Time-honored art of New Year pictures

By Edited by REN GUANHONG / 01-19-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Yangliuqing New Year picture, symbolizing wishes for abundance in the New Year Photo: CFP

Nian hua, or New Year pictures, are mainly chromatic woodblock prints that boast a long history dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE). They are symbolic decorations for the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, and are also a unique form of folk art in China. The name “New Year pictures” is derived from families’ practice of replacing their decorative pictures during the festival, in order to “say goodbye to the past and welcome the future.”

Origins and evolution 

Although the term “nian hua” first appeared in a book written in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), archives show that this genre probably has begun with the paintings of men shen, or door gods [divine guardians of doors and gates in Chinese folk culture], dating back to the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han dynasties or even earlier. With limited understanding of natural phenomena, the ancients attributed harvests, disasters, good and bad fortune, and other experiences to supernatural powers. Influenced by this belief, the earliest paintings with door gods as their theme emerged. The door gods began as the deities Shenshu and Yulü, who are able to punish evil spirits according to Chinese myths. These deities are portrayed according to the ancient people’s imagination, bearing the common wishes of repressing evil and developing what is good, as well as the demands to protect family and wealth.

Before the popularization of papermaking and printing, door gods were directly painted on gates or other buildings. Drawings on the tomb gates of the Han and Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern dynasties (220–589) provide valuable materials for the study of New Year pictures. During the Sui and Tang eras between the 6th–10th centuries, new elements, including those of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, were added to the paintings of door gods. Moreover, door gods were joined by Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong, two prominent generals who lived in the early Tang era. These changes signify the incorporation of secular life into New Year pictures. 

New Year pictures developed into a formal art form during the Song Dynasty (960–1279) thanks to the flourishing handicraft industry, thriving folk culture, and maturing woodblock-printing technology. Prosperous towns and cities at that time made the Spring Festival more festive. Earlier New Year pictures, which were slightly serious, became incompatible with the increasingly cheerful atmosphere of the Song Spring Festival. Therefore, new subjects such as children and beauties began to appear in New Year pictures.

The most common subjects of the extant Song New Year pictures are historical figures and scenes derived from historical stories. This feature may be related to the prosperous folk culture of Song. The development of traditional Chinese opera inspired people’s enthusiasm for historical stories, and the New Year pictures correspondingly evolved from from "amulets" that simply ward off evil to a popular art form. This change indicated that the connotation of the Spring Festival gradually changed during Song—people were no longer satisfied with simply warding against evil and avoiding disasters, but began to look forward to good fortune and great prospects in the new year. 

The New Year picture industry grew rapidly during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) with the rise of vernacular literature and traditional Chinese operatic drama, represented by chuanqi [derived from the southern drama, one of the first fully developed forms of Chinese drama that emerged in southern China during Song]. Creating and posting New Year pictures gradually developed into a festival tradition. Some typical themes of New Year pictures, such as “Yi Tuan Heqi” [lit. “a ball of harmony”] and “Eight Immortals Celebrating the Birthday of Queen Mother of the West” came into shape. 

It is believed that the earliest painting of “Yi Tuan Heqi” was created by Zhu Jianshen (1447–1487), the Chenghua Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The figure that the painting portrays seems to be the smiling, chubby Maitreya Buddha sitting cross-legged. A closer look at this painting reveals two other people integrated into the image of Maitreya. On the left side, a senior man wearing a Taoist hair accessory is portrayed. On the right side, there is a Confucian scholar wearing a headscarf. Sitting face to face, the two hold a handscroll together. Cuddling them, Maitreya puts his hands on their shoulders, while his left hand holds a string of Buddhist prayer beads. The three-in-one image symbolizes the harmonious relationship of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in ancient China. Gradually, “Yi Tuan Heqi” became a classic theme of New Year pictures, and the three-in-one image evolved into an elderly woman depicted smiling and full-figured, which is more favored by common people who look forward to perfection and joy. 

Meanwhile, the creation of New Year pictures had gradually developed into a mature industry. Several prestigious production bases were established and quickly rose to fame, such as Yangliuqing in Tianjin, Yangjiabu in Shandong Province, and Taohuawu in Suzhou, south China. New Year pictures of the time had become a completely independent art form, their content closely resembling modern New Year pictures.

Qing witnessed the heyday of New Year paintings, with their various subjects, multiple forms, refined techniques, and popularity in the marketplace. The popularity of vernacular novels provided rich materials for New Year pictures, leading to a large number of works with historical stories, myths, legends, traditional opera characters, and yanyi [historical romance] novels as the main themes. In terms of painting techniques, New Year pictures were also influenced by Western painting styles.

Artistic features

In order to meet the inner demands of ordinary people during the Spring Festival, the designs of New Year pictures are generally rich and complicated in content with bright colors. There is little blank space in New Year pictures, and the background is usually filled with various images, symbolizing contentment and abundance. Most of the characters are portrayed as peaceful and kind, avoiding the taboo of the Spring Festival—crying. The children in New Year pictures often have pink cheeks and are dressed in bright colors, and all the utensils are immaculately depicted, representing the abundance of life. Auspicious symbols including animals, flowers, and fruits that express wishes for good fortune and happiness are skillfully arranged in the pictures.

The color design of New Year pictures not only inherits the traditional Chinese painting techniques of the heavy-color meticulous brushwork and religious murals, but also absorbs elements of folk art, forming its unique style. Since red often symbolizes happiness and auspiciousness among the traditional Chinese colors, New Year pictures are usually dominated by warm reds.

Major contributors

The best-known production sites of New Year pictures in China include Yangliuqing (Tianjin), Taohuawu (Jiangsu), Yangjiabu (Shandong), and Mianzhu (Sichuan). 

Yangliuqing is widely regarded as being the most prominent and influential contributor to the New Year Picture industry. Originating during the Ming period, the Yangliuqing paintings feature a combination of woodblock printing and colored hand-painting, as well as the influence of Qing court painting. Most of the paintings depict traditional operas, ladies, chubby babies, etc.

Also founded in Ming, the Taohuawu New Year pictures are bright in color, often with purple and red as the main tones to illustrate the joyful atmosphere and sense of daily life. The Ming also witnessed the rise of the Yangjiabu New Year pictures in Shandong Province, characterized by thick, down-to-earth figures, and simple, rough lines. The Mianzhu New Year paintings originated in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). What makes the Mianzhu paintings most distinctive is that woodblock printing is only used to make inked lines, which are then hand colored by artists.