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Reviewed by:
  • The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China
  • Craig Clunas (bio)
James A. Flath . The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China. Contemporary Chinese Studies Series. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2004. xii, 195 pp. Hardcover Can. $80.00, ISBN 0-7748-1034-3. Paperback Can. $29.95, ISBN 0-7748-1035-1.

This engagingly written and rigorously argued book on the nianhua, literally "New Year pictures," produced in Shandong, Hebei, and Henan Provinces from about 1880 to 1950, is a welcome and important contribution to the study of China's visual culture. With chapters on "The Production of Print Culture in North China," "Home and Domesticity," "State and Society," "Retelling History through the Narrative Print," "Rural Print and the Cosmopolitan Mystique," "The Politics of the Popular," and "Exorcising Modernity," plus an excellent Introduction, which situates the project methodologically in terms of recent debates on "popular culture," it is a comprehensive and incisive look at this material, images that on grounds of the quantity produced and the audience reached would alone qualify them for a claim on the attention of all scholars of the period.

The author's principal disciplinary identification is as a historian, and it is as historical texts that he engages with the seventy-four nianhua reproduced here (forty-three of them in good-quality color). However, his diligence in searching them out in collections in China and Europe, and the scrupulous attention paid to them also as material objects in their own right, with histories of production, [End Page 97] distribution, and consumption practices all given their due weight, is moreover a model of practice to art historians interested in addressing this material. An example would be the discussion of the ways in which the mechanization of the production of nianhua after about 1909 (when lithography began to replace xylo-graphy, or woodblock printing) had a major impact on the social context of production by putting thousands of woodblock printers out of work, but also on the visual culture, more broadly, by promoting a narrower and less diverse visual culture that stuck more rigidly to a set series of themes. The implications of this for an evolving Chinese visual culture as it encountered the shocks of war and then a highly politicized reordering in the middle decades of the twentieth century are profound and will take some working out in further studies.

If there are points on which I would wish to suggest modifications of Flath's theses, it is often to stress the longer continuities of some of the visual practices he describes so well. Part of the problem in researching nianhua prior to the late Qing, when this book takes up the story, is that practically nothing survives— these were ephemeral objects that were never subject to the kinds of elite connoisseurship and collecting practices that might have ensured their survival, even if we know from written sources of the Ming and Qing that elites participated in their display and use. But the iconography of the nianhua does survive in other, more durable forms. Thus, for example, the figure of Dou Yujun, an ancient paragon whose five sons all achieved the heights of the jinshi degree, appears in the decoration of porcelain as early as about 1500, while "official and semi-official publications dealing with the subject of moral and customary standards," texts which were often also illustrated with pictures of right and wrong conduct, similarly go back some way before the early Qing period.

One of the most widely-discussed sections of the book may well be chapter 5, with its valuable contribution to the vexed question of "modernity" in late Qing Republican history. It directs our attention away from such phenomena as urbanization and the culture of centers such as Shanghai, stereotypically seen as the beating heart of modernity in the period, and directs it firmly back to the inland and the rural. New periodicals of the late nineteenth century, such as the lithographically illustrated Dianshizhai huabao, have been the object of considerable recent study as carriers of an imagery and an imaginary of modernity to new urban audiences...


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