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Chinese Traditional Painting - New Year

oil painting of door god or Menshen

New Year Pictures

In China, when the Spring Festival comes around, people, especially in rural areas, decorate the doors, windows, and walls of their houses with brightly colored pictures. They hope the pictures will bring their families good luck and prosperity. To many, it would not be a "happy" New Year without the New Year pictures. No other Chinese art form has enjoyed such wide-spread popularity.

New Year pictures have a long history and can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Originally, people painted menshen (door gods) on their doors with ink and colors that protected their families from the devils. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), pictures of door gods were gradually replaced by those of people from real life. In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), woodlocks with New Year pictures painted on them were traded among the ordinary people. New Year pictures were gradually popularized and developed into an independent art form. In the seventeenth century, during a period of great prosperity in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), New Year pictures flourished along with other forms of handicrafts.

In China, there are three major kinds of traditional New Year pictures: the Yangliuqing in Tianjin, the Taohuawu in Jiangsu Province, and the Yangjiabu in Shandong Province. Of the three, New Year paintings made by the peasants of Yangjiabu seem to be not only the most primitive but also the most original. Yangliuqing New Year pictures feature a combination of classical and folk art techniques. Taohuawu pictures carry on the traditions of previous dynasties as well as adopt Western perspectives and shadings.

In spite of the differences between the three schools, all New Year pictures have some common characteristics. The people portrayed in New Year pictures look healthy and happy, usually having complete bodies. Heads are usually a bit larger than natural so that the face, which is the most expressive part of a person, is emphasized.

New Year pictures portray various topics from history to daily life. Originally, door gods or kitchen gods dominated the pictures. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, New Year pictures started to draw their themes from people's lives as well as from history, folklore, mythology, novels, and operas. The most impressive of the pictures are those from fairy tales and stories. Heroes in Chinese classics, such as Zhuge Liang, Guan Yunchang, Zhang Fei, and Cao Cao in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Wu Song, Li Kui, and Song Jiang in Outlaws of the Marsh, are commonly pictured in New Year paintings. Figures in well-known folk tales like "The White Snake" and "Romance of the Butterflies" are also portrayed.

Another characteristic of New Year pictures is the use of symbolism. For example, a chubby, happy baby is often shown embracing a big fish with a lotus flower at its side. The word "fish" in Chinese is yu, which sounds like another word meaning "affluence", and the word "lotus" in Chinese is lian, which is a homonym of another word meaning "in succession". These symbols express people's hopes for consecutive good harvests. Many other objects used in New Year pictures also have symbolic meanings. The peony represents wealth and honour, the peach symbolizes longevity, and the pomegranate and red plum reflect a large number of children. People, however, are no longer satisfied merely with healthy babies or more grain and money. They like pictures that are associated with building socialism, modern science, and technology. In one of the most popular pictures, a man is traveling in a spaceship. In another picture entitled "The Carp Leaps the Dragon Gate", the term "Four Modernizations" is painted on the gate, expressing the people's determination and well wishes for the new year and the future.

Revised June 13, 2011