Nianhua, or Chinese New Year pictures, are chromatic woodblock prints that boast a long history dating back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 24). It developed into a formal art form during the Northern Song period (960-1127) thanks to the flourishing handicraft industry, thriving folk cultures and maturing woodblock printing technology.
The Nianhua industry grew rapidly during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with the evolving polychrome printing technique. Meanwhile, several prestigious bases were established and quickly rose to fame, such as Yangliuqing in Tianjin, Yangjiabu in Shandong province, and Taohuawu in Suzhou.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) witnessed the heyday of the New Year paintings, with their rich subjects, multiple forms, refined techniques and popularity in the marketplace. Since the founding of the new China in 1949, this art form has been revitalized by integrating modern and traditional ideas.
Renowned as the “encyclopedia of folk customs”, nianhua works cover a wide range of subjects that can be divided into four categories:
Making up a large percentage of the total, this category covers fabled animals, flowers and objects associated with wealth and felicity, to convey the desire to ward off bad luck and welcome good fortune.
Nianhua works with secular life as their subject matter record people’s daily routines, production activities, customs, news and anecdotes.
Also a popular subject matter for nianhua paintings. Images of children and great beauties imply good wishes for fertility and a happy marriage.
A major part of this category draws inspiration from historical and folk stories, legends, novels and traditional Chinese operas.
There are a variety of genres of nianhua designed for particular architectural layouts and functions, such as those put up to decorate doors, walls, kangs (a heatable brick bed in North China), windows or even in kitchens.
Generally speaking, four processes are involved in the completion of a piece of nianhua. First of all, the craftsman prepares an outline drawing of the pattern on a piece of thin paper.
They then stick the paper onto a flat board to engrave a mirrored image of the outline drawing in relief, before printing several samples out.
Then he/she designates the color scheme, and deconstructs the pattern into several parts (usually no more than five)- each of which will bear the same color - and carves the same number of wood plate reliefs accordingly.
After brushing the carved wood boards with their designated colors, a set of color plates is finished. The craftsman puts white papers on a plate and rubs them firmly so the pattern is impressed. When all the plates have been brushed, the color New Year painting is finished.
Of the key nianhua production bases, four enjoy the most renown, including Yangliuqing in Tianjin, Taohuawu in Suzhou, Yangjiabuin Shandong province, and Mianzhu in Sichuan province.
Yanliuqing, the leading nianhua brand in northern China, is well-known for its depiction of folk stories and traditional operas, the characters of which are presented artistically with bountiful colors, smooth outlines and a plain style.
Absorbing advanced painting techniques from home and abroad, Taohuawu combines architecture with beautiful scenery and interesting stories and customs, presenting an exquisite visual effect.
The Yangjiabu products are distinguished for their extensive outlines, simple modeling and strong colors. Those decorating the walls around kangs are the most representative of this style.
Renowned for their varied door gods and paintings of children, the Mianzhu school adopts the Gouran technique as its main method: that is, printing out just the outline of the pattern and then painting the colors with brush pens, which is quite different from the one employed by Taohuawu. The stamping method is also widely used in its works.