It’s unusual to be able to date old Chinese woodblock prints – the same designs were often used for decades, and the cheap paper that they’re printed on ages badly (I’ve got a sun-bleached stove god print with a calendar for 1989, which looks at least a century older). However, I do know that the three prints below all date to the late 1920s, thanks to the Reverend Henry Galloway Comingo Hallock, whose Chinese name was He Xianli (赫显理).
Born on 31 March 1870 at Holidays Cove, West Virginia, he was educated at Princeton Theological Seminary (where he was known as “Happy Hallock”), and in 1896 joined the American Presbyterian Mission at Shanghai. Hallock was to remain in China for over fifty years, installed briefly as a professor and Dean of Theology at Shanghai’s prestigious St John’s University, pioneering Sunday Schools for underprivileged children, serving as pastor of the red-brick Endeavourer’s Church for Eurasians on the corner of Range and Chapoo roads, and publishing all manner of religious works in Chinese – including some 1,812,000 copies of his annual Hallock’s Chinese Almanac.
But none of this singled Hallock out from the hundreds of other Christian missionaries in China at the time, and he would have been forgotten if, in 1905, he hadn’t resigned from his mission. With no church body funding his causes anymore, he looked around for other ways to raise money and became a prolific writer of what today would be condemned as spam mail – enough to get him banned from any social media platform.
Hallock would buy woodblock prints of Chinese deities at the markets in Shanghai, write letters describing their folklore, and then send them to potential donors in the US. The letters always ended with an appeal for funds, claiming these prints were proof that the Chinese worshiped heathen gods and needed converting to Christianity. Hallock did this for decades, and many of the prints and letters survive, creased from being folded to fit inside the distinctively narrow envelopes that he used.
In May 1927 Hallock sent prints of the Daoist patriarch Zhang Daoling riding a plague-displelling tiger to at least four different people in the US, including two of his Princeton contemporaries. These prints were made for duanwu, the fifth of the fifth lunar month and notorious for being the hottest and unhealthiest time of the year, and served as folk remedies against “the five poisons” – the centipede, snake, spider, toad and lizard. The text names Shangqing temple at Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi province, centre of Zhang Daoling’s Tianshi sect; the prints probably weren’t actually made there, just issued under the temple’s seal.
The accompanying letter outlines the complicated relationship that the Chinese have with tigers: in the real world they are a danger to human life, but their strength and ferocity can be harnessed symbolically. Infants traditionally wore tiger hats to protect them from danger and illness, and Hallock wrote that “as one goes along the roads he sees paper tigers pasted over the door, that the evil spirits, seeing the tiger, will flee away to a tigerless house.”
The second print has a well-used design of a central figure surrounded by children and served for many deities, from various wealth gods to the “Five Blessings” (Good Fortune, Government Position, Wealth, Children, and Long Life). But the tablet reading “Dingfu Palace” identifies this one as the Stove God, Zaojun, patron deity of the household. Pictures of him were pasted up in the kitchen so that Zaojun could watch over the family throughout the year, protecting them from harm. At New Year, he returned to heaven and reported to the Jade Emperor on how the household had behaved over the previous twelve months. The man of the house took down Zaojun’s picture, smeared his lips with honey (either to sweeten his words, or to seal his mouth), and set out water and grass for Zaojun’s horse. The print was then burned to send the god on his way, and a fresh image put up a week later.
Accompanied by a letter dated to September 1927, the third print depicts the red-faced deity of Martial Righteousness, Guan Yu. Guan was a historic general (he died in 220 AD), who together with his oath-brothers Liu Bei and Zhang Fei defended the state of Shu during the break-up of the Han dynasty. The figure behind is his armour-bearer Zhou Cang, a former bandit, holding Guan’s famous “Green Dragon Crescent” halberd – these weapons were later named guan dao, “guan halberds”, in his honour.
Guan Yu’s cult spread widely through China during the nineteenth century, with shrines in just about every temple. His associations with sworn brotherhood made him a patron of both police forces and secret societies, though he’s most widely worshipped today as a wealth deity, representing business profits – his statue often appears in Chinese stores and restaurants.
As for Hallock, he continued his missionary work at Shanghai through the 1930s, writing ever more fund-raising letters, and celebrating the abolition of foot binding in China. But he also lamented that the country still showed no sign of converting to Christianity, remaining a place where “millions of idols are yet worshipped”.
In 1937 he witnessed the prolonged and bloody Battle of Shanghai, describing the panic which swept the city as it was bombed by the Japanese. A letter from 1939 catalogued atrocities committed by the occupying forces: troops terrorising the Chinese population, schools and churches destroyed, missionaries driven away, converts murdered. Hallock was later interned by the Japanese at the Chapei Civilian Assembly Centre, whose inmates suffered severe overcrowding, a near-starvation diet, and outbreaks of malaria and dysentery. But he survived, and by 1947 was back at his Endeavourer’s Church, reflecting on his half-century of danger, excitement and hard work in China.
Hallock died at Shanghai in January 1951, aged 80, shortly before China’s Communist government began to expel foreign missionaries. It’s ironic today that this devout Christian’s major legacy is a scattered collection of letters and prints demonstrating his fascination for Chinese folk deities, something he studied in considerable depth and yet condemned in his writings as heathen superstition. But it is thanks to Hallock that these fragile prints have survived.