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Folk Art: Festive new year paintings
The Epoch Times
4/18/2004



Nian Hua, or New Year Paintings, have long adorned the doorways of Chinese homes.

A common sight on the doors of Chinese homes has ancient origins.

New Year Paintings, or “Nian Hua,” are closely tied to the Chinese Lunar New Year. During festive seasons in ancient China, people would put up Nian Hua as decorations to enhance the festive mood. At that time, the term Nian Hua had not yet been formalized. Toward the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD), however, author Li Guang Ting, in his book “Xiang Yian Jie Yi,” first used the phrase. These paintings reflect the joyous mood of a good harvest and traditional teachings of filial piety, as well as historical figures and story lines taken from Chinese operas. Underlying these paintings is a yearning for happiness and a peaceful, stable life.

Ancient records and archeological findings indicate that the custom of Nian Hua began with people hanging paintings of god figures on their doors. In their poor living environments, these people believed that the paintings would keep away wild animals and other potentially harmful creatures.

During the Han dynasty (25-220 A.D.), the paintings featured not only images of gods and tigers, but historical heroes as well. One such hero was the king of Guan Chuan, Liu Yue, who was well known for his bravery. His image was commonly used as a motif in Nian Hua to keep away illness. The most popular door god characters during the Han dynasty included Shen Tu and Yu Lei.

Buddhism, introduced to China during the Sui dynasty (581-618 A.D.), flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). To encourage people to believe that Buddhism would ease their suffering, temples would greatly promote their individual Protection Guardians and Heavenly Lords. They put paintings of these gods not only on the doors to the temple, but also in the storeroom and the kitchens. This made the figures of Shen Tu and Yu Lei even more popular.

Before the Tang dynasty, such art pieces were primarily first painted and then hung over doors. Engraving was used only for scriptures or war scripts. After the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126 A.D.), the engraving of door gods was introduced, the works being produced in “incense stalls.”

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