Cicadas, paper horses, and Chinese gods

David Leffman Uncategorized 2 Comments

Here’s some background to my first ebook, “Paper Horses: Woodblock Prints of Chinese Gods from 1930s Beijing”, which you can find via Amazon or Apple Books.

In 2020 I bought an album containing seventy-nine “paper horses” (紙馬) – simple woodblock prints of Chinese folk deities – from a dealer in the United States. Each print was numbered with a sticker from one to eighty (#14 was missing), and mounted on card without any explanatory text. They had been in storage for years and the dealer knew nothing more about them.

Intriguingly, it turned out that there was a duplicate set – numbered stickers and all – at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. This had come from Lewis Calvin Walmsley (1897–1998), a Canadian missionary and teacher who, along with his wife Constance, had worked in China from 1921 until 1949. A few of the designs varied, but the ROM set covered exactly the same gods as mine, and in the same sequence (#14 was of the Moon Goddess).

As there are several thousand Chinese gods to choose from – including wealth and weather gods, fox spirits, deified warriors, bodhisattvas, patrons of wine and carpentry, and even goddesses of smallpox and toilets ­– the chances of two identical sets not being connected in some way seems slim, so it’s likely that mine has also come down from Walmsley.

“Armoured Horse” – modern print from Shangguan, Yunnan

“Paper horse” is a good name for something meant to carry your prayer to heaven with all speed (though, because of similar-sounding words, some people call them “armoured horses”, 甲馬). The prints were burned in religious ceremonies, or put up where needed – above a sickbed, on the front door, or at a family shrine.

Until the late 1930s they were made and sold on a colossal scale all over China, though each region had its own distinctive artistic style. The Walmsley prints echo an even larger collection put together by Anne Goodrich, another missionary in China at the same time – indeed, about a dozen prints are identical. Goodrich (whose collection is held by the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University, New York) wrote about visiting the Renhe Paper Store in Beijing in 1931 and buying one of everything they had in stock, 231 prints in all.

Given their similarities, it’s reasonable to assume that the prints collected by Walmsley and Goodrich came from the same source. Because comparable prints from all three collections show about the same amount of wear (woodblocks eventually crack and disintegrate from heavy use), it’s likely that they date from the same time too.

I first became interested in woodblock prints around 1981, during my last year at school. There was an exhibition of Japanese prints at the local museum, and I needed a subject for an art history assignment. One by Utamaro from his “Book of Insects” really stood out, partly because it featured two of my favourite creatures (a cicada and a spider), but also because of the detailed realism of the corn-cob “hair”, and the way the bites of corn and the spider’s web had been embossed to add depth. Along with the subtle colouring, which looked as if it has been brushed on instead of printed, I just couldn’t believe the amount of work or technical skill involved (although I soon did, after trying to copy it).

Evening cicada and spider by Utamaro, from “A Book of Insects”

By luck it turned out that the exhibition’s curator, Peter Hardie, lived just a few doors along from me and was happy to answer endless questions on Japanese art, something I knew nothing about. (Peter’s main expertise was in oriental ceramics; he was one of the first foreign experts called in to examine China’s terracotta warriors when they were discovered in the 1970s, and later helped me plan my first trip to China.)

I was completely hooked. There was something deeply satisfying about not only drawing a design but also carving the blocks for printing it – although the razor-sharp chisels played havoc with my fingers. This soon led to a wider interest in what used to be called “the Orient” , and just four years later I wound up in China.

Even so, it was the late 1990s before I took much notice of Chinese woodblock prints. I hadn’t been impressed with them; compared with the Japanese model they are rough, crude and garish (more on this in a later post). But, coming across a pile of prints at a New Year street marked in Guangzhou, it finally got through to me that they were also, well, folksy, bright and cheerful, and I bought some: a pair of gate guardians on bright orange paper, and a picture of the demon-queller Zhong Kui and his bat.

Zhong Kui, the ghost-catcher, and his bat. Print from Foshan, Guangdong

Since then I’ve visited studios in Henan, Hebei, Guangxi, Guangdong and Yunnan provinces, interviewing anybody who would talk to me about traditional Chinese woodblock printing. The industry has been dying out since the 1930s, after the introduction of cheaper lithography coincided with a pogrom against the traditional gods featured on many of the prints. It’s incredible that any studios have survived at all, though many older artists have struggled to find successors – when Feng Bingtang of Foshan died in 2019 at the age of 84, last of a century-old woodblock printing family, he left behind just one disciple.

Aside from seeing plenty of statues in temples, I hadn’t taken that much notice of Chinese deities before meeting the late Keith Stevens, author of Chinese Mythological Gods and Chinese Gods. His collection of a thousand or more wooden sculptures, picked up over several decades of travel in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and mainland China, introduced me to the complex world of Chinese folk belief.

Stevens’ work has been continued by Ronni Pinsler, another of my mentors, who has added his own considerable knowledge and published an encyclopaedic database of Chinese gods, demons and spirits online at www.bookofxianshen.com.

Comments 2

  1. Never saw this coming. It’s a great subject to immerse oneself in, especially as examples are still extant, and it’s complexity can hardly ever be exhausted. Are Buddhist and Taoist and Confucian deities all mixed in together? Guess I’ll go read your book to find out. Congrats.

  2. It is a topic I know nothing about, but I intend to read up on.Hearing how you got interested in the subject fascinates me. It is strange how a chance encounter can spark an interest, and then years later you return to it with a passion.

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