One artwork at an ongoing exhibition at the Shanghai History Museum portrays a parade led by a trumpeter, who is followed by a bride in a sedan chair, her family members and guests, some of whom are carrying gifts on their shoulders.
It’s a scene typical of a Chinese wedding in the past. But what makes this Lunar New Year print truly unique is that mice are in the frame, not humans.
A popular folk tale in many parts of China, the wedding of the mice has different versions, but the wedding parade has always been a favourite subject for folk art across the country. “We will soon step into the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese zodiac, and we hope this vivid picture can bring some joy to our visitors and arouse their interest in Chinese culture, ” says Zhang Rongxiang, head of the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum.
The exhibition at the Shanghai History Museum showcases 87 artworks from its collection and that of the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum. Most of these artworks were created during the period spanning the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to the early 20th century.
The Chinese have been putting up pictures of renowned marshals and generals on their gates since as early as the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220), hoping that the valiance and reputation of these figures would prevent evil spirits from entering the home.
This practice, which is part of Chinese New Year celebrations, then became common with the advent of print technology during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).Lunar New Year prints, or in Chinese, nianhua, have since become a unique genre of folk art that is deeply rooted in the lives and beliefs of ordinary Chinese, says Hu Jiang, director of the Shanghai History Museum.
“These pictures reflect people’s wish for a good life, their life philosophy and beliefs. It also shows the wit, wisdom and entertainment of ordinary people, ” he says.
Four places in China have been recognised as the most famous centres for the creation of Lunar New Year prints: Yangliuqing in Tianjin, Yangjiabu in Weifang of Shandong province, Taohuawu in Suzhou of Jiangsu province, and Mianzhu of Sichuan province. Apart from these, China has nine other places that have been registered as venues for the intangible cultural heritage of Lunar New Year prints.
While each place features a distinctive style, some subjects are popular all over the country, such as gods and immortals, plants and animals that have auspicious meanings, scenes of children playing, as well as legends and historical stories.
Shanghai’s own school of nianhua was established in the early 1700s when merchants used to showcase their prints at an old military complex in the old town of Shanghai.
This school was later named Old Drill Ground Road. Prints from the Old Drill Ground Road feature subjects from the local news and anecdotes of the city. One of the most famous pieces produced by the school was the Western Chiarini Circus, which depicts animal performances and Western acrobats performing stunts.
In the early 20th century, new print technology was adopted and Lunar New Year prints in Shanghai took on a new look. Landmark buildings, women in trendy clothes and other images reflecting the modern metropolis began to appear and soon won popularity all over the country.
After 1949, pictures related to the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945) started emerging, calling on Chinese people to unify and join the battle. Years later, prints portraying the urban lifestyle and the close ties between Chinese leaders and the people were created.
Lunar New Year prints make up an important section in the Shanghai History Museum’s collection as they reflect the local heritage and culture of the city, says Shao Wenjing, curator of the exhibition and a researcher at the museum.
Some of the prints displayed at the ongoing exhibition were created in areas previously not known to have them, such as the Inner Mongolian autonomous region and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. These pieces have come from the collection of the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing.
It was Wei Juxian (1899-1989), a historian and archaeologist from Shanghai who donated the prints to the Chongqing government after the People’s Liberation Army took over the city from the Japanese in 1949. He donated a total of 22,600 pieces from his collection to show his support and loyalty to the new government.
In the 1950s, the Chongqing Museum was built, and Wei’s donation was merged with the new museum’s collection. The same happened in 2000 when the Chongqing Museum was subsumed by the new Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum.
According to Zhang, Wei’s donations have been an important asset for the museum. “Researchers have made many discoveries and publications about these works, and more importantly we have shared the artworks with the public in Chongqing and other parts of China, ” Zhang says, adding that the Lunar New Year prints have been on exhibition frequently, especially during Spring Festival.
In ancient China, part of the tradition of printmaking was passed down within the intellectual circle. Craftsmen had books printed and masterpiece water-ink paintings copied by engraving the strokes and colour-blocks intricately on wooden panels. Today, traditional printmaking for Chinese art is still alive due to the efforts of renowned studios like Rongbaozhai in Beijing and Duoyunxuan in Shanghai.
“The Lunar New Year prints represent the other side of the printmaking tradition in China, ” Shao says.
“It is more about grassroots culture and is very accessible to almost all the ordinary folks who used to put such prints up in the kitchen, on the walls and even on the gates of their pigsties.” To bring the exhibits closer to the public, the Shanghai History Museum has been encouraging visitors to try their hands at printmaking during the exhibition. The museum will also be organising games and interactive events for visitors during Spring Festival. – China Daily/ Asia News Network
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Gallery: Lunar New Year prints at the Shanghai History Museum
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