Since the early 17th century there were several centres of nianhua production. Among them the town of Yángliǔqīng (楊柳青) in Tiānjīn (天津) was extremely popular. Most people in that town were engaged in the manufacturing of nianhua. The production was huge with sales to many places in China and overseas. Nianhua artists introduced the technique of adding extra colours and brush strokes to the printing process. The processes were complicated but the outcome was marvellous producing art pieces of the highest qualities.
Besides Yángliǔqīng of Tiānjīn, there are Miánzhú (綿竹) of Sichuan (四川), Táohuāwù (桃花塢 ) in Sūzhōu (蘇州 ), Wéifāng yángjiā bù (濰坊楊家埠) in Shāndōng (山東). The styles were slightly different. I hope to present more information later about them.
In addition to the icons of religious figures in Part 1, the subject matter of nianhua expanded to still life and figures of everyday life filled with symbols of happiness and benevolent wishes.
The symbolic imagery was derived from Chinese mythology, folk beliefs and superstitions as well as certain peculiarity of the Chinese language and hieroglyphic writing.
Babies in red aprons (肚兜) and toddlers wearing bright, traditional dress were the most popular nianhua. The wish for sons has always been the most essential expectation.
The cock in the middle of the above print may be used to convey a message. Cock in Chinese is gongji (公雞) and the character gong is pronounced in the same way as the word which stands for 功 ‘merit’ or 功名 ‘a high position in the Emperor’s court’. The cock wakes up early and crows every day implying diligence and constant effort.
The three Stargods : (from the left) Shou-xing (壽星, the God of Longevity), Lu-xing (祿星, the God of Rank and Promotion), Fu-xing (福星, the God of Happiness)
Cai Shen (財神, The God of Wealth) brings wealth and prosperity.
Brightly coloured prints produced by modern mixed-media painting techniques, portraying model behaviour or a better future, have been a ubiquitous element of Chinese political culture from Imperial times until the present. As economic reform swept China in the 1980s, the styles have been changed but symbols of good luck were still used.
Of course the New Year pictures are no longer printed by the old woodblock printing but by modern digital printing.
By comparing the old and modern prints, we can see how elegant are the old nianhua. The colours in the old nianhua are so subtle, aesthetic and graceful.
Some old nianhua have educational purpose. The cock in Merit and Glory, Wealth and Eminence (功名富貴) reminds people that diligence is essential to be successful.
Patrick would like to thank the authors for their hard work in collating the prints.
Bibliography and further readings :
Maria Rudova, Lev Menshikov, Viacheslav Sobolev, Yurin Kirilin (1988) Chinese Popular Prints, Aurora Publishers, Leningrad
Landsberger, Stefan (1995) Chinese Propaganda Posters from Revolution to Modernization The Pepin Press, ISBN 90-5496-009-4