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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.