Wu Caizhen of Foshan 佛山伍彩珍

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

Foshan, now a westerly suburb of Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong province, was once a separate town in its own right, famous for its handicrafts. I’ve written elsewhere of Mr Feng Bingtang, who ran Foshan’s last surviving woodblock studio until his death in 2019, but during its Qing-dynasty heyday Foshan had over one hundred woodblock-printing businesses, employing several thousand people and exporting their wares across southern China and beyond into southeast Asia – in Vietnam they were called Annan Paintings (“安南画”).

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.
Cai Bo Xing Jun (财帛星君) the Stellar Deity of Wealth and Silk responsible for great profits in business. He holds a court official’s hu tablet, while his right-hand attendant carries a bowl full of gold.

Even as the industry began to wane in the early twentieth century – partly due to competition with modern mechanical printing – Foshan’s economy still did fairly 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“, even though by then there were only between six and ten studios still going. 

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.
Fu De Ci (福德祠) The sign reads “Ancestral Temple of Fu De”, deity of Good Fortune and Virtue, a general title for Earth gods. He holds a gold ingot, bringing wealth to those living within his care.

Most of the printing workshops were in the vicinity of Fulu Road (福禄路) northeast of modern Foshan’s main tourist draw, the expansive Ancestral Temple. And tucked away next to the Double Well on Water Alley (水巷正街孖井; now incorporated into modern Liaoyuan Road 燎原路), was the studio of Wu Caizhen.

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).
Guanyin (觀音) Bodhisattva of Compassion, derived from the Hindu deity Avalokiteshvara, with her filial parrot. She holds a vase labelled “peace”, and scatters the world-calming water inside with her williow wand. Oddly, her left-hand attendant holds a basin of gold, suggesting that Guanyin also acts a wealth deity.

Stamped lower left with a red seal reading 佛山彩珍造 (By [Wu] Caizhen of Foshan), Caizhen’s deity prints are immediately recognisable. Printed on unusually heavy paper which yellows with age, the figures are presented front on, often in an awkwardly flattened pose. Basic printed outlines are splendidly overpainted in a bright palette of red, pink, orange, green, blue and black, with clothing intricately patterned in gold. Faces are realistically shaded and hair picked out in fine detail. There are no backgrounds to detract from the figures.

Xuanwu (aka Zhenwu or Bei Di). He has the Thirty-Six Generals under his command, but which two are holding his seven-star flag and seal here is open to debate.
Huaguang (華光大帝), a complicated character, reincarnated many times as different deities. Identifiable partly through his third eye, in one existence he serves as a fire god – hence the gourd, which contains incendiary crows – while in another he carries a transformational golden pyramid, until losing it in a battle with Nezha.

Producing a single print could involve up to five separate specialist craftsmen, although Mr Qu Xin (区新), born in 1919, worked in Caizhen’s studio during the 1950s 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.”

Zhang the Immortal, firing a pellet from his bow towards the Heavenly Hound, which eats male foetuses in the womb. 送子, “firing pellets”, can also translate as “sending sons”; 弹, a pellet bow, sounds like 誕, birth; the children round his feet carry gold (wealth), a book (scholar), and what might be a pomegranate flower (fecundity); the qilin heralds the birth of a sage: altogether, wishing for many intelligent sons who prosper in the public service. I’ve seen a mirror image of this print, suggesting they were sold in pairs to go either side of the bedroom door of newly-weds.
Tai Shang Lao Jun (太上老君) One of the Three Purities of Daoism, an incarnation of Laozi.

Wu Caizhen prints were known as “deity statue paintings” (神像画), perhaps because many of the designs (especially ones where the figure sits on a pedestal) are clearly modelled on wooden carvings of seated gods. Alongside their woodblock prints – which came in a range of sizes, the largest being about 30cm x 20cm – the studio also produced much larger gouache paintings of the same deities, often scroll-mounted.

Lü Dongbin, Daoist Immortal and demon-suppressor
Tian Hou Yuan Jun (天后元君) Southern China’s patron deity of seafarers, also known as Mazu.

It’s possible that Caizhen originally only produced these large paintings, and then adopted woodblock printing for quickly mass-producing smaller versions as demand increased in the twentieth century. Both prints and paintings were intended for home worship, being cheaper and taking up less space than a deity carving.

Wang Lao Xian Shi (王老仙師) Folk deity associated with several Daoist cults, who can also represent Confucianism when appearing with Monkey (Buddhism) and Laozi (Daoism). Here, the gourd and sword suggests he’s acting as a Daoist medic.
Ziwei Dadi (紫微大帝) Emperor of the North Pole Star, as a youth. The tiger, yin-yang bagua tablet and sword are symbols of his power over demons and bad fortune.

The business survived until the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when Foshan’s woodblock printers all had their workshops ransacked. The Wu family dispersed to overseas Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, where different branches kept going into the 1980s. As far as I can discover none are still in business, though many older people in Malaysia and Singapore remember Wu Caizhen’s designs, and both paintings and prints fetch decent prices when they surface in local vintage stores.

Many thanks to Valen Seng – an artist keeping Wu Caizhen’s tradition alive in Malaysia. For much, much more about these and thousands of other Chinese deities, check out the Book of Xian Shen website.

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