Unique New Year prints show daily life in the early 1900s
For the most important festival of the year, the Chinese deck their halls and houses with colorful decorations that feature mythological gods, chubby children, bucolic scenes and auspicious symbols.
Although the custom has always been most closely associated with rural life in China, it’s now clear that even a busy metropolis like Shanghai couldn’t resist the urge to develop its own indigenous folk art for the Chinese Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival.
Indeed, handmade New Year woodblock prints found in a dusty storehouse of Xujiahui Library in 1980 shed new light on a mostly forgotten art form called Xiaojiaochang pictures.
Zhang Wei, a researcher with the Shanghai Library who discovered the prints, was so amazed by the find and so touched by its artistic beauty that he has dedicated his work to the folk art form for decades.
Xiaojiaochang prints depict city life in the early 1900s, with locomotives, telephones, nightclubs, circus performers, Westerners enjoying the Lantern Festival and other aspects of life not traditionally reproduced in Chinese folk art.
“What makes Xiaojiaochang woodblock prints so special is that they recorded people’s lives, city scenes and important social events of the time,” says Zhang,
The Spring Festival break, which starts from February 15 this year, provides an opportune time to view some of these iconic artworks. The Huabao Tower in Yuyuan Malls has mounted an exhibition of 44 replicas of the century-old prints. It is free to the public and open until March 5.
Xiaojiaochang prints take their name from the part of Shanghai that is today’s City God Temple area near Yuyuan Garden.
In the 1850s, many Suzhou woodblock artists sought refuge in Shanghai to flee civil strife. They settled in the Xiaojiaochang area and brought with them the Suzhou woodblock art tradition of Taohuawu New Year’s prints. In Shanghai, they adapted the genre in a unique way to mirror life around them.
Their colorful handmade woodblock prints vividly record one of China’s first locomotives as it sped on a newly built track to the Wusong Port. They show the world-renowned Chiarini circus from the US, which brought bareback horseriding and trained tiger show to Shanghai.
In one picture, a military commander inspects his troops, while another depicts the birthday celebration of Yuan Shih-kai, a warlord in modern China.
The detailed glimpse of daily life as it once was is delightfully captured in the Xiaojiaochang prints. There is the shrewish woman scolding her sheepish husband, Chinese women getting their hair permed, young ladies in qipao dancing in a ballroom with men in Western clothes, and Westerners strolling along the tree-lined streets.
In the prints, Chinese play mahjong, and rickshaws, sedan chairs and horse-drawn carriages clamor for space on busy streets.
“They truly reflect Shanghai during an era when the city was starting to evolve from a small port into an international metropolis and magnet for global adventurers,” Zhang says.
Shanghai began opening its port in 1843, when foreign concessions were built around the city center which included Yuyuan Garden and the Xiaojiaochang area.
Modern amenities started appearing then — street lamps, sewage pipes, telephones, theaters and tramcars.
Public spaces were built. Some of the Xiaojiaochang pictures feature Chinese gardens, such as the Yuyuan Garden, Zhang Garden and Xu Garden, which began as private refuges of the wealthy and slowly opened to the public for gatherings, speeches, performances, bazaars, kite flying, fireworks celebrations and open-air cinemas.
“In terms of artistic style, Xiaojiaochang prints are much different from other woodblock art,” Zhang says.
Traditional New Year pictures painted by farmers were done in bold, bright colors and rough lines, which always make the prints seem crowded. Xiaojiaochang art, on the other hand, was created by professional craftsmen. They feature light, elegant colors and smooth lines, with imaginative layouts for calligraphy and poems.
The Xiaojiaochang pictures discovered so far are all relatively small in size.
“That’s because urban people lived in crowded apartments and had to share toilets and kitchens with neighbors,” Zhang says. “They preferred smaller paintings that were easier to hang at home.”
Unfortunately, the genre has been lost today. While woodblock art still flourishes in many rural areas, there are no known old craftsmen toiling away in some atelier, trying to preserve the tradition of Xiaojiaochang.
Because they are so rare — a number estimated to be no more than 1,000 — Xiaojiaochang prints have become prized collector’s items. The remaining originals are scattered among museums, institutions and private collectors.
“As a historic researcher, I’m doing what I should do for the city,” Zhang says of his work.
In 2011, he was chief editor of a chapter on Xiajiaochang New Year pictures in a book on Chinese woodblock print.
His research found precious records or documents about the art form.
“It seems this form of woodblock printing disappeared overnight,” Zhang says.
He adds that prints claimed by collectors to be genuine often aren’t the true Xiaojiaochang pictures.
“Many of them were machine-made after 1911, not handmade,” Zhang says.
He thinks Xiaojiaochang prints died because of the speed of Shanghai’s modernization.
“At the time Xiaojiaochang prints reached their peak, the city was about to embrace machine printing,” he says.
Machine printing was more efficient and colorful than handmade woodblock printing. Machines could turn out more than 900 prints an hour, whereas the method used to make Xiaojiaochang prints was laborious and required meticulous skills.
Each color in a print needed a separately carved woodblock. Ten colors meant 10 blocks. Then, the separately colored parts had to be fitted together, one on top of another.
“The end of woodcut prints was kind of inevitable in the city’s development,” Zhang says. “We are trying to piece its past together and complete the history.”
Xiaojiaochang New Year’s pictures exhibition
Date: Through March 5
Venue: 2/F, Huabao Tower of Yuyuan Malls
Address: 265 Fangbang Rd M.
How to get there: Yuyuan Garden Station of Metro Line 10