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Chinese New Year pictures, color prints made from engraved wood blocks, date from the 15th century, in the period of Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty, Fengxiang in Guanzhong and Hanzhong in southern Shaanxi are the main producing areas of the prints.
Technically, Chinese New Year pictures are profoundly influenced by traditional Chinese painting and wood engraving. The painting generally shows powerful lines, either complicated or simple; presents sharp contrast between colors, and has a compact composition. All this typically reflects the peasants' ideals and their unsophisticated, healthy and bright aesthetic taste. Therefore, the pictures are always among the peasants' special purchases for the Spring Festival, the Chinese lunar New Year. They serve not only to beautify the environment, add to the festival mood and express the peasants' wishes for a happy life, but also educate them in many things.
The chief producers of Fengxiang New Year pictures are South and North Xiaoli villages to the east and Cheng village to the west of the Fengxiang county seat, where several hundred wood blocks of Ming and Qing dynasties are still being used. To meet the peasants' aesthetic taste, the dominant themes of the pictures are those expressing their desire for good luck, good health, favorable weather, a growing family, a long life, family harmony, fortunes, prosperity, driving out evil spirits, defending homeland, or showing production activities. Even though some pictures bear images of gods, thus smacking of superstition, they are but expressions of the peasants' wishes for a happy and secured life and fewer natural and social calamities.
A great number of Fengxiang New Year pictures, except the door pictures, feature traditional opera serials, folk customs or themes that peasants take delight in, such as "men engaged in tilling the land while women in weaving." Many of the designs are symbolic. One of the blocks handed down from past is called "Portrayals of Mean Persons", which is a bitter satire exposing eight types of ugly human behavior of that time.
Hanzhong New Year pictures appear to be forceful, vigorous and serious in style. They are the charm of traditional Chinese art and contribute valuable data to the study of the history of Chinese folk prints.
Wood-block printed New Year pictures assume varied forms. There are "vertical" and "horizontal" pieces (those for being hung up vertically or horizontally), monotypes, albums, series, Grain Rain pictures, four-season pictures, central scrolls (hung in the middle of the wall of the main room), etc. There are also door-god pictures, window pictures, and bedroom pictures which usually have floral designs or those showing pretty girls enjoy looking at plum flowers or chrysanthemum, or those symbolizing happiness. Grain Rain pictures include those showing the twelve animals representing the twelve Earthly Branches (used to symbolize the year in which a person is born), cows, the 24 solar terms, the Eight Immortals, cock pecking at scorpions, Heavenly Master Zhang vanquishing the five demons, chubby babies, and household gods. Among the window pictures are some that show fruits of the four seasons, birds, beasts, insects, fish, or figures in historical drama.
There used to be a Fengxiang New Year picture called "Golden sancai". (sancai means a sheet of offset paper cut into three parts.) It was chromatographed and traced in gold. The bright colors harmonized perfectly and the whole picture looked elegant and beautiful.
Chinese New Year pictures usually use bright red, peach-blossom, bright yellow, dark green, dark blue, black, light black, purple, dark reddish brown and other water colors. These colors, typical of works of folk art, have strong ornamental effects.
Dai Gandyi & Guo Youmin, Sinminchu Publishing Co.
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