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New Year Pictures

An Introduction to New Year Pictures

The Chinese people have the custom of sticking up pictures to celebrate the traditional New Year--now called the Spring Festival. The custom is particularly popular in the vast countryside, where just before the festival day every household will be busy spring cleaning and pasting colorful pictures or paper cuttings on their doors, windows, walls, even wardrobes and stoves to invite heavenly blessings and ward off disasters and evil spirits.

There are two tales about the origin of New Year pictures. According to ancient records, there were once two brothers named Shen Tu and Yu Lei. They were supervisors of ghosts and monsters, and when they found a monster who wanted to harm people, they would tie him up to feed the tiger. Later the Yellow Emperor asked people to draw portraits of Shen Tu and Yu Lei on windows and doors to ward off the hosts. The second it is said that, in the Tang Dynasty, the emperor asked Wu Daozi to draw Zhong Kui and reproduce it to send to his officials to hang on the walls to repel evil.

New Year pictures appeared around the Tang Dynasty, replacing the previous door pictures featuring gods believed to be able to protect the residents and drive away ghosts. In the Song Dynasty, New Year pictures were created on a considerable scale. With the advancement of printing technology, the content and forms of New Year pictures became more diversified. The development of the paintings matured in the Ming and Qing dynasties, when the art hit its heyday.

Traditional printing methods of New Year pictures include woodblock printing, stone block printing, offset printing, traditional Chinese painting, watercolor painting and sketch etc. Woodblock printed New Year paintings are the most popular ones and at the same time they are most interesting. The woodblock printing method, are characterized by simple, clear lines, brilliant colors and scenes of prosperity. The method consists of several steps: drawing and tracing, block engraving, printing, coloring and, in some cases, mounting. The finished pictures, therefore, have the features of both woodcut prints and Chinese paintings, making a special branch in traditional folk art.

The themes expressed in New Year pictures cover a wide range, from plump babies holding a fish to the Old God of Longevity, from landscapes to birds and flowers, from the ploughing cattle in spring to rich harvests in autumn.  New Year pictures combined to all festive customs and life details, stories from traditional opera novels and folktales etc. The creation of New Year pictures are closely linked with people’s daily life and have strong local features. Human figures often show artistic exaggeration, but the message in all pictures is always good luck, festivity or other nice things in the wish of the people. Usual objects in the pictures include the crane or the peach which symbolizes a long life, the plum or peony which is a mark of good fortune and happiness. The colors most favored are red, green, purple, yellow and black which are not only bright but contrast well with one another intended to give fresh, vivid, and pleasant and inspiring impressions.  

To meet the specific needs of the vast rural population, New Year pictures are produced in all regions in China with different local characteristics. But the leading producers are at three localities: Yangliuqing Village near Tianjin, Taohuawu near Suzhou and Weifang in Shandong. In addition, "calendar-picture" New Year paintings of Shanghai and Mianzhu paintings of Sichuan also hold important positions in the development history of New Year paintings.

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