IT is a chilly winter's morning in Tianjin and the studios of the Yang Liu Qing Art Society reverberate to a symphony of hand-held hair-dryers. The run-up to Lunar New Year is the artists' busiest season. Every detail of every hand-painted picture has to be just so, and the temperature outside is nudging zero degree Celsius. The artists blast their dryers' hot air on to their fingers, flexing them to improve circulation before settling down to paint traditional pictures of chubby little boys, elegant women or famous opera scenes. A grumbling humidifier - essential to preserve the fabric of the paintings - plays counterpoint to the hair-dryers, and the whole is overlaid with sporadic office chatter. Nowadays these works - age-old scenes representing good luck and prosperity - are sold in those places throughout the world where Chinese emigrants have settled, and succeeded. But it has not always been so. Although its styles and images date back many centuries, it was only after World War II that Yang Liu Qing was officially formed. It was soon swept up in the political maelstrom that engulfed China. When the Cultural Revolution was raging, artists had to quickly forget the traditional ways and instead paint big character posters and heroic portraits of Mao Zedong. Later, when the Gang of Four was pilloried, the themes changed to caricatures of Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and her cronies being skewered by grinning, righteous infants. And now that paramount leader Deng Xiaoping has declared that to get rich is glorious, the society has had to make another U-turn - borrowing money, running marketing campaigns, holding exhibitions, increasing production and, ironically, reawakening dormant artistic skills. 'There is a proverb about the bamboo bending with the wind,' manager Liu Be said as he gazed about the artists' compound. 'It fits us quite well.' Today, there is a single stylised picture of a Red Army soldier hanging in the gallery. Every other wall and surface is covered with Lunar New Year posters and bucolic scenes of hills and water and trees. Artists join the Yang Liu Qing society direct from school or college, drawing salaries of about 500 yuan (HK$465) a month. Being a member of the group confers certain privileges: their equipment is not available on the open market and the society is a kind of hallmark for the northern port city of Tianjin. Officially, freelance work is frowned upon but it's the only way many of the artists survive. Every artist must be adept at four traditional skills - painting, carving, calligraphy and poetry. But it is painting on which they concentrate, specifically the New Year pictures for which the society holds the monopoly throughout China. 'Every New Year, Chinese families like to hang up these pictures because they express good wishes,' explained Guo Hui, the society's official guide. 'The lotus stands for success,' she said. 'And in every picture that has a child, the child is a boy.' 'Is that because girls are no good?' asked a querulous visitor. 'I think so,' she replied with a peal of laughter. Most of the older artists at Yang Liu Qing have been there all their working lives. Their doyenne is Li Jinggui, who started painting in 1959. 'I was trained at college and then I studied the work of my teacher here at the society's studios,' Mrs Li said. 'At first we just painted traditional pictures, then we had to paint political ones - many people had to, not just professional artists - but there was no time for hand-painting. We had to print because we had to produce so many. It wasn't easy to adapt our style so quickly, and I think many people were sad not to be able to continue with what they were good at. But there was no choice.' For manager Mr Liu, staffing is not a problem but finance most definitely is. Propelled into a capitalist marketplace, he is still struggling with the ins-and-outs of macro-economics and the dictates of a not-always sympathetic government. 'We sell to the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom and Australia,' said Mr Liu, enthusiastically ticking off the markets on his fingers. 'Our biggest buyer is Singapore. We hold an annual expo there. There are more than 400 types of painting but the society concentrates on around 50.' The average monthly production at Yang Liu Qing is about 700 pictures, selling at about 650 yuan apiece - annual earnings of about 5.5 million yuan if every painting is sold. But the society has some 200 staff to pay, with 100 of those working at the studios. There are debts and a lot of red tape. Reflecting on his lot, Mr Liu believes he has been granted a great opportunity with the art society. 'When I started here 20 years ago I was just a painter and we had to draw many political pictures of Mao Zedong,' he said. 'The government wouldn't allow us to paint traditional pictures then. 'But after two decades I am now the manager, the government has given me money to increase production, so we have taken out a four-million yuan loan from the Bank of China. 'What I'd really like to do is form a joint-venture company but the government won't let me. I also have to show a two-million yuan profit every year. All in all, it's very difficult. But the emphasis has shifted from days gone by.' From traditional scenes to revolutionary posters and back to traditional scenes again - this time with the profit motive added. Yes, the Yang Liu Qing certainly has had a chequered first 50 years, mirroring the experiences of China itself. But bending like bamboo it has survived, and will continue to do so as long as Chinese throughout the world wish each other 'Kung Hei Fat Choy'.