Blessings and Happiness:
Hidden Meanings in Chinese Folk Art
Exhibition on view: January 17 - March 29, 1998
Chinese folk art reflects the long history of
popular customs and traditions in Chinese culture. Deeply rooted in
agriculture, peoples daily life and rituals are inevitably
connected with nature, the surrounding landscape, and the various
captivating tales told from one generation to another about the origin
of the world, mankind, and mythological beings that once roamed the
earth. The handicrafts and objects created by the common folks for
everyday use are thus a combination of practicality and local customs,
traditions and beliefs.
Being a vast and diverse country with over fifty minorities groups,
China is homeland to a myriad different types of folk handicrafts.
Chinese folk art can be broadly divided into costumes and embroidery,
papercuts, New Year woodcut prints, toys, wood carvings, pottery,
paper-mache and dough figurines, masks, batik and fabric dyeing,
weaving, architectural ornaments, shadow puppets, lacquer, and
jewelry. In this exhibition at the Chinese
Culture Center, we have assembled many of these objects in
Chinese New Year1998 being the Year of the Tiger.
Because family continuity and prosperity are of utmost importance
in traditional Chinese society, parents would provide great care to their
children to ensure they would grow into adulthood. However, they
usually attributed the death of children to evil powers rather than to
poor hygiene, lack of medical attention or malnutrition. As a result,
parents would adorn their childrens costumes and toys with
auspicious designs to symbolize the presence of other supernatural
powers to deter evil spirits. For example, according to popular belief,
childrens clothing and footwear in the shape of animals could be
used to frighten off malicious spirits or fool them into thinking that
the child was only an animal and not a human being, therefore, not
worth harming or snatching away.
There are several types of patterns and images that appear frequently
on childrens clothing, adornments, and decorative objects. Of these
images, the most common are: the
tiger which is believed to be the king of the forest
and fierce enough to frighten off malicious spirits; the
whose loud crow every morning scares away evil ghosts; the
which symbolizes abundance and also fools the evil into thinking that
the child is only an unworthy pig; the fish
which is a homonym of the Chinese word for surplus; the bat,
which is a homonym for good fortune; the deer which
signifies wealth as the word is a homonym of the Chinese word for the
salary of a Chinese official; the five poisons (scorpion,
lizard, centipede, snake, and toad) which have the effect of neutralizing
evil; the lotus and pomegranate which
symbolize fertility (because of their many seeds); and the
peach which represents longevity.
Other kinds of auspicious imagery are found on woodblock prints.
These prints, also called nian hua, are pasted onto doors,
walls, and furniture of homes, business establishments, and temples in
Chinese villages and towns. The iconography reflects traditional
Chinese folk and popular cultures. The images are of gods and deities,
heroes and sages, to whom the Chinese prayed and worshipped in return
for protection and blessing. In ancient China, people believed that
numerous gods inhabited the Three Realms (heaven, earth, and the
underworld) and ruled over human affairs and destiny. To fulfill their
hopes for a bountiful harvest, healthy male heir, official promotion,
and other auspicious wishes, people sought the blessing of these
deities by representing them graphically in a medium that
has become a unique folk art tradition known as "paper gods"
With the development and proliferation of printing, the Chinese were
able to mass produce woodblock prints since the late Ming dynasty
(mid-sixteenth century) to satisfy the high demands.
The most popular characters appearing on prints are the door gods
Qin Qiong and
Yuchi Gong, the demon catcher Zhong Kui, the
Three Star Gods of Happiness,
Wealth and Longevity, the God of Wealth,
and Guanyinthe Goddess of Mercy.
Playful, plump children are also favorite during New Year times to
symbolize the wish for many sons to come or a blessing for
good fortune. It is during Chinese New Year that people hope for a
plentiful and prosperous year to come.
This exhibition has been funded in part by Grants for the Arts of
the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, the California Arts Council, and
the Chinese Culture Foundation. The Chinese Culture Center is located
across the bridge on Portsmouth Square in Chinatown at 750 Kearny Street,
Holiday Inn 3rd floor, San Francisco, CA 94108,
tel: (415) 986-1822. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Sunday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m
Admission to the gallery is free.