Here are a pair of door gods from Fengxiang (鳳翔), a small town about 150km west of Xi’an in Shaanxi province.
Door god or gate guardians (門神, 護衛) are one of the most common folk prints, put up either side of front doors at Chinese New Year to protect the house from misfortune. One widespread tale credits their invention to the Tang emperor Taizong (598–649). He was troubled by nightmares of ghosts, so posted two trusted generals outside his bedroom to scare them away. The remedy was successful but obviously the generals couldn’t stand there forever, so the emperor had their portraits painted on his bedroom doors instead. This worked just as well, and the idea spread out of the palace into the wider population.
Historically, it’s likely these deities have Indian origins in the dvarapala sculptures which guarded Buddhist and Hindu temples, with the idea arriving in China in the first century AD alongside Buddhism and gradually being absorbed into folk worship.
Many different warriors (and a few civil figures) appear as door gods around China. While some are well-known, others are local heroes whose names and backstories might be totally obscure elsewhere. As designs are pretty uniform, it can be impossible to identify the specific god you’re looking at without local knowledge.
Catalogues name these two as the familiar pair Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong, real-life generals who served Taizong and were later canonised. Oddly they are shown here wearing scholar’s robes instead of their usual parade armour, though each still cradles a trademark weapon – Qin Qiong in yellow with a sword; and Yuchi Gong in purple holding a bian, a ridged, heavy iron rod used as a sword-breaker and club.
What makes these special is their size: these are reputedly the largest printed door gods in China at nearly a metre tall, approaching the realistic technical limit for multi-coloured woodblocks. A good deal of care and skill has been used to ensure that each colour block is registered precisely with the black outline, so that the colours end up exactly where they should – something that Chinese craftsmen often pay little attention to.
There have been printing studios at Fengxiang since the 1500s and 世興局, the Shixing [Picture] Bureau, was founded by the prominent Tai family in nearby Nanxiaoli village (南小里村). About one hundred different workshops operated in the area during the late nineteenth-century production peak – comparable with other similarly-sized centres elsewhere in China. By the 1970s, however, faster mechanical processes and political upheavals had closed most of Fengxiang’s businesses.
During the late 1970s, Tai Yi (邰怡; 1921–1984) and his son Tai Liping (邰立平; born 1952) began to resurrect the local industry, drafting new designs and recutting blocks for several hundred traditional prints which had been hidden away during the turbulent 1960s. Probably made in the late 1980s, these two of Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong are from a set of eight featuring pairs of civil and military officials.
I don’t know the pupose behind the line of rings down one edge of each print. They might form some discreet “copyright” symbol – though presumably rival studios stealing the design could have included them in any pirate copies – or possibly be marks to help register the colour blocks with the outline during the printing process.
Many thanks to Jimm Wong Pui Fatt
Further reading: 中国木版年画集成-凤翔卷