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The Compendium of Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints

The Compendium of Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints

Martin Lavicka28 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Lucie Olivová

Feng Jicai ed. ZHONGGUO MUBAN NIAHUA JICHENG. 22+ volumes 冯骥才主编 «中国木版年画集成» Beijing: Zhonghua shuji 中华书局, 2004 – open

[The Compendium of Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints] is not the title of a single volume, but of a series compiled and edited by the Feng Jicai Institute of Literature and Art, Tianjin University 天津大学冯骥才文学艺术研究院. Under the directorship of Mr. Feng Jicai, a well-known writer and cultural activist, a large-scale folk culture preservation project has been launched there. Among its main areas of research have been traditional Chinese New Year paintings and prints. Over the course of eight years, surveys in rural areas and villages took place, and thousands of New Year paintings, prints and artefacts were collected. After the first stage of preservation, they were scrutinized by specialists from the Feng Jicai Institute. One of the main goals achieved was then the publication of a twenty-volume compendium. They are, up to date:

  1. Yangjiabu 杨家埠
  2. Yangliuqing杨柳青
  3. Zhuxian朱仙鎮
  4. Wuqiang武强
  5. Mianzhu 绵竹
  6. Liangping 梁平
  7. Fengxiang 凤翔
  8. Jiangzhou 绛州
  9. Linfen 临汾
  10. Gaomi高密
  11. Tantou 滩头
  12. Taohuawu桃花坞 (2 vols.)
  13. Pingdu 平度, Dongchanfu東昌府 (1 vol.)
  14. Foshan佛山
  15. Zhangzhou 漳州
  16. Shanghai, Xiao jiaochang 上海小校场
  17. Neiqiu 内丘
  18. Yunnan 云南
  19. Huaxian 滑县
  20. [Odd items, shiling] 拾零
  21. Russian collections
  22. Japanese collections

As is apparent from the list above, each volume explores and documents a Chinese locality famous for its craft of woodblock carving, found in various regions, the North prevailing. One volume, here numbered 13, explores two such localities, another one explores a whole province – Yunnan. In the twentieth volume, folk print centres which did not yield enough surviving material to produce a single volume, were gathered together. This has nothing to do with their importance, since they include such localities as, for example, Anhui, Quanzhou, or Yangzhou. Finally, following the advice of B. L. Riftin, volumes documenting overseas collections were added. This step is not without importance. In China, due to the ritual removal of prints each year, and also due to the repeated anti-tradition movements, they were seldom preserved. Foreigners, on the other hand, kept them as collector’s items. Therefore, as to material dating from one hundred years ago or less, one can find relatively more abroad than in contemporary China. Russian collections overwhelmingly consist of prints made in Yangliuqing, Japanese collections also have Suzhou (Taohuawu), Shanghai, etc. The compendium is an open series, and presently, a volume featuring material from Europe is under way. The collection of the National Gallery in Prague is also being considered, after the visit and inspection of Ms. Wang Xiaoming last year.

All volumes were arranged following the same conceptual structure: the local background of the craft, its history and major workshops, together with visual and artistic characteristics. Texts are partly based on personal reminiscences of woodblock carvers and printers, or were conceived as interviews. Since the volumes were researched and compiled successively, and not necessarily by the same teams of specialists, they show differences: some include related folktales (Taohuawu), some pass over the oppression during the Cultural Revolution while others remember it, some include the “socialist” production of the fifties and sixties (Wuqiang), the Tantou volume writes about exorcism, etc.

Judging the rich collected material from its aesthetic perspective shows sharp differences between, for example, the sophisticated Yangliuqing or Suzhou prints on the one hand, and the shockingly crude production of Huaxian or Neiqiu on the other. Furthermore, folk tradition as such is usually neglected by art historians, regarded, in many cases, as coarse and primitive. This may be partially acknowledged, but it does not make such prints less interesting and less valid for scholarly and artistic exploration.

The volumes of the Compendium are large, format 16mo, and each of them is quite thick (300 – 400 pages). Printed in colour on quality paper, lavishly designed and wrapped into a decorative cartoon cover, they ought to be admired for their artistic execution alone. Their price is accordingly high and due to this “drawback” as well as the current underestimation of folk art in Chinese studies abroad, only a few European libraries own them. The Department of Asian Studies at this university is proud to own one volume (shiling拾零). It needs to be mentioned that the Feng Jicai Institute of Literature and Art, Tianjin University has produced a large number of titles devoted to folk woodblock printing, e.g. two series entitled “Chinese Woodblock New Year Paintings and Prints Research Collection” and “Chinese New Year Paintings and Prints Inheritors’ Oral History Book Series”, plus many monographs, but none to the grandeur of the title discussed. The Compendium of Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints is an invaluable source on traditional craft which is rapidly diminishing face to face modern printing techniques.

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