January 4 1983: Moyuan Suibi : New Year Prints

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Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia.

 

年畫

 

Every principle has two sides: the positive and the negative. The Chinese, who place much importance on “virtue”, have within them a latent “conservativeness” that has led to the inevitable falling behind of their science and artistry. Rather than being on the attack, they are often on the defensive; this has resulted in today's emphasis on the “old” above the “new”. It is the same situation in terms of their art, which – having been influenced by the aforementioned attitude – now no longer favors “innovation”. On the other hand, the ones who gravitate towards the “new” are often unwilling to put in effort. Lacking the necessary foundation, they race ahead, committing the sin of misreading what is meant to be “dislocation” as merely “generational gap”.

The art that ordinary folks used to love, the ones that can best represent the voice of the people, are often scoffed at by those self-proclaimed high-minded ones, and insultingly referred to as “the work of craftsmen”. This phenomenon is happening in both the East and the West. For instance, we have always viewed folk art as being “tacky”. It is almost as if, by judging a piece of art as being “tacky”, the work becomes “ordinary”; by judging it as being “elegant”, it immediately becomes an “immortal” piece of work. Those works deemed as “immortal” have their prices inflated, while the “ordinary” ones fetch very low prices. What a most terrible farce! Everything made by the hand of a human is the manifestation of skill and technique, and contains the maker's blood and soul. In truth, elegance and tackiness differ only in their “disposition”. Beethoven wasn't any handsome fellow; Picasso was as big as a cow; Hemmingway had a face full of beard, but what about their work? In terms of the East: Kong Zhongni or Confucius had a protruding head; Min Zhongping was extremely short, but what of their careers?

In my youth, living in my hometown, my happiest moments occurred during the special festivals, especially during the new year, when we would put up “new year prints”. It was particularly interesting, and I felt a different set of feelings, which naturally led to a sense of hope. Therefore, a “new year print” has the ability to represent the actual thoughts of the people on the ground, as it can inspire our thoughts, creating especially deep impressions.

There are many places in China that are famous for producing “new year prints”. In the North there is Yangliuqing in Tianjin; in the South there is Taohuawu in Suzhou; Sichuan's Chengdu; He Nan's Zhuxianzhen; Guangdong's Foshan. Even until now, I still have in my collection a “Zan Hua” new year print, which I bought from Sichuan during the war. It has been about forty years since. The art piece is printed using woodblock with liquid ink, the color and the gilding are all exquisitely beautiful. I have always kept it carefully, and it had traveled with me all the way until I brought it to Nanyang.

To let you have a better idea of a “new year print”, let us consider the example of “Yangliuqing”.

The term “new year print” is not particularly accurate. Its earliest origin was the “door painting” - in other words, the “door god” of the Han Dynasty. The paintings were all about “Shen Cha” and “Yu Lei”, the two door gods. In the beginning, new year paintings were hand-painted with calligraphy ink (The earliest Chinese paintings were also portraits. The mountains, rivers, flowers, birds and insects were at first accompaniments to the portraits, although they later developed independently into seperate subjects of art). It was during the Song Dynasty, as printing technologies improved, that wood engraving emerged, which finally became prints. At first the outline of the subject was printed and colors brushed on, then later came color on woodblock of the subject. (Forty years ago, in war-time Chongqing, we were so short of resources that we were forced to go “retro” and use woodblock printing to create the “door gods” prints.)

During the Ming Dynasty, the “new year paintings” had become an independent form of art. In Japan, there was a form of woodcut known as the “Ukiyo-e”. Van Gogh's paintings employed the daring use of bright reds and greens under the influence of this art form; his studio often displayed colored pieces of the “Ukiyo-e”. In his later years, Picasso would exclaim, “Colors have taken over the world!”. Later, his conscience led him to advising art apprentices not to go to Paris, but to go to China or Africa – this was also influenced by the use of bright reds and greens (Bei Zong's gold outline of subjects was the predecessor of the “new year prints”). You could also see that the Africans (like all the other primitive tribes) preferred to use very strong colors. This result was the more primitive something was, the more force it had. The “new year prints” captured hearts because it dared to use bright reds and greens: the mystery lies in its primitive flavor. As of now, Malaysia is researching the independent art of multi-races. Here in the subtropical, we should also not neglect this “primitive flavor”! We should promote this sort of “new year print” art, as this “primitive flavor” is exactly one of the unique characteristics of our culture.

Woodcut prints became very popular during the Ming Dynasty. Even novels and books on plays had illustrations in them. “Yangliuqing”, famous for producing new year prints, began to be known as “Liu Kou” during the Ming Dynasty because of its production of willow (“Liu”). Willow was related to the production of prints, a testament to the close connection between a raw material and an area's development. By the time of Qing Dynasty's Guang Xu Emperor, Yangliuqing had grown into a village of 7000 inhabitants, flanked at its side by the Ziya and Daqing rivers, to its South was the Jiaocun Canal, proving that that an area's growth had much to do with its traffic infrastructure as well. The plentiful shops also led to it being an economically vibrant and prosperous time for the village.

In the Qing Dynasty, Cui Xu once wrote the poem “Yangliuqing Yao”, in which he depicted Yangliuqing most accurately. The poem read: “The smell of fish stew lingers / Boats dock occasionally under the trees / The fragrance of freshly cooked rice / Spring wind blows along the opposite shores ruffling the willows / Weave girl marries boat-repair boy / Dressed in bright red and light blue / Small sedan on a boat sails over / Carrying the girl from He Nan over to He Bei.” Yangliuqing appears before our eyes like a   movie. In the village, this was the state of production : “Every family was skilled in color dye / Every household was good at painting”. This was a popular phrase in Yangliuqing (it is comparable to the conditions of workers in Japanese factories today; it all depends on the needs of the economic development). The ones drawn by the ladies of the southern part were especially exquisite, and were wildly popular everywhere. Everyone who visited Beijing or Tianjing for business would make a trip to Yangliuqing to buy some “new year prints”, so sales were brisk. Even those from Japan and Korea came on shopping trips, and this has had a huge influence on Japan and Korea's art today. If we can begin to understand that the “new year print” is a symbol of the common person's psychology, then we can use it to gather and unite people from the different communities!

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