During the 1930s and 1940s in the strife-torn nation of China, a renaissance in woodblock printing occurred. Modern western images were introduced, imitated, digested or rejected. Local traditions of printmaking were revived, joining with or replacing new European ideas. The resulting works combined foreign and native influences in a coherent, original way. These two decades of political and cultural change saw a dramatic flowering of the art of the woodcut.
The world's oldest surviving print is a woodblock Buddhist text, a Diamond Sutra of 868 AD, made in China during the Tang dynasty. More than a thousand years of cutting woodblocks culminated in brilliant achievements in Ming and early Qing times, from about 1300 to 1750 AD. Such works were produced by craftspeople working from artists' drawings.
By the early twentieth century, Western photomechanical processes of reproduction, mainly lithographic, had all but replaced the old ways of printing text and illustrations. Traditional methods were used primarily for printing nian hua (New Year pictures), brightly coloured religious charms and decorations for windows and doors.
The new woodcut in China
With the collapse of the Manchu Qing regime in 1911 and the establishment of the Republic (especially after the May 4th Movement of 1919), old ways of representation no longer seemed adequate to the new, radical thinkers and artists. Mystic landscapes and the literary techniques of the Confucian scholastic tradition could not meet the demands of the changing times.
Lu Xun (1881–1936), the great modern realist writer of fiction and essays, was one of those who saw the need for a way of communicating with China's largely illiterate population. Art and society were intertwined, and artists shared responsibility for creating better conditions for the people.
Prints seemed ideal for the purpose: paper and ink were available everywhere, they were cheap, and many copies of a single image could be produced. But etching and lithography required cumbersome presses which were far too expensive, hard to get, and difficult to transport or hide — major drawbacks at a time when those found with printing equipment risked imprisonment or execution.
After the fall of empire, a Chinese republic was established in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party, the Guomindang (GMD). Its precarious stability depended on the inability of unfriendly warlords and bandits to unite. An uneasy alliance with the fledgling Communist Party (CCP) in the 1920s ended when right-wing Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek staged a coup in 1927. Civil war ensued and lasted until the Communist victory in 1949, although this was interrupted by a United Front against the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.
From 1927 onwards the White Terror saw the persecution and repression of opponents of the GMD. When a young writer was murdered in Shanghai, Lu Xun mourned his friend's death by publishing a Käthe Kollwitz woodcut, The sacrifice. The emotional power and political allegiances of European expressionist artists evoked a sympathetic chord in progressive circles in China.
Black-and-white woodcuts such as this presented dramatic contrasts of tone. Their intensity of expression was seen as appropriate to local conditions, especially in the fight against political and economic oppression. Li Hua's image of a blind beggar, The livelihood of the distressed, concentrates a spotlight of white onto the outlined figure. Flowing lines on the man's sinewy limbs echo the circle of his crouched posture. The pictures by Kollwitz of German victims of poverty and war became a major source for prints like Li's.
In prison, a series based on Wang Shuyi's own experience, draws heavily on European prints. The works have intense black shadows, sharp white areas and few middle tones. Chen Yanqiao uses an off-centre focus, massed dark tones and incised white lines to picture bound men in Forced conscription.
For Lu Xun, one crucial difference between the stilted native tradition and Western and Soviet printmaking was the role of the artist as producer. The scholar-gentleman in China could never dirty his hands - it was the professional artisans who traced, carved and printed his works. It seemed to fit with new egalitarian ways that the artist drew, cut and printed his or her own art. This kind of involvement in the process also promoted immediacy, an element seldom present before.
Receiving jade for bricks
In the early 1930s a Chinese student in the Soviet Union was asked to buy graphic works to send back to Lu Xun. They were expensive, but the illustrator Nikolai Piskarev offered them as a gift, and asked for any available Chinese xuan paper. Selections of Russian prints were sent to China, and the very cheap paper given in exchange. Such an unequal bargain, in Chinese terms, was like getting jade for bricks.
It was a conscious decision on Lu Xun's part to introduce foreign prints to influence young Chinese artists. In 1929-30 his Morning Flower Society published five volumes in the series The Garden of Art, which included three books of 'selected modern wood engravings' from Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan. He encouraged the use of European prints to illustrate stories and essays, as well as translations of foreign literature: for example, woodcuts by Carl Meffert, a German expressionist, accompanied Gladkov's Russian novel Cement, published in 1931.
In October 1930 Lu Xun held an exhibition of seventy woodcuts and etchings from his own collection. The peasants' revolt by Kollwitz was hung with other German, Russian and French works. Lu arranged a week-long course in woodblock printing which was taught by a Japanese visitor, Uchiyama Kakichi. Those attending were members of the League of Leftwing Artists and the Eighteen Society, groups of students and artists interested in modern art and progressive ideas.
Two more shows were held in the next three years, introducing to Chinese audiences artworks by Meffert, Belgian expressionist Frans Masereel, Soviet artists Vladimir Favorsky and Piskarev, and American illustrator Rockwell Kent. Young students embraced this new vision and began to imitate the foreign artists. Ma Da's portrait of Mister Lu Xun shows a debt to Favorsky in design and execution.
Huang Xinbo's Solitude and Duty, conscience, with their dramatic use of dark masses and incised line, are influenced strongly by Russian book illustrators as well as Kent. Less static, due to strong diagonals and flat planes, Zhang Xiyai's A worker and his wife has absorbed design ideas from Masereel and Meffert. Such treatment of a 'proletarian' subject became rare during the 1940s.
Lu saw the process of imitation as inevitable, and not necessarily a bad thing: he saw it not as copying, but as studying the works 'to absorb the best in style and technique from foreign art'. Foreign influence should be combined with the Chinese legacy, he said, in order to 'establish a new national art in accordance with the demands and tastes of the masses'.
In the last years of his life, Lu Xun published more books: collections of historic Chinese woodcuts, Soviet graphic art, Sufferings of a man by Masereel, and Selected Prints by Käthe Kollwitz. A few days before his death in October 1936, he saw the phenomenally successful touring Second National Woodcut Exhibition in Shanghai. Lu was one of 80,000 visitors that week.
Many new societies of woodcut artists were formed in the 1930s, all acknowledging a debt to the revered writer. These organisations were hounded by Nationalist censors, often dissolved and their members arrested. Nonetheless they managed to exhibit at home and abroad, as well as to publish works by new Chinese artists.
The war against Japan 1937–1945
Part of the appeal of the new approach to woodcut was its patriotism. After the Japanese occupation of northern China which began in 1931, many people saw the capitulation and flight of the GMD as shameful, and Mao Zedong's declaration of a Chinese Soviet Republic as heroic. In stressing new themes of struggle and resistance, the woodcut artists were showing that China was not passively accepting its fate. When Japan invaded the rest of the country in 1937, the Communists and Nationalists declared an uneasy truce in their decade-long civil war.
One of the main weapons used in the anti-Japanese war was propaganda. It was needed to ensure the support of the people, essential when guerrilla tactics were so important. Showing the bombing, the refugees, and other suffering caused by the war was intended to stiffen opposition, while morale was kept up by honouring heroic soldiers and civilian resistance to the enemy.
Emergency evacuation from Guilin North Station by Cai Dizhi captures the confusion and dislocation imposed by Japanese bombing, the composition being divided horizontally into a milling crowd below a blank sky. Wang Liuqiu's Revenge the dead! relies more on the narrative tradition of Socialist Realism, with its tableau of figures frozen in theatrical gestures.
Instead of depicting violent or dramatic battle scenes, the war artist Li Hua shows the aftermath of fighting in a colour print, Helping the wounded. Qualities like comradeship and sacrifice are emphasised by the choice of subject matter, and the selection of light blues and ochres. Similarly in After the battle, Liang Yongtai concentrates on the survivors, rather than celebrating death.
Support from the villages and towns, especially by women, was a common theme, as in Zheng Yefu's Delivering padded coats. The struggle of the guerrillas was shown often, becoming a usual subject for the popular picture-story books. The narrative is purely visual, the idea perhaps adapted from Masereel's Story without words. Liu Xian engraved twenty-two scenes from the tale of the Five martyr-heroes of Langya Mountain.
Rat gives his daughter in marriage is an unusual two-part work, of a type generally found in press cartoons. It is a satire hidden in the fable of the rat marrying his daughter to a cat. The hapless daughter represents the collaborator Wang Jingwei, and the cat Japan. Normally the message was more direct.
Lessons learnt during periods of GMD repression proved useful under the Japanese. Woodcuts were invaluable because they could be produced quickly, printed by the artist alone, and required little equipment so that any evidence could be hidden easily. Blocks and tools were portable and cheap. Even when good paper, ink and wood became scarce, substitutes could be found — at one stage sabotaging the railways provided wood for blocks and steel for tools!
The Nationalist government, as well as the Communists, used woodcuts during the war. Thousands were made, and pasted on buildings, posts and trees in every town in China. They were published in newspapers, pamphlets and magazines. Any radical message was still forbidden by the harsh GMD censors, however, and so the medium retained some of its earlier underground status. War news was spread by means of prints, particularly in areas cut off from the cities.
The Liberated Zones 1935–1949
After the Long March from the south in 1934–1935, the Chinese Communist Party established Soviet or Liberated areas in the north-west, with headquarters at Yan'an. The CCP stressed the importance of art, culture and education. They were vital weapons in winning the people over to the socialist cause, and to this end the Lu Xun Academy was founded in 1938.
Profiting from the Bolshevik example, 'agit-prop' (agitation-propaganda) teams were trained in theatre and in the visual arts. Cartoons, posters, drawings, news-sheets and prints were all seen as suitable media for persuasion. Artists were to inform and educate as well as entertain. Art's didactic and social ends had been argued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and were reinforced by Mao Zedong at the Yan'an forums on literature and art in 1942.
New concepts of social and economic organisation were illustrated for explication and teaching. Yan Han showed the absorption of new settlers in the strip-poster Migrants establish their new homes. New laws for families and villages were controversial: Asking for a divorce is set in a regional office of the reformed village administration.
A major tenet of the Communist method was 'learn from the people' - the masses were not to be ignored or patronised. Incomprehensible modernist expression was not acceptable. For patriotic reasons, Chinese imagery was encouraged, so long as its feudal and Confucian-Buddhist-Daoist components were transformed or removed.
Respect for the masses led to a new interest in the folk tradition. In the north and north-west, women made scissor-cuts of red paper to paste on walls and paper windows for decoration. Subjects included figures, animals, flowers and myths. From 1940 students and teachers from the Lu Xun Academy used such sources to make new works that were intelligible to their audience. Gu Yuan and others made woodcuts in red or black which echo scissor-cuts in both technique and style.
The subjects, however, are based firmly on the various propaganda campaigns of the CCP in the Liberated Zones. The primary ones were literacy, hygiene and agricultural production, including new farming methods. Charming vignettes show scenes of small children Going to school (with red star on satchel), peasants Learning to read and write, and exhortations for both men and women to Learn a thousand characters!
Several of these works include writing as an integral part of the design. Historically, Chinese printing methods allowed a sympathetic combination of word and image. Indeed both could be carved on the same block of wood. Weng Yizhi incorporated an eight-word slogan into the decorative screen of his Follow the hygiene campaign, live as long as South Mountain. The appeal of the old man relies on Confucian veneration of age, although the deity is replaced by a smiling old farmer. Like many similar works, this was printed in red, the festive colour of China.
Weng adapted the presentation and cut-out technique of traditional celebratory prints, as did Jiang Feng in his lively, colourful Studying is good. The plump children augur prosperity and happiness. Such prints were often hand-coloured in yellow, red and blue watercolour.
Although sometimes static in design, with borders formed by stylised attributes of good fortune, at their best they combine intelligent artistry with vivid communication of the desired message.
Instead of the age-old distant figures from religion, history, literature or myth, the CCP wanted to install new characters to be admired. Party policy led to the honouring of the general categories of worker and peasant. To inspire identification, certain living individuals were selected as 'model workers'.
Decorated with red rosettes or badges, publicised throughout the region, celebrated with banquets, the cheerful heroic producers also appeared on woodblock prints and posters — for example, Gu Yuan's Wu Manyou. On a small poster he stands stiffly, smiling and urging increased production. Like Wo Zha's peasant wearing a red sash in Five grains, six animals, Wu Manyou is surrounded by symbols of plenty, the results of mixed farming (and hard work). Because the Liberated Zones had to support themselves, such ideals needed to be emulated.
A meeting of heroes by Shi Lu equates the military and political leadership of Mao with the achievements of the worker-heroes. They are set apart by their rosettes, but like all Chinese in the new order, no-one is above or below anyone else.
The ordinary farmer or labourer is pictured also, representing a type as well as that particular person. Old man by Wang Renfeng and Li Qun's A worker attempt a new kind of portraiture in Chinese art, through images which deny the formal pomposity of the property-owning class. Wang's respect for the old man's experience is clear, although the work lacks the direct communication of Li's ordinary man. Huang Yongyou presents his Gleaners in a bold, stylised manner which shows two women stooping to work in the fields.
Work is a recurring theme, the dignity of labour being asserted for perhaps the first time in Chinese art. Physical labour on the Banks of the Jialing River, home factory work in Making winter clothes, the rural world of the boy goatherd, the harvest, ploughing - these are the subjects which show, often with pride and affection, the continuing world of most ordinary people. Another innovation was the depiction of the national minorities, particularly the customs and dress of the exotic Miao people.
Oppression and Struggle
Oppression and struggle
The evils of the old feudal empire and the GMD capitalist regime were revealed for criticism. Wang Qi's harrowing, understated Human market, the poverty of Zhang Yangxi's streetsingers, a landlord carried on a litter: each makes an emotional impact perhaps more powerful to Western audiences because of the absence of moralising. Famine, a picture-story book produced in Yan'an, shows the fate of peasants tied into an unjust system of taxation, GMD banditry, landlordism and natural disaster.
Poverty and resistance, always part of Chinese history, are present in an unsigned woodcut of great skill and sophistication. Woman with baby, child with toy gun is an image of struggle on the home front, which also brings to mind the absent husband/father. The economy of means belongs to the medium, while the artist has drawn on the modernist tradition, socialist realism and Chinese conventions of story-telling.