10, Book from the Sky, and its box, Sullivan Bequest © the artist, EA2015.340

A more recent book, in some sense a companion to it, is Dishu or ‘Book from the Ground’, which uses the pictograms and emojis present everywhere in modern life to narrate a story that everyone can understand. Disrupting reading habits in different ways, the two works raise questions, at once sceptical and creative, about all established forms of writing.

Book from the Ground: from point to point, Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2013 © 2013 Xu Bing

Book cover, Artefacts of Writing, Ideas of the State of and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu Bing by Peter D. McDonald

Xu Bing’s Landscript (2002), in which he has created an ink landscape painting composed of pictographic Chinese characters, using the character for ‘tree’ 木, the stones using the character for ‘stone’ 石, and so forth, completes the display.

Landscript, 2002, ink on Nepalese paper, 50 x 173 cm, Sullivan Bequest © the artist, EA2015.341

More information on his 2013 exhibition Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript at the Ashmolean Museum can be found here. The exhibition catalogue is available at the Ashmolean shop.

Posted on behalf of Shelagh Vainker, Curator of Chinese Art.

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Object Spotlight: Japanese gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress

Gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress, EA1983.243 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Gunpowder flask with figures in Portuguese dress, EA1983.243 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford











This lacquered wood gunpowder flask (kayaku-ire) was produced in Japan. It is artistic in form but with an important practical use. The flask gives a useful insight into a fascinating period of Japanese history and reflects the history of contact between Europe (especially Portugal) and Japan. It depicts Portuguese figures, in exaggerated poses, on the front and back panels of the flask. The two flat lacquered panels are affixed to a wooden body, rounded at the sides and bottom.  It is an example of an artistic style known as Nanban, which developed during this period of initial European contact (1543‒1639), although it is possible the object was produced later than this date. Apart from the wood and lacquer, it also includes copper, which was used to make the spout and side pin (likely for attachment to a belt or equivalent). It was acquired by the museum in 1983, purchased at auction with the help of the Friends of the Ashmolean.

Historical Background

The period of initial European contact with Japan coincided with what the Japanese call the Sengoku jidai, ‘the Age of Warring States’. This was a protracted period of civil strife lasting almost one hundred and fifty years up to around the early 1600s. Japan at this time, although ruled nominally by an Emperor who commanded the loyalty of the nobility, was in practice ruled by a shogun, a powerful lord who was the supreme commander of the armed forces and acted as a head of government in whom most practical power rested. The Japanese term for the shogun’s government (shogunate) was bakufu, which literally means ‘tent-government’ and came to refer to the host of bureaucrats and court officials who worked under the shogun. The sixteenth century in Japan was characterized by the instability resulting from the collapse of one shogunate and the rise of another. This gunpowder flask was produced around 1600, when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) was establishing his rule, beginning the era of the Tokugawa shogunate (1615–1868). This period is also known as the Edo period, as the new government was based in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), as opposed to Kyoto, the former capital where the emperor still lived. The period saw the initial contact between Japan and Europeans, the Portuguese having come upon Japan in the 1540s. As their arrival coincided with this period of conflict and upheaval, the Portuguese were able to initiate trade with the Japanese, as well as engage in Christianization, courting provincial rulers (daimyō) and even negotiating control of Nagasaki in the 1580s, although this was short-lived.

Nanban panel attributed to Kano Naizen, Image: © National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Wikimedia Commons


Besides the significant social and cultural exchanges that followed the Portuguese arrival in Japan, there was also a marked economic interaction. The Portuguese were enthusiastic for Japanese goods such as porcelain (and there was also a significant trade in Japanese slaves) but there was very little in the way of European items imported into Japan. The Europeans’ main contribution was to act as middle men for other Asian goods such as silk from China. The main exception to this rule was the trade in gunpowder weapons: specifically the European matchlock heavy arquebus, known as the musket. The general term for gunpowder weapons in Japan was Tanegashima, after the island where they were said to have been first introduced, but other names included hinawajū, ‘fire-rope gun’, and teppō, ‘iron cannon’ or ‘metal gun’. Teppō would subsequently become the standard term. Although the Chinese had pioneered the use of gunpowder technology, the matchlock, the first firearm with a trigger, was a European innovation which was introduced to Asia (India and likely also China) through the Ottoman Turks. However, the first documented trade of firearms in Japan was conducted by the Portuguese in 1543, when a Chinese pirate/trader vessel with several Portuguese on board was shipwrecked near Tanegashima and the local daimyō was much taken with the weapons and purchased them for a huge sum. Print designer Katushika Hokusai (1760–1849) imagines the incident in the work below.

‘First Guns in Japan’, Katsushika Hokusai, 1817, Image: © Noel Perrin Giving Up the Gun, Wikimedia Commons


Firearms were transported to Japan from the Portuguese bases in Goa and Malacca, where armouries and workshops were able to produce these guns in significant numbers. By the 1560s gunpowder weapons were being used in large numbers in Japanese battles by Japanese foot soldiers (ashigaru). Their advantages and drawbacks in Japanese warfare were much the same as with European. They were dangerous to the user, inaccurate, slow to load and reload, and could be very unreliable in wet weather. Conversely, they were easy to manufacture, easy to use (meaning people of low status and no military background could be instructed in their use) and had superior penetrative power compared to other missile weapons like bows. Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582), a successful military leader of this period, recognised the potential of muskets early on and won repeated successes using large numbers of musket-wielding troops, most famously at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575.

Japanese ashigaru, Image: © Noel Perrin Giving Up the Gun, Wikimedia commons



The flask under discussion is a gunpowder flask, used in the loading of matchlock guns. To fire the weapon, one pulls a lever or trigger attached to the bottom of the weapon. The action of pulling the trigger moves a second lever, causing a match (burning cord) to be lowered into the flash pan where the priming powder sits. The flash from the lit priming powder moves through the vent and ignites the main powder charge in the gun barrel. This reaction expels the projectile down the barrel and out of the muzzle. The powder flask is used to accurately apply a measure of powder to the weapon via the narrow spout. As the smaller amount of priming powder had to be of finer quality, typically the user would have two flasks, one with priming powder, and one with coarser powder used as the main charge. The most efficient way to use the flask was to prepare cartridges containing the right amount of powder before battle so one did not have to fumble around with multiple flasks in the middle of an engagement.

Production and Design

To make Japanese lacquerware, objects are covered with the treated sap of the lacquer tree or sumac. The objects can be of any material: wood, paper, leather, textiles and ceramics. Wood was the preferred medium for Japanese artisans.

Lacquer Tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly, Rhus verniciflua. It is indigenous to China but has been found across East Asia since ancient times, Image: © Takami Torao, 15 August 2009, all rights released, Wikimedia Commons

In Japan the tree is called urushi, a name from which the name of the oily allergenic compound urushiol comes. Urushiol, contained in the tree’s sap, is toxic but vital in the production of the distinctively hard-wearing East Asian lacquer. The tree bark is cut and the sap collected: the sap is an almost clear liquid which releases a poisonous vapour and is then refined by sieving and evaporating to reduce the water content from around 30% to 3%, by which time it is more viscous and completely colourless. This process must be performed in a dust-free environment with very high relative humidity. Pigmentation can be achieved by adding dyes, metallic oxides, ash or cinnabar.[1]

‘Harvesting lacquer in Mikawa province’, from the woodblock printed book Products and Industries of Japan (Dai Nippon Bussan Zue), 1877, by Utagawa Hiroshige III, EA1964.224. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Japan already had a highly developed lacquerware tradition by the time of initial contact with Europeans, 1543‒1639. With the arrival of the musket, and foreign traders who prized Japanese lacquered objects for trade, the powder flask rapidly became a well-established item of lacquer production. As there was no surface treatment equivalent to lacquer in Europe, lacquered objects were prized for their quality, rarity and exotic character and therefore fetched very high prices in European markets. Objects that were produced for sale to Europeans, initially the Portuguese, were known as Nanban wares. Nanban, which translates as ‘Southern barbarian’, was the term used to refer to these early European visitors.  Originally coming from Chinese, the term was used in China and Japan to refer to South Asian peoples, or any foreigner who was not Chinese, Japanese or Korean. However, by the sixteenth century in Japan it came to be used in reference to Europeans, specifically the Portuguese. The subsequent interactions between these two groups gave rise to the production of a distinctive type of art: Nanban art. Typically, Nanban-style objects comprised thick black lacquer, as seen on the side panels of the flask.

The figures on both the front and back of the flask wear the distinctive bombacha trousers worn by the Portuguese in the East, which were notable to the Japanese eye. Both the clothes and poses of the figures seem to be exaggerated for humorous effect. This light-hearted depiction of foreigners suggests that this item may have been made for the domestic market, a theory supported by the fact that the likely date of production of the flask is after the expulsion of the Portuguese from Japan in 1639. Beyond the obvious association between the Europeans and the firearms they introduced, there is no clear connection between the figures on the object and the purpose of the flask.

Historical epilogue

The Portuguese were not able to monopolize contact with Japan for long, as other European powers – the Spanish, Dutch and English – were keen to muscle in on the lucrative opportunities in the Indian Ocean and the Far East. With the end of civil war, and the restoration of a strong central government in Japan in the early 1600s, the Japanese authorities clamped down on the presence of foreigners in the country. This policy came to be called sakoku (‘closed country’ or ‘national isolation’), following an edict of 1635. It has traditionally been thought to have been due to a desire to minimize foreign influences, whether political religious or economic, but recent scholarship has also highlighted that this was part of the centralizing agenda of the Bakufu: being part of a range of policies aimed at limiting the power of the local lords (daimyō). In any case, of the four European powers involved in Japan, the English left first, in 1623, voluntarily because they were not profiting from their trading post in Hirado. Subsequently the Spanish were expelled from Nagasaki in 1624, and likewise the Portuguese in 1638 because of continued illicit missionary work which the Japanese government had forbidden. Only the Dutch were left.

The Japanese had a different term for the Dutch: kōmō, meaning ‘red hair’, more to suggest a demonic nature than to describe the actual colour of all the Dutch visitors’ hair. Although the Dutch had shown no desire to interfere politically or religiously in Japan, and were only interested in trade, they were limited to occupying a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki harbour called Deshima (next to a slightly larger island reserved for the Chinese). For the next two centuries or so, it was the Dutch who monopolized the European trade of Japanese goods. This tiny outpost also allowed the Japanese to retain a tenuous connection with the West and to enable transmission of Western technology: see the term Rangaku (literally: ‘Dutch learning’).

‘Dish with Dutch East India Company monogram’, EA1994.103 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This porcelain plate of the late seventeenth century bears the emblem of the Dutch East India Company in the centre (VOC,  for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). It is an example of Japanese export porcelain, a valuable trade commodity which the Dutch were the only Europeans legally entitled to export to Europe. The plate is currently on display in the Ashmolean’s ‘West Meets East’ gallery (Gallery 35).

  • Ben Skarratt, UEP Museum Assistant, responsible for collections and object teaching support across the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art, Western Art and Antiquities departments.


[1] Process description taken from Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Impey and Jörg, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005, p. 75



Japanese Export Lacquer 1580-1850, Impey and Jörg, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005

Giving Up The Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, Noel Perrin, Godine, New Hampshire, 1979

The Namban Art of Japan, Yoshitomo Okamoto, translated by Ronald K Jones, Weatherhill/Heibonsha, New York & Tokyo, 1972

Lacquer: technology and conservation: a comprehensive guide to the technology and conservation of Asian and European lacquer, Marianne Webb, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 2000

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Persian and Indian Playing Cards

Card games are amongst the most popular games in the world. Tracing the history of playing cards however is difficult, due to their perishable nature and ephemeral quality. It is believed that playing cards originated in China, later spreading westward into Iran, India and Egypt. The early history of cards in Europe is related to contacts between Egypt and North Africa with Italy and Spain during the 13th-14th centuries.

Two of the most popular games in Iran were the ganjifa (or ganjafa/ganjafeh) and as (or as nas). The name ganjifa (‘playing cards’) comes from the Persian word ganj which literally means ‘treasure’. The Persian ganjifa was played with 96 cards consisting of eight suits. Unfortunately early Persian cards have not survived, but the game became popular in India from where we still have many extant examples.

Ganjifa was brought from Iran into India and popularised during the early Mughal period (early 16th century), although an earlier transmission via Turkmen princes in the Deccan during the 15th century is also possible. Indian cards are typically circular (although some rectangular decks have been produced), and they are usually kept in painted wooden boxes with a sliding lid. The standard Indian version of the ganjifa was the eight-suited Mughal ganjifa (Figure 1). Its suits are similar to the Persian ones, consisting of the crown (taj), silver coin (safed), sword (shamsher), servant (ghulam), harp (chang), gold coin (surkh), document (barat), and merchandise (qimash). Each suit contains ten numeral cards (1 to 10) and two court cards: the king (mir) who is usually depicted enthroned (Figure 2), and the minister (wazir) who is usually depicted on horseback.

Figure 1: The Mughal ganjifa, with cards from the taj suit in the foreground. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Cards: Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm; box: wood, painted, 5.5 x 12.8 x 5.2 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Figure 2: The king (mir) of the harp (chang) suit in the Mughal ganjifa. Rajasthan, India, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 3.8 cm. Presented by the Church Missionary Society, 1966. Ashmolean Museum (EA1966.69) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The dasavatara version of the ganjifa is a Hindu variation introduced later, that has ten suits and 120 cards instead (Figure 3). Each suit represents one of the ten incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu, commonly Matsya (the Fish), Kurma (the Turtle), Varaha (the Boar), Narasimha (the Man-lion), Vamana (the Dwarf), Parashurama, Rama (hero of the Ramayana), Krishna, the Buddha, and Kalkin (the Horse, the future avatar). The structure and rules of the game are roughly the same as with the Mughal ganjifa. There are ten numeral cards and two court cards in each suit, with the king (raja) depicted enthroned while the minister (pradhan or mantri) is shown either on horseback or seated on a smaller throne.

Figure 3: Dasavatara ganjifa, Sawantwadi, India. c. 1900. Cards: paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm; box: wood, painted, 12.2 x 13.6 x 12 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Mughal Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum currently hosts a beautiful deck of dasavatara ganjifa from 19th-century Sawantwadi in Maharashtra, western India (Figure 3). The cards, measuring 10cm in diameter, are made of painted and lacquered paper. They are housed in a brightly painted wooden box. In Sawantwadi ganjifa sets, instead of being depicted enthroned, the king (raja) cards often show the avatars of Vishnu engaging in action. For instance, in the Ashmolean deck the king card of the Matsya suit depicts Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a fish, while grabbing the hair of a demon who was hiding in a conch shell (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The king (raja) card of the Matsya suit in the dasavatara ganjifa. Sawantwadi, India, c. 1900. Paper, painted and lacquered, diam. 10 cm. Ashmolean Museum (EAX.2078) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The other card game is the poker-like as or as nas, popular in Iran between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 20th century. It was played with five suits of five identical cards, each bearing creative motifs depicted under a lacquer finish: ace or lion (as), king (shah), queen (bibi), soldier (sarbaz) and courtesan (lakkat). The ace (as) cards often feature felines fighting a dragon, and sometimes the sun with a human face is added on the top of the card. An Ashmolean example from 19th-century Iran depicts the sun in the form of a mustachioed man, whose image recalls official portraits of the Qajar ruler Naser al-Din Shah (1831-96) (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The ace/lion (as) card in the as. Iran, 19th century. Paper, painted and lacquered, 6 x4 cm. Presented by Miss E. M. Buller, 1958. Ashmolean Museum (EA1958.282) © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Both ganjifa and as cards were hand-painted and covered with a heavy lacquer finish in order to protect them from damage due to constant handling.

Further reading:

• Diba, Layla, ‘Persian Playing Cards: A Courtly Art’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 232-9.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: The Traditional Playing Cards of India’, in eds, Colin Mackenzie and Irving Finkel, Asian Games: The Art of Contest (New York: Asia Society, 2004), pp. 240-51.

• Hopewell, Jeff, ‘Ganjifa: India’s Contribution to the World of Playing Cards’, in ed., Andrew Topsfield, The Art of Play: Board and Card Games of India (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2006), pp. 91-105.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, ‘Oriental Playing Cards’, Journal of the Playing Card Society 4, Supplement 4/1D (1976): pp. 1-37.

• Leyden, Rudolf von, Ganjifa: The Playing Cards of India, with contributions by Michael Dummett (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982).

• Roschanzamir, Mahdi, ‘Card Games’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 1990, IV/7, pp. 802-3; available online at

• Roschanzamir, Mehdi, ‘Ās’, Encyclopædia Iranica, 2002 (last updated 2011); available online at


– Federica Duva and Farouk Yahya


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Diary of a Tea Ceremony Demonstration

Every month, except over Christmas and during the summer holidays, we hold a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration in the traditional Japanese tea house in the Museum’s Japanese galleries. The tea house was designed and built especially for the Ashmolean by a team of highly skilled Japanese craftsmen, led by the master carpenter Mr Eichirō Amakasu and the architect Mr Isao Komoda. We have always been very keen to make it an active tea house, rather than just another exhibit, and we are fortunate enough to have the support of a wonderful team of Japanese tea enthusiasts who are prepared to give their time and expertise so that we can run regular demonstrations.

To give you an idea of what happens in one of our demonstrations, here is a diary of a typical ‘Tea Demo Day’.

15 June 2017

Night before. Remember to get matcha powdered green tea out of the freezer. We stock up with really good matcha in London or – even better – in Japan, and it keeps surprisingly well in the freezer. Otherwise the startling green tea with its distinctive aroma oxidises to a slightly dingy khaki colour. I just have to remember to take it out well in advance so that it isn’t too cold and damp on the day.

8.30 am. I pop into the garden to see what flowers I can find to arrange in the display alcove of the tea house. One of the key ideas behind the Japanese tea ceremony is wabi, the notion of finding beauty in the humble, the simple and the imperfect. Everything used in a tea gathering is carefully selected to express this mood, even the flowers. So it’s important not to choose anything too flashy or scented. At this time of year Japanese anemones work well; perhaps cherry blossom in the spring, or delicate acer leaves in the autumn. I know that one of our volunteers, Masayo-san, will bring something in too – she has a garden full of lovely Japanese plants. I find some pretty white astrantia that should look good against the ochre-coloured walls of the tea house – fingers crossed it will survive the bike ride into the Ashmolean.

9.00 am. Before the museum opens to the public I give the tea house a quick clean. It’s remarkable how dusty it gets! I keep a set of special dusters and brushes and cloths that are used only for this purpose and a gentle dusting of the surfaces and wipe-down of the tatami floor with a damp cloth is all that’s needed. I like to feel there is something a little Zen-like about this task. It’s really very peaceful inside the tea house, with a faint smell of wood and tatami straw matting.

9.30 am. I get hold of the list of attendees from colleagues in the Education Department, which oversees the event. We limit numbers to make sure that all our guests can get a really good view of the tea house, and the demonstrations are almost always fully booked.

10.00 am. I set to work on creating handouts for the event, as we like to give visitors a brief record of our tea gathering to take away with them. Traditionally, tea hosts and guests in Japan would keep records of the tea gatherings they attended, carefully noting details of the event, such as the utensils selected, flowers arranged and guests invited. Through the careful selection of these different elements, a tea host can demonstrate his or her taste and create a particular mood, depending on the season, the time of day and the atmosphere they want to create. There is a lovely Zen phrase used in tea circles, ichigo ichie (一期一会), literally ‘one time, one meeting’, that expresses how each tea gathering is a unique occasion, a one-off, transient moment to be treasured. Our handouts are inspired by these tea diaries and list all the utensils we have selected for each demonstration. Like the historical tea masters, we make sure to update the list for each demonstration.

10.30 am. Our demonstrators start to arrive to get ready for the day. Every month I am impressed by their knowledge, dedication, kindness and adaptability. There are many challenges to making tea in a museum setting and the team members are unfailingly positive in the face of all of them. They are often joined by other fantastic helpers from the University Museum Volunteer Service, who provide invaluable assistance with setting up and serving tea, and generally making sure the day goes smoothly.

Masayo-san arrives first, with an armful of beautiful seasonal flowers from her garden. She disappears upstairs to arrange them in the hanging vase in the tea house. Tea flowers are very informally arranged, to look as if they have been simply ‘thrown into’ the vase.

11.00 am. Meanwhile, Satomi-san starts to rinse the metal kettle used to heat the water for the tea and boils mineral water (instead of hard Oxford tap water!) to fill thermos flasks ready to use later.

Midday. Miyuki-san arrives. Another key member of our team, she is our kimono expert. Putting on a kimono is a complex process and many Japanese women are not able to dress themselves completely alone. The tying of the obi sash is particularly tricky. For the next hour, my office becomes a changing room.

Mitsuko-san starts carrying tea bowls and other equipment up to the Japanese galleries, where front-of-house colleagues have set up a table and stools for us. A proper tea room would have its own preparation area, like a small kitchen, but we make a temporary preparation area in the gallery next to the tea house.

Meanwhile, someone sieves the tea to get rid of any lumps, then piles it carefully into the lacquer tea container. The tea is supposed to be piled up like an elegant mountain inside the container, and there is even a special word for how it looks – keshiki, or ‘landscape’. Someone else selects the sweets to be used; as the tea is quite bitter, a sweet is always eaten before the tea is drunk. The sweets are often designed to reflect the season, so might be moulded in the shape of autumn maple leaves, winter snowflakes or spring blossoms. Today’s sweets are in the shape of green leaves and rippling water.

1.00 pm. The guests assemble at the tea house and we head off to one of the Eastern Art Department study rooms so that I can give a brief introductory talk: about the history of tea drinking in Japan, the notion of wabi that informs the tea ceremony, and what happens in a real tea gathering. We also handle some tea wares from the Ashmolean’s collection.

We head back to the gallery, where stools have been set up in front of the tea house. We ask one visitor to volunteer to be a guest inside the tea house (somebody who is happy to kneel for a while). Other visitors sit on the stools to watch the demonstration, but everyone receives a bowl of tea – if not made inside the teahouse then in the nearby preparation area.

At its core, the tea gathering is an act of hospitality, a way of leaving the stresses and chaos of everyday life behind for a while to enjoy a delicious bowl of tea in good company in the tranquil surroundings of the tea house. A full tea gathering can last several hours and includes a meal and two different types of tea. We can’t attempt to recreate a ‘proper’ tea ceremony at the Ashmolean, but we can certainly offer hospitality to our visitors through carefully prepared bowls of tea.

There is no chatting during a tea ceremony, with just a few set phrases exchanged between guest and host. The focus is entirely on the preparation and drinking of the tea within the tea house, so chitchat isn’t encouraged. Yet there is by no means complete silence; instead there is a kind of gentle background music made by the water bubbling in the kettle and being poured from the ladle, the tapping of the tea scoop on the side of the bowl, and the whisking of the tea. I always keep my fingers crossed that that there is not too much noise in the surrounding galleries to drown out these subtle sounds.

© Mr and Mrs H Shikanai

The name Ningendō was given to the teahouse by the gallery’s sponsors, Mr and Mrs Hiroaki Shikanai, who kindly introduced us to the craftsmen who made the teahouse. The character nin 仁 means humanity or benevolence; gen 玄 means mystery and 堂 means house or hall. The phrase, which is taken from the writings of the ninth century Buddhist Monk Kūkai, is hard to translate, but can be interpreted to describe the way that within the teahouse human existence, in all its insignificance, is united with the vastness of the universe. Mr Shikanai did the calligraphy for the plaque, choosing the archaic form of calligraphy known as tensho, or Chinese seal script. This was then intricately carved onto a beautiful wooden panel chosen for its distinctive woodgrain with the appearance of rippling water.

After the demonstration, we try to answer any questions our visitors may have. Every group responds slightly differently to the demonstrations and I am struck by how each tea gathering really is a unique experience. We invite anyone who is interested to step inside the tea house. Ningendō, at just under 2m2 with one and three quarter tatami floor mats, is the smallest standard-size tea house. Although it looks tiny from the outside, it feels surprisingly spacious when you’re sitting inside. It’s made entirely from traditional Japanese materials – cedar, cryptomeria, pine, and bamboo – with roughly plastered walls and paper lattice windows that allow light to filter softly into the room. The timber framework was first constructed at master carpenter Amakasu-san’s workshop near Tokyo, then taken apart and shipped to England, where it was painstakingly reconstructed inside the Japanese gallery by a team of specialist craftsmen. Amakasu-san and his assistant carpenter were joined by a master plasterer who used plaster made from special river and mountain sand to achieve an undulating surface of bright ochre colour. And a master paperer pasted hand-made Japanese paper onto the walls – white for the host and deep blue for the guests.

Each area within the tea house has a particular function. There is an area for the display of a scroll and flowers, an arched doorway at the back for the host, and a small door at the side for guests. This guest door (nijiriguchi) is traditionally built very low, so that all guests, whatever their social standing, are forced to bow down to enter the room. There is also a hearth for the kettle that heats the water for the tea. This would normally be laid with a charcoal fire, but for obvious reasons we use an electric heater instead. A real tea house would be located within a tea garden that allows guests physically to separate themselves from the outside world as they enter the world of tea. Of course we can’t provide a garden, but the teahouse is separated from the gallery by a tiny strip of beaten earth, and entered by stepping up onto a large stone sourced from North Wales. And it really does feel like a different world inside.

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