Ride an Elephant and Happy Lunar New Year!

The Cotsen Library is home to an international poster collection that depicts children and reflects childhood from diverse historical periods, geographical areas, and cultural backgrounds. Through a pilot project in 2012, the Cotsen Library enhanced catalog records of a small set from its Chinese-language poster collection to allow researchers to search for posters by title, creator, or publisher information in both Chinese characters and pinyin phonetics. Subject headings were standardized to bring consistency to terms that describe the posters. A brief summary of the visual content is also provided.

The small set of about 50 posters dates from the early twentieth century through the mid-1980s. They cover a delightful variety of subject matter, including nianhua (年画, New Year prints) that decorated people’s homes, instructional wall charts for classroom use, and Communist propaganda posters that sent political messages to children and adults alike.

An untitled and undated New Year print gives us a glimpse of multiple facets of Chinese art, culture, history, and political dynamics. The only text in the picture is a red stamp of “Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop” (天津楊柳青畫店), a press based in one of the most famous production centers of Chinese New Year prints. Traditional Yangliuqing art was known for the so-called “half printed, half painted” woodblock New Year prints: combining mass production and original folk art, pictures were first printed in monochrome outline, and each piece was then hand-colored by artisans. The Costen’s copy was printed and painted on a sheet of xuanzhi (宣纸, Chinese rice paper), measuring 30 x 20 inches.

Catalogers occasionally find themselves facing the little-envied job of coming up with titles for library materials that carry no such information. This New Year print posed such a task. How would you name an image portraying three children on the back of an elephant? The old catalog record suggested a title about celebrating the harvest. In order to justify that theme, one might have expected to see depictions of abundant grain overflowing from containers. However, could the basket of fruit in the young Chinese girl’s hand be an Eastern equivalent of cornucopia?

New Year print:  [Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.  Cotsen Children's Library, call number 64129

New Year print:
[Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year).
Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.
Cotsen Children’s Library, call number 64129

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

It is unclear whether this New Year print was made around 1958-1959, when the Yangliuqing Painting Shop was established but not yet merged into the Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, or around 1974-1980, when the shop name was restored.1 The picture is a fascinating manifestation of how tradition underwent adaptive transformations and survived a new political environment under the Chinese Communist regime.

Traditional Symbols and Communist Twists

Chinese New Year prints traditionally employ visual symbols and homophonic riddles to convey good wishes for the coming new year. Young children are among the favorite subject. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, healthy-looking youth symbolize the success of family reproduction and a hopeful future. It is important to point out that images of children in Chinese New Year prints did not denote a child audience, but were intended for all viewers, particularly adults who wished to accomplish the foremost Confucian virtue and goal of raising a large family with sons and grandsons. Children were nonetheless an important part of the viewing experience. Superstitiously believing that children’s naïve voice carried some realizing power, an adult would engage a child in observing and talking about the pictures on the morning of the New Year’s Day, hoping that those lucky words from a child’s mouth would make happy things happen.

This New Year print from Cotsen is both a continuation of that “baby-loving” tradition and a departure from certain age-old characteristics. In a society that favored sons over daughters, boy figures dominated the subject of traditional New Year pictures. The presence of two young girls in this post-1949 picture, however, reflects an adherence to the idea of gender equality promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. All three children wear red scarves, indicating their membership in the Young Pioneers, which is a school children’s organization that answers to the Chinese Communist Party. (Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was the national leader of the organization in 1983-1984.)

Giant-sized peaches, shown in the basket on the right, are a traditional symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. The golden pineapple on the left also conveys wishes for good things, because the name of that fruit and the word for “prosperity” are homophones in southern Fujian dialect. Another homophone is played on the elephant. In the Chinese language, qixiang (骑象, riding an elephant) and jixiang (吉祥, auspicious) sound similar. The visual motif of elephant riding can actually be traced to the popular depiction of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva often seen perched on an elephant in Chinese art and sculptures.

A final point of interest is the blossoming branch held high in the girl’s hand on the left. Traditionally, a more common object held by the elephant rider would have been an expensive-looking ruyi (如意). The term literally means “wish fulfillment,” and, according to popular belief, it has originated from the use of the handheld object as a self-sufficient backscratcher. Ruyi made from precious metals and stones used to be royal possessions. In Communist China, it would likely be a distasteful object associated with wealth, power, and privilege, and thus wisely avoided by the anonymous folk artist of this picture. The position of the girl’s arms, and the way she tilts her head closely resemble what we see in a ruyi-holding boy in traditional depictions. Is the pink flower branch an earthly substitute for rich men’s ruyi for political safety?

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year

You may find this picture in our library catalog by its new title: “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Attesting to the flexibility and resilience of a folk art tradition, “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” has merged old and new, catered to both popular and political tastes, and wished for another new year of good luck to come.

(The author thanks Mr. Don Cohn for offering insightful cultural information about Samantabhadra.)

Note:

1. Tianjin Yangliuqing hua she. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.tjwh.gov.cn/whysz/0906meishu/meishu-0102.html

Noah’s Art: Designing Arks for Children

Noah’s Ark Toys

For centuries the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 has been an inspiration to toymakers. Thanks to the biblical connection, miniature arks are the best known of the so-called Sunday toys or quiet amusements appropriate for the Sabbath.

Noah's ark from l'arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Noah’s ark from l’arche de Noé (Paris:1880)

Examples as early as the seventeenth century survive and famous German toymaker Georg Hieronymous Bestelmeier advertised elaborate, expensive sets in his enormous 1803 catalogue. During the nineteenth century the entry into the ark came into its own as a subject for high-end toys, novelty book formats, and nursery friezes.

The recently-opened Cotsen Gallery exhibition features two of Cotsen’s most spectacular arks–one a building toy, the other a panorama:

  • Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880);
  • Lothar Meggandorfer’s Artist’s Dummy and Color Proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

These toys were displayed against two different backgrounds, reproductions of illustrations adapted from related children’s artwork:

  • Warwick Hutton’s Noah and the Great Flood (New York: Atheneum, 1977), a Margaret K. McElderry Book;
  • Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal-winning Noah’s Ark (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1977).

Le déluge universel: Construction de l’arche de Noé (Paris: Matenet, ca. 1880).

Full set of l'arche de Noé:  the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton's artwork as background.

Full set of l’arche de Noé: the ark, stand-up figures and scenery, and illustrated box, with Hutton’s artwork as background.

This toy with its combination of pictorial blocks and stand-up figures, including animals, people, and background scenery, is something of a departure from the traditional ark with a removable roof or top deck that allows it to double as storage for the accompanying sets of paired animals.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in photo left), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

Descriptive sign (shown next to the Ark in previous photo), dating the Flood very precisely in 1536 BC.

The design was not unique to Le déluge universel: there is a similar set representing the fall of Canton in 1858 during the second Opium War at the Getty Research Institute.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Lithographed box lid, with stand-up figures repeating some poses.

Like many elaborate late nineteenth-century French toys, a very showy illustration lithographed by the H. Jannin firm decorates the box lid.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

Stand-up animals and background pieces.

This previously “hidden collections” item was “rediscovered” in 2011 when Cotsen’s toy collection was shifted into a new vault.

Lothar Meggandorfer’s, Artist’s dummy and color proofs for Arche Noah: Ein lehrreiches Bilderbuch (Esslingen: J. F. Schreiber, 1903).

Meggendorfer's dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully  (Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

Meggendorfer’s dummy of the panorama, cardboard leaves hinged with fabric, measuring almost five feet long folded out fully
(Note: photo shown here composed of two separate photos, added together, creating the false effect if irregularity in the middle, not present in actual item).

The German artist Lothar Meggendorfer is best known for his humorous mechanical book illustrations, but he also designed table games with playing boards and cards, as well as “theaters” in the round showing scenes in the city park, the zoo, or the circus, constructed of cardboard leaves hinged together with fabric.

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Animals being herded onto the Ark, two-by-two, with one tiger looking quizzical and one horse perhaps having second thoughts?

Meggendorfer’s mock-up of this panorama depicting the animals’ stately progress into the ark shows his flair for large-scale scenic effects. It came from the publisher’s archive of Meggendorfer’s artwork, which was dispersed some years ago.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

While most animals are depicted placidly, as per the usual description, Mrs. Lion looks none too pleased, a nicely humorous touch.

Gift of Justin G. Schiller in honor of the opening of the Cotsen Children’s Library in 1977

(Note: The text here is based on the exhibition labels by Andrea Immel, Cotsen Curator.)