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April 1, 2011

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Lost art lens on old Shanghai

CURIOUS old woodblock prints depict bustling Shanghai in the early 1900s. There are locomotives, telephones, nightclubs and beauty salons. An exhibition is underway. Tan Weiyun reports.

Chinese Lunar New Year's pictures - a must for almost every home - are mass produced today and typically feature gods, countryside scenes and auspicious symbols.

But for only three decades in the early 1900s, Shanghai turned out unique and colorful handmade woodblock prints that showed locomotives, telephones, night clubs, circus performers, Westerners drinking coffee and aspects of modern life never seen in traditional art.

They were delightful in their verve, humor and detail: A shrewish Shanghai woman scolds her sheepish husband, Chinese women get their hair permed, Chinese women in qipao and men in Western clothes dance in a ballroom; Westerns pray in church and stroll along tree-lined streets in the French concession; Chinese play mahjong; there are rickshaws, sedan chairs and horse-drawn carriages in traffic jams.

These Xiaojiaochang woodblock New Year's prints are rare collector's items today and the printing skills are truly a lost art. There's no old craftsman toiling away somewhere, trying to preserve the tradition. There's no evidence or wood blocks. It's gone - completely.

The only proof of existence are no more than 1,000 (possibly an overestimation) prints scattered among museums, institutions, groups and individuals.

Xiaojiaochang are named after an area (today's City God's Temple area) where the first craftsmen from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, settled.

A Xiaojiaochang woodcut print exhibition of 80 works is underway at the Baoshan District Folk Art Museum through the end of April. It's a fascinating view of a modernizing city.

"They truly reflected the emergence of modern Shanghai during that time when the city started to develop from a small port to an international metropolis and paradise for global adventurers," says researcher Zhang Wei.

Zhang, who works at the Shanghai Library, is also chief editor of a recently published volume about Chinese woodblock printing, with a chapter on Xiajiaochang New Year's pictures.

In one print a Chinese emperor is standing side by side with Queen Victoria.

Important events are depicted, such as completion of a railway line extended to Wusong Port in Shanghai's northern tip; a military inspection by the commander of the three armed forces; the birthday celebration of Yuan Shikai, a general and political figure who played a role in events leading to the abdication of the last Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor.

Unlike other traditional woodcut New Year prints that were usually large, each Xiaojiaochang print is smaller.

"That's because urban people lived in crowded apartments and had to share toilets and kitchens with neighbors. They preferred smaller paintings that were easier to be hung at home," says researcher Zhang.

Despite the vibrancy of the works and contemporary topics, there are scarcely any records or documents about them.

"It seems this woodblock print suddenly disappeared overnight," Zhang say, adding that many professional woodcut collectors are unfamiliar with the old New Year's works. Some collectors claim to have one or two pieces, but few are genuine.

"Many of them were machine-made after 1911, not handmade," says Zhang.

The Xiaojiaochang New Year's prints can be traced back to the Taohuawu New Year's prints from Suzhou, but the Taohuawu prints are still being made today.

Suzhou artists sought refuge in Shanghai from civil conflicts from 1850-1860. They settled in Xiaojiaochang area and developed their craft in the city.

One reason the printing died out is the speed of Shanghai's modernization. "At the time Xiaojiaochang prints reached their high point, the city was about to embrace machine printing," Zhang says.

Machine printing was so much more efficient and colorful that the handmade woodblock printing was abandoned. Machines could turn out more than 900 prints an hour; there was no contest.

Woodblock printing was laborious and artists had to be patient and meticulous. Each color needed a wood block that had to be carved separately; 10 colors meant 10 blocks. Then the separately colored parts had to fit together, one on top of another.

"The end of woodcut prints is the inevitable trend of city development," says researcher and editor Zhang. "We're trying to piece together and complete the history."

Xiaojiaochang New Year's pictues exhibition

Date: through April 30 (closed on Mondays), 9am-4pm

Venue: Baoshan Folk Art Museum (inside Gucun Park), 4788 Hutai Rd

Admission: 20 yuan

How to get there: Metro Line 7 Gucun Park Station


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