The traditional folk art of Chinese New Year woodblock prints used to be the primary form of decoration in households throughout China. Although this art form had its highest showing during New Year time, year round, you’d see New Year prints hung at entranceways, in kitchens, and practically anywhere else in the house. They contained images that signified spiritual protection, luck, society, history, and a variety of other subjects. You can still see traditional-style New Year prints in households of Chinese people today, especially during the Chinese New Year holiday.
Four cities produced most of China’s New Year prints, standing as the proliferators of this cultural art for ages. These cities differentiated themselves with characteristic style, and each produced tens of thousands of prints per year.
Yangjiabu, Weifang City, Shandong Province
Yangjiabu in Weifang City emerged as a prime producer of New Year Prints in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and blossomed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). At its peak, Yangjiabu sold prints from hundreds of shops, with thousands of variations on print design styles, carving tens of thousands of wood slabs for printing blocks. One of the largest art shops held more than 300 prints at a time, selling over a million prints annually. These prints featured a wide range of topics, and used imaginative, original colors, along with rough lines and simple shapes.
Yangliuqing, Tianjin Municipality
During the late Yuan and early Ming dynasties, Yangliuqing attracted expert wood engravers from other areas who passed through town and sold their New Year prints. These prints led to many local imitators. Yangliuqing further developed as a center for printmaking after the dredging of the Grand Canal in the Ming Dynasty. The newly usable canal facilitated access to higher quality pigments and finer paper.
Taohuawu, Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province
Toahuawu prints evolved from the Song Dynasty’s woodblock printing process. They developed as a folk art in the Ming Dynasty, and reached their peak in the earlier periods of the Qing Dynasty. They represent the southern-style New Year prints.
Mianzhu City, Sichuan Province
Mianzhu-style New Year prints originated in the Northern Song Dynasty, and reached their peak in the Ming and Qing dynasties. During the earlier Qing Dynasty, Mianzhu had more than 300 painting workshops and more than 1,000 artists producing over 12 million prints.
Since Mianzhu is located along the Western frontier, travel was difficult, so the prints had relatively little outside influence. Mianzhu prints maintained a strong, rugged folk flavor.
Although rarer, you can still find woodblock New Year prints being made today. But you will have a hard time finding ones with the artistry of those made up until the early 1900s. Nonetheless, understanding the phenomena of traditional New Year prints contributes to a larger understanding of life in traditional Chinese society, giving you a window into the values of ancient China.