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 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?

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

Printing Kate Greenaway: the Color Wood Blocks of Edmund Evans

Cotsen 32262

Above is the half-title illustration from Kate Greenaway’s collection of children’s poetry Marigold Garden (London; New York: G. Routledge and sons, [1885]). “Printed in Colours” by Edmund Evans, the book is full of excellent examples of color wood engraved illustrations. Sometimes referred to as chromoxylography (from the ancient Greek roots for “color-wood-writing”), color wood engraving was one of the most popular forms of color printing during the 19th Century. A variety of wood engraving, using an engraver’s burin to cut relief images against the grain of a hard wood block, color wood engraving employed multiple blocks to make color images: often employing one block per color.

Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, title-page.

Yet examples of the actual blocks used for this once ubiquitous process are few and far between. Perhaps this is because contemporary printers didn’t value the blocks after their job was done (namely printing illustrations). Wood engraving blocks were often used or reused so much (for different editions of some work or even shared across different publications) that they wore down or broke over time; becoming utterly useless for printing. Others were simply discarded or re-purposed (probably burned) after a print job was completed so that they wouldn’t take up valuable space in a print shop.

But as historical artifacts, wood blocks (and other printing surfaces like lithographic stone or intaglio plates) can be extremely informative about the history of the book, revealing more about the process involved than the finished product (i.e. books) can show us. Cotsen is lucky enough to have the original color wood blocks for the half-title illustration of Marigold Garden. Besides being beautiful objects in their own right, the blocks elucidate aspects of the production of Marigold Garden that have up till now, been otherwise unknown or unrevealed.

Cotsen 32262. Each block measures only about 3 x 2 x 1 inches.

As primary sources the blocks illustrate the color wood engraving process. They give us a first hand glimpse into Evans’s methods and style showing, through comparison, how he designed and layered blocks in order build a multi colored image. With close scrutinization of both the blocks and the resulting illustration we can discern the block printing order with more certainty (from lightest to darkest): pink, yellow, orange, green, blue, and black (the “key block” for printing the line work). Notice too how the ink in the “pink” block has not only turned orange over time, but reveals the grain of the wood on the flat raised printing surface (see below).

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Cotsen 32262. Here are the blocks and illustration paired for comparison. Notice how the image in the blocks is the reverse image for the finished product (converted during the printing process as the blocks are pressed onto the paper).

Close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, including areas other than the printing surface, reveals even more about the production of Marigold Garden. By looking at the backs of the blocks, we find the name “T. I. Lawrence” carved (with a burin) into the blocks themselves.

Cotsen 32262. Back of the “Blue” block. “T. I. Lawrence” is just visible across the bottom right of the block. It looks thick paper was once affixed to the back of the block. This may have been done by the printer to help the blocks reach “type height” in order to be flush with type used on the page. Or it may have been pasted on later in order to mount the blocks for presentation.

Using cutting edge research tools (a little bit of googling) I was able to discern the identity of T. I. Lawrence. From the website of Lawrence art supplies, I was able to discover a well informed (complete with sources) meticulous family history of Lawrences who have been art suppliers for seven generations. It turns out that Thomas John Lawrence Junior (1840-1887) was an engravers’ block manufacturer and most likely the wood block supplier for this work. With close analysis of the wood blocks themselves, I was able to add this missing link to the book production process.

Looking closely at the blocks also reveals more about their use. Printing blocks were subjected to a tremendous amount of pressure during the printing process. As a result, many would crack after continuous pressings. Notice above how the “green” block has a significant horizontal crack across the upper left side. Such cracks are sometimes visible in illustrations using well worn blocks. But, with a little attention, cracks could be repaired for continual use without blemishing the image. Savvy printers like Evans could extend the life of a wood block by inserting new wood joints and rejoining cracks and splits:

Cotsen 32262. The top left edge of the “green” block.

Cotsen’s six blocks for the half-title illustration reveal how much work and preparation is involved in creating just one small 3 x 2 inch image. Larger images would have required multiple wood blocks joined together (using end grain wood from young box wood trees meant that the size of engraving wood blocks was limited to a few inches), often employing several wood engravers working together to complete a single image. Can you imagine then how much more labor and time was required to make a larger image (or, indeed, the whole book)?

Rare Books PZ8.3.G75 Mar3, page 20. I count seven colors requiring seven blocks, how many do you see? This illustration also reveals one of the primary advantages of printing from wood blocks. Images and text could be printed together since wood blocks and printer’s type could fit together in the printer’s forme (unlike the popular rival to color wood engraving: the chromolithograph).

Wood blocks and other printing surfaces help tell the story of the labor and people involved in making books. They can also be used to help teach and illustrate the history of printing and illustration. With close consideration of these once disregarded pieces of manufacturing equipment we can learn so much more about the history of books and the process of their creation.

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Heads up for a blog extravaganza! Next week, in celebration of banned books week, Cotsen will highlight a banned children’s book every day!