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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Stove God
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learn more about the Ashmolean Museum Chinese print collection on Eastern Art Online.
Felicitas von Droste zu Hülshoff, Chinese Paintings Programme