Print Provenance: The Ancient Gods of Chinese Printmaking

This week I intended to write on the subject of early Chinese woodblock printing techniques but was sidetracked by an intriguing phenomenon that takes place all over China during and after Chinese New Year’s. This occurrence involves families taking down and replacing a number of decorations in their home to start anew, similar the Western concept of spring cleaning. Some decorations, though, have significance above all others, such as the domestic “Door-Gods”.

Qin Qiong Door God Print. Ming Dynasty Representation.

Qin Qiong Door God Print. Ming Dynasty Representation.

Above is an example of an early Chinese figure called Qin Qiong, a great Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) general and commonly incorporated door-god in many regions of China. He would normally be accompanied by another famous Tang Dynasty general, Yuchi Jingde, who served under the first three emperors of the Tang Dynasty. The print that accompanied the above example would have been positioned on the left so that the pair of figures would face one-another, to have them facing back-to-back is considered bad luck in Chinese culture. Other famous generals, politicians and mythological characters could also be incorporated on the outer doors of the household but the most common theme involves Qiong and Jingde.

 

Elder Subhuti addressing the Buddah. Dunhuang Manuscript. 868 AD

Elder Subhuti addressing the Buddah. Dunhuang Manuscript. 868 AD

This image may be familiar to some experienced print collectors, has been credited as the earliest woodblock print to be discovered as part of the Dunhuang manuscripts which are dated between the 5th and 11th centuries. This image, which was created during the rule of the Tang Dynasty represents the start of a greater popularization in woodblock printing. The Tang Dynasty began a printing revolution that expanded into the Song and Ming Dynasties which advanced the process by incorporating more colours such as the trademark vermilion red ink that is now associated in traditional Chinese art. As more and more prints were produced, they became more accessible to the public and by the end of the Quing Dynasties (1644-1912 CE) the New Year’s tradition of removing and replacing these prints was well established. Today the tradition continues, although Western lithography has been widely adopted in the East, many families still seek traditional woodblock prints to usher away unwanted spirits.

Written by: Nathan Paul Hansen

Nathan is a freelance writer specializing in art business. He has a BA in Art History from Concordia University and is recently working towards his MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

 

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