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The woes of a woodcut print master

Editor: zhenglimin 丨Xinhua

02-06-2017 20:22 BJT

NANJING, Feb. 6 (Xinhua) -- Spring Festival is supposed to be a joyous occasion, but it has left Fang Zhida, 83, anxious.

Days before the new year, he locks himself in his studio to focus on an ancient folk art.

Taohuawu woodcut new year prints, or "nianhua", are a type of traditional painting that people put on their doors to ward off devils, and express good wishes for Chinese New Year.

But in recent years business has been poor, leaving Fang worried that his beloved craft may eventually die out.

As the name suggests, the craft was born on Taohuawu street in Suzhou city, eastern China's Jiangsu Province.

A craftsman usually draws a sketch on a piece of paper before carving it on to a set of boards, and then paints it in different shades of color. The craftsman presses the boards on to a piece of paper, and the print is complete.

The art has a history of more than 350 years. In 2006, it was added to China's intangible cultural heritage list.

Fang started to learn at the age of 14, and describes the art as the love of his life.

"For better or for worse, I have been doing it for all my life," he says.

INHERIT AND INNOVATE

Fang has been doing all he can to pass down this intangible cultural heritage.

He has been teaching the art by hand at the Taohuawu Woodcut New Year Print Society since 2004. Four students are chosen every two years, with 28 students graduating so far.

"It is important that we introduce the art to the young and pass it down," he says.

From painting to woodcutting and printing, it can take as little as a week or as long as a year to finish a single piece.

"Printing it one piece after another all day long can be a tiring thing," he says. "So, you must be really interested in it, be hard-working, and you need to handle loneliness very well."

Fang said that an entire piece would have to be reprinted if any one color goes wrong.

While Fang is passing down all he knows to his students, they are innovating the art to attract a bigger audience. Fu Xiangpeng, 31, has designed a series of products such as fans, plates and red packets, with new year prints on them.

Fang realizes that innovation is not easy.

"We hope the products will be popular, but we must not lose the essence of the art," he says.

In 2006, a museum was opened to preserve the art. Wang Zude, 77, is another master and serves as a senior advisor at the museum.

He encourages his students to innovate and create prints they like,teaches new year printing on weekends and tells primary school students stories behind the art.

"Kids love stories, and the stories behind the art help shape a sense of our own cultural identity," Wang says.

In 2012, he designed a series of new year prints for the 12 zodiac signs, to appeal to the young.

Suzhou No.1 Middle School has offered selective courses teaching local traditional art, such as new year prints and Kunqu opera, since 2010. Students from the United States have come to learn the art every summer since 2014.

WISHES AND WORRIES

However, Fang's biggest wish is to teach as many students as he can.

"A new year print craftsman now earns around 50,000 yuan (7,000 U.S. dollars) a year, not enough to make a decent living," he says.

Of the 28 students he has taught in the past decade, only ten have chosen to stay. And in Suzhou, only about a dozen craftsmen are still in the trade.

Exhibitions are held at home and abroad, and the audience usually enjoys the show but few want to actually learn the art itself.

"To inherit Chinese cultural heritage is not just about displaying it, but it is more important that we attract more people to learn and devote to it," Fang says.

According to the local heritage protection office, half of the inheritors of intangible cultural heritage alive are over 65 years old.

"Our own awareness of our culture should be raised to better protect and pass dwon the intangible cultual heritage," says Wang Yan, deputy director of the office.

A local regulation came into effect in Suzhou this week to preserve endangered intangible cultural heritage. A national project is also underway, collecting historical materials and building archives for 100 folk arts, including Taohuawu new year printing and Thangka (Tibetan scroll painting), as well as setting up related online courses.

"We must pass down the art that our ancestors give us," Fang says.

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