Latest News:  

English>>Life & Culture

Ultimate master of Mianzhu woodblock prints (3)

By Li Yuan (China Today)

11:14, July 26, 2013

   Life and Times of a Woodblock Painting Master

Li's early years as apprentice woodblock printer were no picnic. Having lost both his parents, he took up the craft in a last-ditch attempt to earn a living and survive. As time passed he saw the wisdom of his mentor's belief that every trade and profession produces its own masters, and put all his energy into perfecting his craft.

"Back then, apprentices had to join the Mianzhu Woodblock Printers Guild in a ceremony involving two tables symbolizing the mentoring relationship," Li recalled.

Guild rules were strict. They forbade any shortcuts in the production process or the selling of fake prints. There was no interaction between the western and southern schools as each had its distinct style. Trade fair dates and procedures were fixed, the first day of the 10th lunar month being reserved for laying out samples for customers to consider, and the setting up of the stall to sell New Year prints strictly scheduled for the first day of the 12th lunar month.

The market flourished at that time. Held in a school on Nanhuagong Street, the hundreds of booths that comprised the trade fair stayed open through to the small hours. There was another, smaller fair on the road to Qingdao Township.

During the 1940s, Mianzhu woodblock prints were sold in southwest and northwest China, and also in Japan, India and Southeast Asian countries.

Li has devoted his whole life to woodblock prints and in that time witnessed China's social transformations. He can recall how, long ago, every family would plant vegetables and crops and create their own New Year paintings at Spring Festival. The cultural environment in Mianzhu was perfect for producing woodblock prints. But urbanization over the past three decades has changed life styles. When people moved out of their courtyard dwellings into residential buildings, the tradition of adorning homes with New Year prints gradually faded. They are no longer a Spring Festival staple, but rather a sought after and widely collected genre of art.

"When folk art departs from people's life, it exists only as cultural heritage," Li said.

Since the 1990s, Mianzhu woodblock prints have experienced a remarkable revival. Li's studio still receives countless visitors, researchers, and investigation groups from around the world.

Well-known Chinese writer and folk art researcher Feng Jicai first visited Li's studio in 2004. He later wrote a book on Chinese woodblock prints that included conversations with Li and the two other Mianzhu woodblock print experts, Chen Xingcai and Chen Xuezhang. After the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake struck, Feng returned to Mianzhu to see if Li and his studio had survived the disaster.

Li's biggest worry after the quake was whether or not the painting materials stored in his old house, comprising three decades' worth of the costly powder to make Mao dirt, precious pigments in specific colors, and most of all the hundreds of pearwood engraved woodblocks that were his life's work, had withstood the disaster.

Decades of persistence and dedication to Mianzhu woodblock prints have enriched Li's artistic experience. When he met with artists of the Taohuawu School who came to help rebuild Mianzhu after the earthquake, Li shared with them his technique of protecting engraved woodblocks with foaming mold rather than a bristle brush.

Li has always sought better ways of telling traditional stories in his paintings. One piece entitled Wang Xiang on Ice, celebrating the virtue of filial piety, tells of the boy Wang Xiang who used the warmth of his body to melt ice on the river to catch fish for his parents to eat. He realistically portrays Wang doubled up and shivering in agony rather than just laying passively on the ice as generally depicted.

Li believes that drawing with compassion according to keen observations of life and reflections on human deeds is the only way to create great artistic works. His portrait of a noble lady riding a bicycle originates in the women he sees on the street every day. "The people I see are my sources of inspiration," Li said.

Li, his son and daughter compiled a colored edition of the classic Twenty-four Stories of Filial Piety. His intention was to educate children in Chinese traditional moral values. "Material gain was not the sole aim, because artists and craftspeople also have social responsibilities," Li said.

As young people today leave Mianzhu to experience contemporary lifestyle in big cities, there are few potential inheritors of Mianzhu woodblock prints. None of the dozens of apprentices Li has taken on in recent years has stayed the course.

"Painting is about building inner strength," Li said. "Young people these days are generally too restless and superficial to devote themselves heart and soul to it."

So far, only Li's son and grandson have learned the essence of his painting techniques. Li presides over all kinds of activities and lectures related to Mianzhu woodblock prints. As he said, "I've been painting for more than 70 years, and as long as I can still lift my paint brush I'll carry on." His main hope is to create more works for future generations.

"Painting, like society, requires balance and harmony," Li said when talking about the garments the Door god wears in one of his works. "The robe is mainly scarlet, but has glints of light green to balance the tone, and of gold, silver, black and white to brighten the whole picture. A harmonious social life is similarly achieved by the efforts of all the people it comprises."

【1】 【2】 【3】

We recommend:

Graduation season never comes back

Ways to spend happy summer vacation

The story behind models at auto show

Best scenery photos of week

Realizing Chinese Dreams through porcelain

Bashang Grassland in summer

Highlights of global stewardesses' uniform

Yu Weiwei crowned Miss World China 2013

Chinese model crowned at 8th Asian Super Contest

Email|Print|Comments(Editor:YeXin、Chen Lidan)

Leave your comment0 comments

  1. Name


Selections for you

  1. USS Independence LCS2

  2. Bombers in real-combat drill

  3. Two-head baby born in India

  4. I have a secret: 2013 growing season

  5. The sand painting dream of a girl

  6. Dog survives after 30 hours buried in debris

  7. love never graduates, bread will come

  8. Picturesque scenery of Saihanba

  9. Apple’s Q3 China revenue dives

  10. The richest Chinese families in 2013

Most Popular


  1. Debate on internationalizing education
  2. Bo Xilai indicted for corruption
  3. China rules out provisional economic stimulus plan
  4. Removal of deposit rate ceiling not imminent
  5. Feeble Japanese-Philippine 'axis' doomed
  6. Is high cost of studying abroad worthwhile?
  7. Central bank has limited role in real economy
  8. Ways to help labor working better
  9. Feeding Kenya through organic farming
  10. Filmmaker: Chinese like good movies set anywhere

What’s happening in China

Migrant children’s dream of stage

  1. Droughts affect 1.15 mln central Chinese
  2. Amway point finger at dealer of woman's death
  3. Offering bus seats optional: survey
  4. Narcotic plants seized in Shanghai
  5. University poison case sent to procuratorate