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Chinese New Year's Painting

9 February 2008

Chinese New Year’s Painting is one of the more enduring Chinese folk arts, which is used to decorate the internal walls at the beginning of each new Chinese year; and of all New Year's Paintings, Willow Green Painting (杨柳青) is one of those most celebrated.

Willow Green style of New Year Painting was originated during the late Ming Dynasty, based mainly on the advanced paining tradition of the Song and wood carve technique of the Ming, eventually branched to three schools in terms of the subjects in the paintings: the historical theme of Qi Family, the fictional theme of Dai family and the mixed theme of the Huo Family.

But whatever the school, the central subject of New Year’s Painting is forever closely associated to Chinese people’s common aspirations and unique language. A bat (蝠), for instance, would represent fortune (福) for they share the same pronunciation in Chinese; by the same token, a fan (扇) indicates kindness (善), a spear (戟) is a symbol for luck (吉) and a musical stone (磬) stands for celebration (庆).

The production of a New Year's Painting is typically the result of a joint effort of five craftsmen working on different stages, from drawing (勾), carving (刻), printing (印), painting (画) to mounting (裱), and could take more than a month to finalise. Beneath the surface of the jubilant and exciting images is the spirit of deep composure and high discipline.

Willow Green is a typical Chinese town in the outskirts of Tianjin. In its hay-day about 300 years ago, the town housed up to 3,000 craftsmen in a hundred studios, a place that was attributed as “家家会点染,户户善丹青” (every man was an artist, every household was a studio.)

Nowadays there is only one traditional New Year Painting studio opening for business, run by Mr Huo Qingyou (霍庆有), the 6th generation inheritor of the family painting business 玉成号画庄 (Accomplishment Studio). 66-year old Huo is also a few living masters who is able to work through all stages of the five procedures.

Master Huo and his family live in a multi-storey studio, where he sets up showrooms displaying the collections of the antiquated Willow Green paintings, which is open to the public for free. He also offers a free coach for whoever willing to learn the art. “This is handed down to me by my ancestors, but belongs to the whole nation. The last thing I want is to watch it diminish," said the old master.

But the ancient art may not yet to bow out. In the days leading up to the Chinese New Year, Master Huo and his young son and young daughter-in-laws and young disciples worked hard day and night as they received so many orders from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, the US, the UK and Japan.

In recent years, Tianjing authorities have invested tens millions of yuans to rebuild the historical Willow Green Street, reflecting the fact that more people in China have now appreciated the idea that the traditional culture is the "DNA of the nation and its civilisation", a metaphor which is wonderfully expressed by renowned Chinese writer Feng Jicai.  

(Reference: Report by 任春, 解放日报)

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