Here’s a woodblock print from Yangliuqing village west of Tianjin, one of nineteenth century China’s most prolific folk-craft centres. It shows the Daoist immortal Zhang Yuanxiao (張遠霄) from Meishan in Sichuan province, driving off the malignant black Heavenly Hound, shown flying away top right on red wings.
The hound was believed to cause eclipses by eating the sun, and could also devour the souls of young boys and unborn male children, killing them. So Zhang, as their guardian, became a fertility symbol; a print like this would be put up in the house of newly-weds, or perhaps as a cure for sterility.
As usual with Chinese folk art, the print is full of symbolism. Zhang is shown shooting pellets from his bow, not arrows, because 送子, “firing pellets”, can also translate as “sending children”.
The boys around Zhang’s feet all represent wishes for successful offspring. Two hold unrolled scrolls which would have a good-luck saying written on them; one holds what is probably a flowering osmanthus branch, representing intelligent sons (the Chinese for “osmanthus” sounds like the word for “noble”); another holds a flowering lotus and set of sheng pipes (wordplay for “many children, each achieving high rank”); and one holds a halberd (wordplay for “good fortune”, implying “the good fortune of having sons”).
The Chinese word for tiger also sounds like “to protect”; tigers were thought to scare away evil spirits which cause illnesses, so were associated with Daoist physicians.
Like many designs from Yangliuqing, the main outline has been printed, with the colours mostly painted on by hand. It probably dates from the very early twentieth century, and is printed on relatively thick paper.