Fires Exploding Pearls: Wu Caizhen of Foshan

David Leffman woodblock, Woodblock print Leave a Comment

Zhao Gongming – watch out for exploding pearls

Here’s a print of Zhao Gongming (趙公明) on his tiger, holding a gold ingot and his magical sword breaker, which fires out explosive “sea-smoothing” pearls. In the sixteenth-century novel Creation of the Gods, Zhao is a general from Mount Emei in Sichuan province, who fights for the corrupt and crumbling Shang dynasty. After being killed by the Daoist Jiang Ziya, he is deified by the newly-founded Zhou dyansty as the military god of wealth, responsible for the steady accumulation of riches.

The seal mark reads 佛山[伍]彩珍造, “By [Wu] Caizhen of Foshan”, a town in Guangdong provinvce famous for its silk trade and handicrafts. Wu Caizhen’s workshop was next to Double Well on Water Alley (水巷正街孖井; now incorporated into modern Liaoyuan Road 燎原路), southwest of Foshan’s Ancestral Temple.

The awkward, flattened frontal pose is characteristic of southern Chinese studios, as is the way that only the outline is printed, with the colouring and gold applied by hand – a process possibly involving up to five people. Woodblock printing was quite an industry, with separate specialists employed in the different stages of production.

Having said that, there’s an interview online with a Mr Ou Xin (区新), born in 1919, who worked in Wu Caishen’s studio and “mastered all the production processes of deity painting, including design, line drawing, patterning, printing, colouring, rendering, gold tracing, mounting, flashing, assembling, repairing and other skills.”

Clawed toes, staring eyes and a magic staff: formerly known as “Monkey Awakened to Vacuity” and “Great Sage Equal of Heaven”, this is Monkey in his “Victorious Fighting Buddha” incarnation (note the halo). The peaches reference his immortality, and the havoc he once caused at the Heavenly Peach Banquet.

During its Qing-dynasty heyday, Foshan had over one hundred woodblock-printing studios, who sold their wares across southern China, and beyond into southeast Asia. Even as business began to wane in the early twentieth century – partly due to competition with modern mechanical printing – Foshan’s economy still did well from the trade: according to the Foshan City Foreign Trade Records (佛山市对外贸易志), “During the 22nd year of the Republic of China (1934), about 150,000 prints were exported every year, with an income of 13,000 silver taels”. 

Third-century general Guan Yu as the incarnation of Martial Righteousness, flanked by his son (on the right with Guan Yu’s seal of office in its bag) and arms bearer (with Guan’s halberd, Green Dragon).

Despite this decline, several of Foshan’s studios – including Wu Caizhen’s – survived until the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when they were all closed down and destroyed. The Wu family dispersed to overseas Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia, where different branches kept printing until the 1980s. As far as I can discover, none are still going.

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