The Institute of East Asian Studies presents an exhibit of nianhua, or New Years pictures. Historically nianhua was one of the most ubiquitous forms of Chinese traditional popular culture. Though the upper classes, even the Imperial Household, might acquire nianhua, it was primarily the peasantry throughout China that purchased, and sometimes produced, them. These woodblock prints, occasionally hand-colored, were sold in their millions all across China. The examples on display provide a taste of this bold and lively graphic art. Some nianhua changed little over the generations; their images can be said to collectively constitute a primer of Chinese iconography.*
The nianhua in this exhibit were produced in the 1980s and 1990s, but they are part of a much older tradition. While similarities between nianhua images and Yuan (1271-1368) iconography have been identified, it was in
the late Ming (1368-1644) and especially the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties that nianhua began to appear everywhere in China. Prints are still being made from woodblocks carved in the Qing dynasty, a testament to the
entrenched iconography and sustained popularity of nianhua.
In late imperial China, an estimated 85% of the population was illiterate. The colorful, readily available, and inexpensive nianhua appealed to this vast peasant population. Even the poorest peasant family could beautify
their home with woodblock prints of gods, heroes, auspicious symbols, and popular narratives. Though New Years was a time of adorning the house afresh, nianhua could be found in homes all year long. Door guardian prints flanked the entry, while images of gods would be hung over small altars to receive offerings. The image of the ancient Stove God, protector and monitor of the home, would each year be freed by ritual burning to ascend to heaven and relate the familys activities during the past year. Each year, the Stove God would be exhorted to speak of good things in his report.
Good things such as prosperity, fertility, longevity, and protection are the core subjects of nianhua. Animals and deities, chubby babies and distinguished officials, folk tales and moral lessons, were all depicted in vivid, colorful, dynamic compositions. Nianhua were produced across the country with remarkable similarity in iconography. Several areas particularly associated with nianhua production are represented in this exhibit.
Though nianhua provided a visual delight for the illiterate, and could cross barriers of speech and dialect, nonetheless language plays a significant role in them. Not only are written characters often included in the compositions for identification and explanation, but visual-verbal puns and allusions are part of the language of nianhua. Bats are auspicious by virtue of their name, fu, which is also the reading of the character for good luck. Not only does Buddhism lend an auspicious aura to the lotus, but the reading of its name, lian, is also that of the character for in succession, hence an allusion to a wish for many sons. Shared understandings of words and images formed a coherent discourse from one end of China to the other, encouraging cultural integration of the vast country.
The Institute of East Asian Studies gratefully acknowledges Sally Yu Leung for the generous loan of this collection of nianhua, as well as information in English and Chinese included in the captions. The exhibit is cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies.
* Po, Sung-nien and David Johnson eds., Domesticated Deities and Auspicious Emblems: An Iconography of Everyday Life in Village China (Berkeley, Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1992), p. 9.