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  • A New Earthly Paradise: Appropriation and Politics in Li Keran’s Representation of Beihai Park
  • Yan Geng (bio)

In November 1949, immediately after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Shen Yanbing 沈雁冰, the minister of culture of the Central Government, published “Instructions for Launching the Work of the New Year Picture from the Cultural Ministry of the Central Government,” launching the New Nianhua 年画 (New Year Picture) Movement.1 Nianhua are a form of traditional folk art produced for the Chinese New Year and often feature popular deities, auspicious motifs, and vernacular literature as subjects (Fig. 1).2 During wartime, Communist artists adopted nianhua in the production of propaganda to mobilize and win the support of the peasants (Fig. 2).3 Pointing to these early Communist works as a model, Shen Yanbing in his directive defined the new nianhua as one of the most important cultural and educational affairs in the year and prescribed a series of subjects to be represented, including the Communist victory in the war, the founding of the PRC, the Common Program from the first Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the further liberation of the country, and the development of agriculture and industry.4

Promoting the production of politically themed art, the new nianhua addressed both the illiterate populace and an educated audience, motivating artists and intellectuals to engage in the making of ideological propaganda. To propel the New Nianhua Movement, in 1950 the People’s Daily published a second directive from the Cultural Ministry, which launched nationwide competitions that took place in 1950 and 1952.5 As Ellen Johnston Laing describes, “In art, for several years immediately after the founding of the new nation, much government support was given to New Year’s prints, because they were a people’s art, because they reached the largest percentage of the population, and because through them the new ideology and socialist goals could be quickly conveyed to the population at large.”6

Celebrated as people’s art in the early PRC, the new nianhua aimed not only at persuading the public to accept socialist ideology but also revolutionizing artistic practices in China. With the development of modern printing techniques, the new nianhua was no longer limited to the traditional scope of the single- or multiple-sheet sets of woodcut prints. “Creators of most revolutionary nianhua,” Julia F. Andrews writes, “painted with crisp black outlines and relatively flat, bright color. Water-based pigments, either Western-style gouaches and poster paints or traditional Chinese colors, were applied to stiff Western-style paper; the designs were then mechanically reproduced.”7 This change in production mode allowed artists from diverse backgrounds to design pictures for the New Year celebration in Communist China. With their works, they transformed nianhua into a type of visual art that amalgamated a variety of pictorial languages, including traditional folk pictures, Western pictorial conventions, and Soviet realism.8

The varied pictorial styles incorporated in the making of new nianhua raised a key issue that was much debated at the time: what should be defined as the proper form for the new revolutionary art? The 1949 directive emphasized the importance of fully utilizing folk styles, but at the same time it stated, “As to those places where popular ‘door god’ pictures, yuefenpai pictures, etc., are popular, new nianhua should use them, revise these styles, and make them a tool for popularizing new art.”9 Both “door god” pictures, typical of the traditional nianhua produced for rural China, and yuefenpai 月份牌 (poster calendar) pictures popular in the urban metropolitan area became targets of revolution, as they were linked to feudal and bourgeois art, respectively.10 Although the Communist authorities did not provide a definite answer as how to go about it, the focal point of the New Nianhua Movement was not to copy the old form but to “revise” it and make nianhua “a vehicle for cultural reform.”11

An often-cited example that represented the successful transformation of traditional nianhua was Lin Gang’s 林岗 Zhao Guilan at the Heroes’ Reception (Fig. 3).12 It combined a new political subject with a nonconventional Chinese form and was awarded a first prize in the 1952 national competition.13...


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pp. 75-92
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