This Saturday, January 25, is Chinese New Year. Happy Year of the Rat! To celebrate this holiday, we invite you to read a post by Minjie Chen 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?
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?
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.)
1. Tianjin Yangliuqing hua she. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.tjwh