A 'nianhua' painting based on the folk story of Songzi Kirin at a museum in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 2, 2018.(Photo:Sixth Tone)
In Taohuawu, a canal-lined subdistrict of Suzhou's old city center, the only sign that Chinese New Year is approaching is a giant poster warning residents not to set off fireworks.
Taohuawu is known nationally as the home of woodcut-printed nianhua — artwork that people traditionally hang inside their homes or on their doors to ward off evil spirits and deliver good fortune in the lunar new year. But days before the Year of the Dog, few people, even here, still uphold the tradition.
Qiao Lanrong, however, moved to Suzhou 17 years ago to do exactly that. The 36-year-old first studied painting before switching to woodcut-printed nianhua, which involves meticulously carving several wooden printing blocks to make each design — one for every color.
Qiao is now one of China's most well-known woodcut-printed nianhua artists, and she runs five workshops in Taohuawu and elsewhere in Suzhou. Qiao tells Sixth Tone that the biggest challenge is merging the nianhua tradition with modern life. Even when Qiao was young, cheaper posters for sale in supermarkets were already outcompeting traditional nianhua.
A single piece, from initial sketches to putting the first print on rice paper, can take up to two years for larger, more complex designs — and the artist will inevitably suffer all sorts of minor knife accidents along the way. "When you get hurt after you've just started learning, it's really scary," Qiao says. "I still hurt myself sometimes, but I deal with it more calmly."
Qiao learned the craft from Fang Zhida, a now-83-year-old master of the trade. In an earlier interview, he recalled the Taohuawu of his youth: With Suzhou being one of the many water towns that dot the maze-like Yangtze River Delta, boats would come from afar with orders for nianhua.
But that was a long time ago. "We never put nianhua on the doors," 59-year-old current resident Zhu Min tells Sixth Tone. During the Cultural Revolution, families who hung nianhua would be targeted during so-called struggle sessions, so Zhu's family steered clear of the custom. Zhu recalls that her family only put up a nianhua once, when they were gifted one for free.
Different nianhua customs exist throughout China. Taohuawu locals say their tradition goes back centuries. Beginning in the 1930s, Lu Xun, China's most famous modern writer who was born in nearby Zhejiang province, campaigned for modern designs that went against old feudal norms and Western cultural influence. Under communism, nianhua has followed the trajectory of other art forms: It was used to espouse revolutionary and socialist values until after the Cultural Revolution, when interest in the craft waned, in part because it was seen as a "peasant" art. Now, a new crop of designers has slowly brought Taohauwu's nianhua tradition back to life.
In the workshop of Gu Zhijun, 57, the wall is decorated with an abundance of prints, including black-and-white still lifes, images of Suzhou's famous canals, and more modern designs. For the Year of the Dog, Gu and his team designed a nianhua that features a dog wearing an iPhone around its neck while lying on a wooden boat in a typical Suzhou canal, complete with an arched bridge and white stone houses.
Qiao has also brought out-of-the-box thinking to the art form. "Hanging nianhua is what previous generations liked to do," she says. For modern customers, she designed silk scarves printed with nianhua designs. "Before, nianhua represented good fortune for a household and protected the household," she says. "If people wear nianhua scarves, both the person who wears it and the people who see it can achieve their New Year's wishes and good fortune."
In 2016, Taohuawu nianhua was listed as a form of national intangible cultural heritage. One result is that the Taohuawu area will be transformed into a tourist destination. Area resident Zhu says she will probably have to move to an apartment elsewhere in the city.
One thing hasn't changed: The period preceding the Spring Festival is still the busiest time of the year for nianhua artists. Qiao received 20,000 orders for woodcut-printed nianhua with Year of the Dog themes. "There's no way we can return overnight to the time when [nianhua] were commonly used," Qiao says. But if the art can pique young people's interest, she adds, "there will gradually be more people who like it."