Ride an Elephant and a Happy Lunar New Year

This Saturday, January 25, is Chinese New Year. Happy Year of the Rat!  To celebrate this holiday, we invite you to read a post from 2013 explaining all the auspicious symbols in a Chinese New Year print in the collection.

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

Christmas: Made in China

“Fotang is a small ancient water town south of the Yangtze River. It is my father’s hometown.” So begins “Made in China,” a deftly written short essay and an unlikely Christmas story published in Pipa, a magazine for young learners of Chinese as a second language. The theme of the issue, dated November 2017, was Christmas.

Cover of the Pipa magazine, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, a special issue on Christmas.

Launched in 2013, Pipa is a bi-monthly magazine designed for children who are learning the Chinese language outside China. The magazine title, “Pipa” (枇杷), refers to the loquat, a yellow-skinned fruit that resembles an apricot. “Loquat” is a playful rebellion against the slur “banana” for ethnic Chinese living in a Western country. Regarded as having lost touch with their Chinese cultural heritage, identity, and values, they are disparagingly compared to a banana, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” The flesh of a loquat is as yellow as its skin, implying the magazine’s ambition to connect Chinese American children with the culture of their ancestral land. (In the Chinese language, “yellow skin” is not a derogatory description: true insults come from not embracing the color, rather than using the term.)

Loquats (Image source: Pxhere.com)

Each Pipa issue is neatly organized around a theme and presented in columns featuring illustrated stories, interviews, informational text, poetry, rhymes, craft, games, and children’s writing and art. All contents, except for works submitted by children, are contributed by native Chinese writers but tailored for the limited language competency of children who are learning the language in an English-dominant environment. Pipa stands apart from most Chinese-language reading materials, which are either intended for native Chinese children or translated from popular works originally in English and other languages, or both. Chinese culture, history, and literature, as well as Chinese American life, are its main subject matter.

“Made in China,” written by Caomao and illustrated by Xiaoweiqun. In Pipa, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017. (Cotsen 153521)

In “Made in China,” Caomao continues: “As I remember, there the roof tiles were black, the walls were whitewashed, the trees were lush, and the aged stone pavement had a bluish gray sheen. On clear days, you could hear roosters cock-a-doodle-doo; on rainy days, you would listen to rain drops splatter. In winter, the smell of ham and brown sugar was everywhere.” (13) Farmers made a living by selling bok choy and rice and trading live hens and ducks at the market. Nobody knew how long life had been like this.

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Change started two decades ago when people opened factories in town, making small merchandise like toys, towels, and buttons. “Since then there were always the rumbling of machines, the honking of vehicles, and the raised voices of people speaking into phones. The odor of car exhaust hung in the air.” (14) Then, a decade ago, the locals learned a novel word—sheng dan jie (Christmas). Factories big and small began producing Christmas goods. Streams of trucks drove into town and carried away loads and loads of Christmas products. Where did they go? Someone said they would be shipped to Europe or America, because people in those places needed lots and lots of Christmas trinkets. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Migrant workers came from faraway places to earn a living here. They had no idea what Christmas looked like in America and Europe, but they always wore Santa hats in the factory–not for fun or to look good, but to block glitter. Once the colorful powder crept into hair, it clung fast no matter how hard you wash. Still at the end of the day, glitter covered their faces and bodies, and found its way into their ears and nostrils. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Townsfolks did not celebrate Christmas. From this day on, workers took their well-earned break, because no one would expect new orders after the start of the next holiday season. Migrant workers would not return until after the Chinese New Year to get ready for the coming Christmas. The town became much quieter: “On clear days you could hear cock-a-doodle-doo, and, on wet days, the pitter-patter of rain drops. Between black tiles and white walls wafted once again the delicious smell of ham and brown sugar.” (15)

“Made in China” is an exquisitely composed essay-story, contrasting two carefully edited images of life in an old-fashioned town before and after it became China’s so-called “Christmas Village.” As the manufacturing center for Christmas merchandise, Fotang (佛堂) has an uncanny name, the literal meaning of which is “Buddha’s hall.” The town is administratively part of the city of Yiwu, the seat of the world’s largest small commodities market. Though on a minor scale, the essay recalls Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), a documentary that traces the life cycle of glittering festival beads from New Orleans back to a factory compound in rural China, where the cheap disposables were made by workers as young as teenage girls fresh out of middle school.

The Christmas story of Fotang, written at the reading level of second and third graders without compromising the beauty of the language and illustrated in warm rosy watercolors, recapitulates the massive and complex history of globalization as it intersected with a tiny old Chinese town from the turn of the twenty-first century. Caomao’s economical use of language is remarkably effective, immersing us in the sights, sounds, and smells of the water town. (The ham mentioned twice in the essay is not any average processed meat, but the prized dry-cured Jinhua ham, a millennium-old product unique to the region.) The old-town life sounds charmingly peaceful, although poverty, elided in the text, must have played a big part in transforming “Buddha’s hall” into the “Christmas Village.” Environmental costs and health risks are suggested between the lines.

It must be pointed out that the changing reality of Fotang and Chinese society is more than can be summed up by the facile dichotomy between an idyllic agrarian community then and a booming manufacturing base now. For one thing, as Fotang has been exporting Christmas products to Europe, America, and an expanding global market, along with Hollywood movies, English-language learning, and Starbucks, “Christmas” has been woven into the fabric of a largely secular Chinese society. Merchants love Christmas for introducing yet another festive excuse to encourage shopping and spending. Young families even try to celebrate the holiday with children the “proper” Western way, one involving tabletop Christmas trees and stockings. The impact of globalization has worked in both directions. The culture of Chinese-Americans’ ancestral land that Pipa hopes to channel is not fossilized in five-character quatrains of the Tang dynasty, but is an evolving organism, continually exchanging elements with the larger world, modifying and being modified by the latter.

My childhood friend complained that she couldn’t find a good stocking for her toddler son. She lives in a big city only two hours away from Fotang, but for reasons beyond the knowledge of average consumers like myself, made-for-export products are not necessarily readily available in Chinese stores. As children we used to each have a stocking from my aunt, who worked in a Shanghai tapestry factory that made and exported embroidered stockings. I put my foot into it and found it a poor “sock.” Bemused by what a sock so huge was for (Aunt never mentioned it, and now that I think back I am not sure if she knew), I still loved the bright and merry pattern of jingle bells on it and would pull it out of the wardrobe to admire every so often. My friend said she was looking for a stocking as pretty as the one I gave her in the third grade. After the phone call I placed an order for a few with felt Santas and reindeer on them from a major online store owned by a certain Princeton alumnus, planning to take them to China on my next trip. The soft stockings came in a rustling plastic bag with a sticker on it: Made in China. It’s going to be a round trip home for the big sock.

(Edited by Jessica Terekhov, PhD Candidate in English, Princeton University)

Source:

Caomao and Xiaoweiqun (illustrator). “Made in China.” Pipa: The Magazine for Chinese Speaking Kids in North America, vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, pp. 13-15.

Acknowledgment:

Thanks go to author Caomao, illustrator Xiaoweiqun, and Jing Cheng, editor of the Pipa magazine for granting us the permission to reproduce the text (in English translation) and images from the essay.