Chen Xingcai gently pressed a piece of paper against a printing block wet with ink. When he peeled the white paper slowly from the block, the dark outline of a fierce, sword-toting door guardian emerged.
"A lunar new year print is finished after the colors are applied to the outline," said Chen, speaking in a shabby cottage in the suburbs of the small city of Mianzhu in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
The 82-year-old learned how to make the prints at the age of 10.
Named a "master of Mianzhu lunar new year prints" by the Ministry of Culture, Chen is one of 60 local folk artists in the city able to produce the prints.
The custom of putting up lunar new year prints dates back 3,000 years in China and is still popular in rural areas during the Spring Festival, the country's most important festival for family reunions.
The prints depict harvests, fat rosy-cheeked babies holding fish and evil-expelling door guardians. They are a way to express people's good wishes for the new year in addition to creating a festive air.
Mianzhu prints form one of four Chinese schools of lunar new year prints. The other three come from Yangliuqing in North China's Tianjin Municipality, Weifang in East China's Shandong Province, and Taohuawu in Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu Province.
Chen said he is aware of the other styles, but knows his own work the best.
"There are four traditional steps to making a print in Mianzhu," he said.
First, a painter uses a pencil to draw the outline of a picture on a piece of paper.
Second, the picture is fastened to a wooden board so that the engraver can make a printing block out of the board strictly in line with the picture outline.
Third, the engraved outline on the block is darkened with ink and then a print is produced on white paper.
Fourth, the picture outline on the white paper is colored by hand.
"Doing the coloring is the time when an artist is able to make full use of his imagination and experience," Chen said. "As a result, the same printing block will produce prints with diverse colors.
"That is what distinguishes Mianzhu prints from other print schools," he said.
With a simple and unadorned, rough style, Mianzhu prints are in the forms of door pictures, square pictures, long horizontal-hanging scrolls, pieces for the living-room wall, and narrow vertical scrolls for screens.
The long horizontal-hanging prints mainly depict legendary characters, such as heavenly officials and the god of wealth. The narrow vertical scrolls usually come in groups of four and depict folk tales or opera stories.
Hou Shiwu, former director of the Mianzhu Lunar New Year Print Museum and a well-known print artist, said: "All of them reflect people's hope for happiness, fortune and longevity."
According to local chronicles, Mianzhu's lunar new year prints made their debut during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and flourished during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when nearly 1,000 artists in more than 300 workshops produced as many as 12 million prints a year and the prints were sold to many parts of the country.
When print production resumed in 1980 after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the business was thriving.
Changes over time
"Nearly 1 million prints were sold in 1980," the 64-year-old Hou said.
But times have changed. Since 1990, the figure has not exceeded 80,000.
Last year, it nosedived to fewer than 10,000, according to the Mianzhu Statistics Bureau.
Due to the drop in sales, only about 30 people now produce prints in Mianzhu. As business is thriving only before the Spring Festival, most print makers, who are also farmers, get meagre incomes from their artwork. For most seasons of the year, they work like other farmers.
The plight of Mianzhu prints has several causes, critics say.
First, many young farmers have built new buildings and are no longer interested in traditional decorations.
Second, machine-produced prints are cheaper than those made by hand. "One print made by hand can be sold for at least 1 yuan (12 US cents), five times the price for a machine-produced print," Hou said.
Mianzhu's lunar new year prints are sold mainly to collectors, researchers and Westerners curious about folk culture in the East.
It is unrealistic to expect the prints to regain their past glory of the Qing Dynasty. But, as a time-honored cultural heritage, they must be preserved just like Peking Opera, critics say.
"One way out for Mianzhu prints is to make them acceptable to ordinary people and consumers," Hou said.
In recent years, Mianzhu has marketed traditional hand-made prints in the form of postcards, calendars, fans and silk products.
According to Hou, the prints produced on silk make the most money.
"A painter draws a picture of Buddha or the god of wealth on silk and a worker weaves it into the silk. Silk with the image of Buddha is very popular with people from Southeast Asia, who send it to temples, while silk with the image of the god of wealth is popular with business people," Hou said.
The content of Mianzhu's traditional prints is also undergoing changes.
"Local artists have introduced modern subjects, such as the giant panda, into their works. They have used traditional techniques to make advertising prints for Changhong and the Hope Group," he said.
The Sichuan-based company Changhong is China's largest producer of color television sets, while the Hope Group is the country's leading animal-feed producer. "Mianzhu's traditional prints cannot exist if there is no renovation," Hou said.
To preserve the traditional art, the Mianzhu municipal government completed the Mianzhu Lunar New Year Print Museum in 1995 with investment of 5 million yuan (US$604,000). It is one of the country's two museums specializing in lunar new year prints. The other, smaller museum is located in Yangliuqing in Tianjin.
Since last year, Mianzhu has held two lunar new year print festivals.
Several local primary schools have started training programs to teach children how to make traditional prints.
Hou said the Mianzhu Lunar New Year Print Museum is also enrolling students interested in the prints.
Chen Xingcai said he was happy with these local efforts as Chen Gang, his 23-year-old grandson, was busy making a printing block beside caged chickens in the disorderly courtyard.
Previously, Chen Gang was not interested in traditional prints. After graduating from high school, he went to South China's Guangdong Province, where he worked for about one year.
Thanks to the publicity received by the traditional prints coupled with the two print festivals, Chen Gang began to understand more about his grandfather's art. He returned home to take up the family trade.
"I no longer worry that my family will not have a successor to the traditional art as my grandson is doing well," Chen Xingcai said calmly, with a pipe in his hand.
(China Daily March 26, 2003)