- The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China
Nianhua, 'New Year Picture' prints usually in bright colours, are or were, put up in virtually every Chinese peasant's house at the time of the [End Page 345] traditional lunar New Year. They commonly show various deities, such as 'The Jade Emperor' or the 'Stove God,' historical figures often taken directly from popular theatre, and assorted symbols of prosperity and good fortune for the coming year, prominently including male children and lots of money.
The Chinese Communist party favoured this 'art of the people' while trying to purge it of 'feudal superstition' and give it correct political content, i.e., pictures of model workers replacing the Stove God, tractors replacing 'the Spring Ox.' But this book is not mainly about Chinese communism, as its chronological scope is from the 1880s to 1950. In some ways the availability of visual materials dictates this time frame. Although produced in prodigious numbers, few examples of this ephemeral art (calendar art) survive from much more than a hundred years ago, and after 1949 the Communist government erased most of the authentic folk culture from these prints by taking over total control of their production, distribution, and content.
There can be no doubt that this short book, densely packed with new information and well illustrated in colour as well as black and white, is an original contribution to the well-worked field of Late Imperial-Republican era Chinese history. James A. Flath brings to the history new material and a seriously interdisciplinary approach, one which draws on anthropology, folklore studies, and politics, as well as combining history with art history.
In a sense, this is regional history, for he concentrates on the North China low plain (Shandong, Hebei, Henan), but it shows how national events, from the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) to the Communist Revolution, impinged on rural culture and rural consciousness. The prints themselves, notably those from the most famous centres of Yangliuqing and Yangjiabu, had a geographic distribution which, if not quite nationwide, went far beyond the Lower Yellow River valley.
Although roughly chronological, the book moves through six topically organized chapters: 'The Production of Print Culture,' 'Home and Domesticity' (how peasants actually used the prints as an integral part of family life and ritual), 'State and Society,' 'Retelling History,' 'Rural Print and Cosmopolitan Mystique' (urban images of modernity penetrating rural China and peasant consciousness), and a final chapter, 'The Politics of the Popular' attempts by reformers and revolutionaries to instil modern, nationalistic values in rural society.
It is expected that reviewers for specialized disciplinary or scholarly journals will at this point say how and why this is 'a contribution to the field.' UTQ readers will be more interested in knowing if there is anything here for the non-specialist.
There is, but. … the illustrations. Forty-eight colour plates is lavish for an academic title. A pity the book's conventional size only allows for 4½ × 2¼" illustrations so that for detailed prints (and Chinese folk art abhors a [End Page 346] vacuum), sharp eyesight or a magnifying glass is essential. The text. In some deft passages Flath illuminates his textual research with first-hand observations in the North China countryside, but many more pages are devoted to situating that research in the 'China field's' discourses about modernity and tradition. The Politics. There is a succinct, well-crafted account of Communist manipulation of this traditional popular art from the late 1930s to 1950, but this is just the tail end of the book.
Of course, the relative scarcity of revolutionary politics is only a defect if the reader were expecting this to be a book about the Chinese revolution. The author cannot be faulted for writing on another, equally valid subject. But choosing for the dust jacket the very last illustration from the book, 'Looking at the Tractor,' by Li Qi , dated 1950, is somewhat misleading. It is a book more about 'Stove Gods' than tractors...