Related News

Home » District » Nanhui

Cooking up pretty pictures for Oven God

SEVENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Sun Youxiang is rushing around his village these days, armed with paints and brushes, and decorating clay ovens with colorful flowers, birds, country scenes, couplets and good luck sayings.

He's the local zaohua (oven flower) painter in Datuan Village and it seems everyone who isn't cooking with gas and electricity wants him to spruce up their wood-burning ovens. These are often large affairs built into the wall, with lots of space for decoration for the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on February 14 next year.

It's a lunar new year's tradition in many suburban villages to clean and brighten up the house and to paint fresh zaohua for good luck.

But another date requiring zaohua is coming up.

In the Chinese lunar calendar, January 24 is the day to worship the God of the Oven who protects a family and provides food. On the evening of January 23, painting new zaohua is a ritual to welcome the deity.

But Sun is already painting.

"It's the busiest time of the year for me," says Sun, a Nanhui native who paints free hand. He is a retired primary school art teacher and does this for pleasure.

In rural areas many homes used to have big ovens that heated the room. They were usually made of clay or brick; today some are covered with tiles.

Zaohua is considered a piece of Shanghai's intangible cultural heritage.

It originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when bricklayers and masons decorated the ovens they built, as a blessing for the home.

Over the years most were illiterate, but many were gifted painters with strong affection for village life and nature. Subjects included daily farming scenes, the harvest, fishing, the rising sun, celebrations and ceremonies, figures from mythology, gods and heroes.

"You can paint whatever you want. It's totally freestyle," Sun says.

He gives examples: carp fish means you'll get more than you wish for; big juicy peaches are a blessing for longevity; bunches of grapes stand for bountiful fruit and great achievements in the coming year; bamboo symbolizes peace.

Sun picks up his brush, dips it into red pigment and quickly outlines fish, shrimp and flowers on one oven within minutes.

"I learned from old villagers by watching them paint when I was just a little boy," he says.

Since he retired 20 years ago, he has painted more than 200 clay ovens for his neighbors.

"I paint just for fun," says Sun. "Sometimes the neighbors I paint for treat me to dinner or send me bottles of good rice wine."

Though many people cook with gas, quite a few older people in the suburbs prefer to prepare their meals in a built-in, wood-burning oven.

"Vegetable rice cooked in the old ovens is extremely delicious with a special earthy aroma," says Sun. "Many urban people come to villages for just such a bowl of rice."

Like his neighbors, Sun himself cooks on his clay oven/stove. "Burning wood saves money and gas is a little expensive," he says.

Big clay ovens that dominate a kitchen are perfect for big families, especially during a celebration or festival. People get together and chat happily over a big table of dishes, taken from multiple simmering pots on the oven/stove.

Oven painting goes back more than 1,200 years, making it one of the oldest folk paintings, says Zhang Weiqiang, director of Nanhui Culture Center.

"Although it doesn't appeal to refined tastes, it's not officially recorded in history books and not appreciated by artists, zaohua is unique and lively reflects the folk farming life in rural areas," says Zhang.

In the old days the oven/stove took up a lot of space and a wall, with chimney and flue built to keep the smoke out of the room. The wall became the place where farmers could express their imaginations. Walls could be cleaned, plastered again and painted yet again. Zaohua was born and it evolved into a common practice in Nanhui villages.

In local tradition, a family with an oven that hadn't been decorated would be looked down upon because they hadn't pleased the God of the Oven who blessed the household and provided food.

Today multi-colored poster paints are used, but ancient craftsmen used soot from the bottom of cooking pots, added water and rice wine to make black pigment that didn't fade in the heat and smoke.

It was durable because the zaohua was usually painted right after the oven was built and the clay was still moist. The pigment penetrated the clay and bonded.

The main tools are a wooden ruler to fix position and brushes made of goat hair, which are made by painters themselves.

Crops and farm animals are favorite subjects. Pigs are usually the most important but since they're not too pretty, piggies give way on the oven to cows, chickens and ducks.

It's freestyle zaohua today for painter Sun, but Zhang from the culture center says there used to be many rules and conventions in the old days.

"Different parts of the oven were supposed to be painted with different patterns," Zhang says.

The center of the oven wall was the place for flowers, such as red peonies, and birds, such as the red-crowned crane and peacock. The lower part and two sides were reserved for heroes from Chinese history or mythology.

The area around the chimney was reserved for aquatic plants, such as lotus and water lily.

On the sides of the oven were painted blessings such as "Well-fed and well-clothed." During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the blessings were replaced by political slogans.

"Today in Nanhui, no more than 10 farmers can still create zaohua and most of them are over 70 years old," Zhang says. "Society is changing fast and that's not a good thing for old folk arts like zaohua."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend