Each new year brings little joy for a master of Taohuawu woodcuts

Feb 8, 2017

SPRING Festival is supposed to be a joyous occasion, but it makes Fang Zhida, 83, anxious.

Days before the new year, he locks himself in his studio to focus on an ancient folk art. Taohuawu woodcut prints, or nianhua, are put on doors to ward off devils and express good wishes for the Chinese New Year.

But in recent years business has been poor, leaving Fang worried that his craft may eventually die out.

The craft gets its name from Taohuawu street in the eastern city of Suzhou where it originated.

A sketch is drawn on paper before being carved on wooden boards and paint applied. The design is then pressed onto paper to produce the print.

The art, more than 350 years old, was added to China’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2006.

Fang started to learn the process at 14, and says it is the love of his life.

“For better or for worse, I have been doing it for all my life,” he says.

Fang has been teaching at the Taohuawu Woodcut New Year Print Society since 2004. Four students are chosen every two years, with 28 students graduating so far.

“It is important that we introduce the art to the young and pass it down,” he says.

From painting to woodcutting and printing, it can take as little as a week or as long as a year to finish a single piece.

“Printing it one piece after another all day long can be a tiring thing,” he says. “So, you must be really interested in it, be hard-working, and you need to handle loneliness very well.”

While Fang is passing down all he knows to his students, they are innovating the art to attract a bigger audience.

Fu Xiangpeng, 31, has designed a series of products such as fans, plates and red packets, with new year prints on them.

“We hope the products will be popular, but we must not lose the essence of the art,” Fang says.

In 2006, a museum was opened to preserve the art and Wang Zude, 77, another master of the craft, is a senior adviser there.

He encourages students to innovate and create prints they like, teaches printing at weekends and tells primary school students stories behind the art.

“Kids love stories, and the stories behind the art help shape a sense of our own cultural identity,” Wang says.

In 2012, he designed a series of prints for the 12 zodiac signs to appeal to the young.

Suzhou No.1 Middle School has offered courses in local traditional art, including new year prints, since 2010, and students from the United States are among those who have come to study.

Fang wants to teach as many students as he can but fears for the future.

“A new year print craftsman now earns around 50,000 yuan (US$7,000) a year, not enough to make a decent living,” he says.

Of the 28 students he has taught in the past decade, only 10 are still making prints. In Suzhou, only about a dozen people are still in the trade.

Exhibitions are popular but few people want to learn the art itself.

“To inherit Chinese cultural heritage is not just about displaying it, but it is more important that we attract more people to learn and devote to it,” Fang says.

Suzhou has enacted a regulation to preserve endangered intangible cultural heritage and a national project is also under way to collect material and build archives for 100 folk arts, including Taohuawu new year printing.

About the Column

Suzhou Face

This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.

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