More about Chinese Old Prints

Something more on the last post on a new style of folklore prints in China. In the example I gave, the scene depicts characters in the fashion of the Republic period, with men wearing Western-style hats, and the woman in fringed shagged hairstyle. The inscriptions on the top right-hand corner tells of a story reminiscent of one of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Boy who Cried Wolves’:

“Lying is Bad
A certain Mr Wang is in the habit of lying, and therefore everybody called him ‘Wang the Big Liar’. One day, he ran into a wolf on the road which wanted to eat him up, so he called loudly for help. But when people heard him they all thought he was lying again, and no one came to his rescue, leaving him almost devoured by the beast. Probably because when one is used to lying, his words will not be taken seriously even if they are true. And that does not help when one needs help in grave matters.”

Lying is Bad

《謊言無益》 王樹村編著,《楊柳青墨線年畫》, 頁40。
Lying is Bad in Wang, Shucun ed., Yangliuqing Moxian Nianhua, (June 1980), p. 40.

This story, with its striking similarity with the Aesop fable, was not part of the Chinese myth and folklore before. Therefore, we can be pretty sure that it is influenced by the intensified cultural exchange during the late Qing and early Republic period.

What is particularly noteworthy about this print is its explicit rendition of a moral story. In traditional prints, the moral message contained within a scene or story is conveyed more subtly. For example, in an earlier print produced about 200 years earlier, the scene ma tiao tan xi ( horse jumping across Tanxi) is taken from a historical incident that is often retold in popular folk stories and operas. The scene has also entered other realms such as folk religion an chess, acting as metaphor for a clever escape from danger.

Ma Tiao Tanxi

Ma Tiao Tanxi, Mid-Qing Dynasty, Yangliuqing, Tianjin
Zhongguo Meishu Quanji Vol. 21: Paintings, (May 1985), p. 39.

Though produced during the Qing Dynasty, the figures in the scene are seen donning period theatrical costumes. This would have seemed to highlight the set meaning that is to be extrapolated from this story, and thereby establishing its canonical status in connecting it to the past. The reenactment of the same scene in every medium serves to reinforce its historical factuality, its conventional interpretation and its authoritative moral message.

fa cai huan jia

Facai Huan Jia, Tongzhi reign, Qing Dynasty, Pingdu, Shandong
Zhongguo Meishu Quanji Vol. 21: Paintings, (May 1985), p. 82.

In contrast, vernacular, almost peasantry prints such as this one does not illustrate a canonical scene. The figures in the picture wear clothes of the period, and the inscriptions speak of the most mundane wish for a prosperous year from the perspective of a horse trader: “Travelling to sell horses / to make big money this year / Hiring a few donkey carts / and guards to come home safely.

Yutang Fugui

Yutang Fugui, Late-Qing Dynasty, Suzhou, Jiangsu
Zhongguo Meishu Quanji Vol. 21: Paintings, (May 1985), p. 173.

Everyday clothes allow the viewer of this picture to identify himself with the characters in the scene, and therefore sharing the auspiciousness in the message. A special type of prints, nianhua, were usually made in preparation for the new year and the scenes bear similarity with most domestic settings, or at least the ideal of the aspect of one’s life.

There is a great deal to be studied and understood from old prints which give us insights into the beliefs, fantasies, ideals and transformation of Chinese societies.



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