“New Year is coming!” The sound of firecrackers fills the air as literati of imperial China depict an elegant and prosperous year ahead in their paintings. Such paintings, passed down since the Song Dynasty, have formed a modern day library of ancient celebratory customs.
The Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar and symbolizes the removal of that which is old and evil and the renewal of fresh hope. Such an atmosphere often prevails in the classic New Year paintings.
The origin of new year paintings
Such paintings that celebrate the coming year first appeared in the art courts of the Song Dynasty and formed a tradition that was passed down through dynasties to come. The paintings add an artistic brilliance to the most important Chinese folk festival of the year, and their clear depiction of the festivities and their elegance continues to be much admired.
There are two types of classic paintings: One type depicts celebratory scenes and symbolizes the replacing of old with new; the second type — similar to Western still paintings — depict vases with flowers, bowls of fruits and vegetables, and antiquities, symbolizing good fortune and prosperity. The artworks give us an important glimpse into the cultures of ancient China.
A Celebration of the New Year
It’s a custom in China to deep clean the inside and outside of your house before the New Year. On New Year’s Eve, people worship gods and ancestors, eat a reunion dinner, and pay respect to each other. Children, employees, and elders give and receive red envelopes with money as good luck, and households stay up past midnight to welcome the New Year with firecrackers and a festive atmosphere.
On New Year’s Day, everyone puts on new clothes. In the Qing Dynasty, officials used to go to the imperial court to pay respect to the emperor. People congratulated the coming of the new year and wished each other prosperity.
There is a painting by Qing Yao Wenhan called A Celebration of the New Year that depicts a large family of the Qing Dynasty during festivities. The artist depicted the scene as if he was looking in from above, capturing the joyous atmosphere in detail. In the painting, several elders are chatting on the front porch, leisurely watching their children and grandchildren. Behind them are large screens of flowers and a few large vases holding peonies.
The courtyard is full of joy; people are drumming, clapping, playing instruments, setting off firecrackers, and playing with puppets. The domestic servants, on the other hand, are very busy. The women are preparing meals in the backyard, while the men are hanging large lanterns in a distant attic. Some servants are standing by their masters, while others are hustling between the front hall and the cloister carrying snacks back and forth. Some are attending to a brazier in the courtyard, with pine branches burning in it.
Whether the scene is of indoors or outdoors, static or dynamic, it captures and celebrates New Year’s rich and auspicious atmosphere.