Painting in a lunar New Year's tradition

January 16, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Correspondent

YANGLIUQING, China -- When China's Communist rulers finally allowed free enterprise to begin, in the late 1970s, members of the Huo family didn't wait long to act. They had seen what decades of neglect had done to the art of woodblock printing and decided that the way to revive it was to ignore the state's monopoly and do it themselves.

The small company they started, Yucheng Painting House, has become one of the most acclaimed makers of lunar New Year's posters, the ubiquitous pictures of fat babies, fish and flowers that are sold by the millions across China at this time of year.

Yucheng is hardly the size of the huge, state-run printing factories that churn out the bulk of the New Year's posters. But it is an example of the return to tradition that is sweeping the Chinese countryside -- a throwback to pre-Communist rule when the country was filled with family-run workshops.

"We felt that we could revive the art of our parents and grandparents," said Huo Qingshun, the eldest brother in the Huo family, which has made the posters for six generations. "It had been passed down in our family for so long that we didn't want to lose it."

The posters, in Chinese, are called "annual paintings," because they were pasted on the wall like wallpaper or posters and torn down each lunar New Year as part of a ritual to purify the home for the coming year.

The posters still are widely popular, and more than 100 million will be produced for sale by Feb. 1, the start of the lunar New Year.

But the majority of such posters are mass-produced reproductions of the old woodblock prints, which started losing ground to the new technology early this century, said Bo Songnian, a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Especially hard hit were the Huo family's specialty of northern Chinese paintings. The southern variation is printed entirely by woodblock, but the northern paintings are printed and then given hand-painted faces, making them more expensive to produce.

"For most peasants, it's simply much too expensive to buy a small print for 100 yuan [$12], even if people don't tear them down anymore each year," Mr. Bo said.

Painted with care

That's part of the reason for Yucheng's success. Its annual paintings are printed and painted with notable care -- making them favorites of art collectors in the big cities -- yet they are only one-third the price of prints made by the family's state-owned rival, Yangliuqing Art Society.

China's most famous producer of annual paintings, the Yangliuqing Art Society has something of a checkered reputation.

The society was organized 35 years ago as an amalgam of the family-run printing houses in the town of Yangliuqing, in effect the capital of the northern Chinese school of annual paintings.

In 1966, China's cultural bureaucrats decided that the artisans would do better away from the village that had been the regional art center for 450 years. So the artisans were shipped off to

neighboring Tianjin, China's third-largest city.

Those who went included Mr. Huo's father and his two elder sisters; they would spend more than 20 years working in the Yangliuqing Art Society's studios in the busy metropolis, cranking out woodblock prints for tourists.

"We had to work too fast," said Huo Xiuying, the oldest sister in the clan and one of the most experienced face painters in the region. "We couldn't do our best because we had production targets to meet. The main thing was speed; quality was second."

State-run shops

A tour of the state-run workshops in Tianjin shows why Ms. Huo was frustrated working for the state-owned printing house. Woodblock printers spend hours rubbing the same woodblock to make hundreds of identical paintings.

Two people work on each print there, one easing the painting over the block and another rubbing on the color.

The painting is sent on to the next printer, who adds another color.

At the end, painters add rosy cheeks to the plump babies, bold mascara to the classical beauties and expressions of ferocity to the door gods, who ward off evil spirits.

At Yucheng, far fewer prints are made, and one or another individual sometimes will do one painting from start to finish, although each family member has a specialty.

Although Yucheng makes superior prints, Mr. Bo noted that the Yangliuqing Art Society saved the traditional craft from near-certain death when it took over production from the private workshops in 1956. The government heavily subsidized the woodblock printing during a time when peasants could otherwise not afford them.

Besides protecting the tradition, the state-run company has recently made strides to improve its quality.

When Li Zhiqiang, general manager of the state-run art society, took over the company in 1984, he found that little had been invested in training new talent.

"The recent economic reforms have allowed us to expand and train new people," said Mr. Li, who has added 100 new employees in 10 years for a total work force of 240.

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