This year, China’s most important traditional festival, the Spring Festival, celebrates the Year of the Rooster, the 10th animal in the 12-sign Chinese Zodiac. The festival marks the end of winter and first signs of spring.
The art often associated with such festivals was extravagant and extensive for all types of families and communities in China. The most common of all Chinese folk arts are woodblock prints – called ‘nianhua’ (年画) in Chinese, meaning “New Year’s pictures”. New Year prints were the primary festive decorations for Chinese households, conveying the people’s best wishes for the New Year, and are displayed all year long until the start of the New Year when new prints are posted.
New Year’s prints emerged during the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, and were further developed and matured in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Woodblock printing is considered to have been an important factor in Chinese history, as a particularly skilful handicraft, and a large contribution to knowledge and artistic inspiration.
Traditional New Year pictures are defined by simple, bold lines, and vivid colours, to compliment scenes of joyous celebration and well-being in order to invoke happiness and inspiring impressions. The method consists of drawing and tracing, block engraving, colouring and, in few cases, mounting. As a result, the finished pictures have the characteristics of both prints and paintings, creating a distinguished style in traditional folk art.
The art often depicted historical figures, mythical creatures and gods that brought blessings like luck, fortune, or fertility. New Year prints have gradually evolved from a ritualistic activity that worshipped nature and gods to a holiday custom that symbolises unification, happiness and hope.
[Pictured] Doors Gods: Qin Qiong and Wei Chi Gong.
A common custom was the worship of door gods. The earliest door gods were Shen Tu and Yu Lei in the period before the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). The door gods usually come in pairs, facing each other, as it was considered bad luck to place the figures back to back. These door gods acted as guardians whom were supposed to protect the family from demons, and ultimately bring peace and security to the household. Door gods are still popular today, and there are many different types of guardians. Animals from the Chinese Zodiac, like the rooster, along with notable military generals from history, are some of the most commonly displayed door gods of today.
In the past, door gods were always made by hand, but with the advancement of printing technologies, factory-made prints have largely displaced woodblock printmaking, which has now become a rare craft. However, the medium will forever be a window into ancient Chinese values, and continues to be a significant artistic resource and contribution to Chinese cultural ideology.