A workshop of artisans in Tianjin is breathing fresh life into a traditional form of Chinese art printing, Wang Kaihao reports.
￼Picture 2:Yangliuqing woodblock prints of Tianjin are among China's most famous Spring Festival pictures. The making process includes (from top, clockwise) sketching the lines, carving the woodblock plates, printing in colors with water and ink, putting additional touches to the paintings and getting them mounted.
As the oldest artisan working at the Yangliuqing woodblock prints workshop affiliated to Tianjin Yangliuqing Fine Arts Press, Wang Wenda has been busy preparing for another Spring Festival.
Holding his self-made carving knife, day after day, 75-year-old Wang has been immersed in one of the most renowned Chinese New Year picture brands.
"Oh, it has been almost 60 years," says Wang, who seems to have hardly noticed the flow of time.
The Yangliuqing woodblock print has about 400 years of history, being founded in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The name, which literally means "willow is green", refers to a small town on the outskirts of Tianjin that is said to be the birthplace of this style of woodblock printing.
In 1958, when the country tried to combine the scattered artisans of the woodblock printing in a bid to save this endangered technique, a new publicly-owned workshop was established in downtown Tianjin. Wang was among the first to join the workshop in 1960.
"I was recruited as painter because I loved painting as a child," he recalls. "However, the carving department lacked people, and I was soon assigned to it."
He has remained in the role since then.
"It was difficult to learn how to accurately carve the lines at first," Wang says. "However, everything is fine with enough practice. There's no shortcut to hone such skills."
Traditional Yangliuqing woodblock printing has four processes: sketching the lines, carving the woodblock plates, printing with water, ink and pigments, and supplementary painting to create the halo effect, especially around human faces.
However, the procedure is highly time-consuming. Since only one color can be dyed at a time, it usually needs four or more plates to print one small picture, let alone bigger ones. Once printed, the picture will be aired for days to let the color dry, before applying the next one.
"No matter how small or large a picture is," Wang says, "we take no less energy."
After all, it is common for Wang to spend months creating one wooden plate, which is made of pear tree. The lumber has to be stored and dried for three years before it can be used.
After the plate is complete, the printing process itself can take up to a month for the picture to be finished and mounted.
Each artisan is in charge of one step in the whole process, a division of labor that is similar to the olden days.
Yangliuqing woodblock prints have abundant themes, which are inspired by literature, folk legends and myths, among others. However, the most recognizable are usually of auspicious symbols for the Chinese New Year.
A picture portraying a chubby baby holding a fish (yu) by a lotus (lian) is probably the best known symbol from Yangliuqing. It expresses the Chinese New Year wish, lian nian you yu, which means "there will always be some surplus year after year."
Historical records show that the Yangliuqing town and its surrounding villages were full of picture workshops during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
However, the early 20th century saw the arrival of the modern offset printing technique in China.
The popularity of offset printing grew, because it was easier and cheaper to produce pictures in larger quantities. Along with war and social upheaval, things looked bleak for the traditional printing method.
The most famous new year picture workshop in Yangliuqing town, Dai Lianzeng, which once served the imperial palace in Beijing, finally closed in the 1930s after 19 generations.
"If it was not the country's effort to save the craft of woodblock printing in the 1950s," Wang recalls, "it would be dead."
Still, the medium continues to struggle commercially. People's changing aesthetics may be a new threat to the life of Spring Festival pictures.
"Chinese New Year pictures were daily-use products in the old days," Wang says. "Now we have to improve the designs to make them appeal as art pieces. Only when we make them more exquisite, people are more willing to collect."
Reform has been underway since 2005, and a younger generation of artisans have joined the workshop. According to Kong Qing, a manager at the workshop, annual competitions have been organized there to encourage new designs and formats. Each year, two to three winning designs are turned into products.
"Veteran artisans and scholars will judge the blueprints to make sure the creativity does not go in the wrong direction," Kong says.
Guo Jinwei, 32, came here in 2011 after graduating from college. He is one of this year's winners. His new design mixes styles and themes that were often seen in imperial paintings and some former offset prints.
"Though my main job is to mount the pictures," he says, "I cannot restrict myself to one position. I have to frequently communicate with other people to get inspired."
More than 100 people have joined the workshop since 2005, but only around 30 have remained.
"Sometimes, we keep carving and drawing the same design again and again," says Gao Yan, 38, who is now a leading painter among the new generation in the workshop. "A layperson may consider it boring, but it's our job, like office work. Fortunately, it's a job that interests us."
Gao says he tries to add more shading and lighting effects in his designs to make the pictures more vivid-and even computer-aided design has been introduced to the process.
However, some cultural anthropologists have denounced such evolution, arguing that only the original styles, which look rough, can represent Yangliuqing.
"When more and more privately-owned picture workshops come up again in Yangliuqing town, which follow our new style, I think our exploration to prolong the life of Chinese New Year pictures will get the required result," Wang retorts, although he confesses that the most popular pieces are still classic themes.
"No matter how creative we want to be, people still love lian nian you yu pictures the most, just as much as the first day I came here," he says.
The workshop has collected about 6,400 old Yangliuqing print plates. Wang says they will remain as the foundation of creativity no matter how time changes.
In the old days, the master craftsmen would always hide some "secrets" from apprentices, fearing they would nurture competitors, but Wang says he will pass everything he knows on to those that follow him into the trade.
He now has a 28-year-old apprentice, the youngest in the workshop whose name is Xi Wang.
Maybe it is predestined. In Chinese, xiwang means "hope".
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