Back in March I made quick trips to the Chinese woodblock printing centres of Zhuxian (Henan), Wuqiang (Hebei) and Foshan (Guangdong), partly to get some idea of the current state of this folk art. Of course I took the opportunity to stock up on prints too…
Asking at a shop outside the Wuqiang Woodblock Printing Museum if they had any old designs, was amazed when they pulled this one out of the cupboard. The print itself is not that old – 1990s – but it’s made from an early twentieth-century block, and even these reprints are rare.
China went through many social and economic upheavals through the nineteenth century, not least in the struggle between conservative and progressive factions at court over modernising the country. The progressives finally won, and this print shows many of the new wonders introduced from overseas: telegraphs, trams, bicycles, rickshaws, aeroplanes, heavy industry, foreign-influenced architecture and Western-style clothing. Several other prints cataloguing these marvels – including women drilling in the military – were made at Wuqiang.
Though the title sets the scene in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in southwestern China, it’s actually a picture of Tianjin, just outside Beijing – the French-style black rooftop left of centre is based on Tianjin’s fire-station watchtower, and the city’s bell-tower is down on the right. Tianjin’s tram system began life in 1906, and the aeroplanes are about that vintage too, so would date this scene to around 1910.
Tianjin’s own woodblock printing centre, Yangliuqing, produced an earlier print of an almost identical cityscape but without all the modern innovations. There were several Yangliuqing branch studios at Wuqiang, which explains the cross-fertilisation of the designs. But why this is titled “Sichuan” – a province on the other side of China with none of these modern innovations – is a mystery.
A large print, nearly a metre across. A catalogue says that it was printed at 乔疃村庆顺成画店, the Qingshuncheng print shop at Qiaotuan village (just southwest of Wuqiang).