For more than 2,000 years, woodblock prints have captured and catalogued Chinese culture, illuminating everything from religious texts to vernacular literature; languid, bucolic landscapes to political propaganda. Perhaps the most beautiful examples are nianhua (New Year pictures). The auspicious, highly detailed images are hung at Lunar New Year to bring luck, prosperity and protection. Printed in their millions on lightweight paper, nianhua were intentionally disposable, designed to be torn down and replaced with each passing season. More than home protection talismans – the most widespread being door guardians and kitchen gods – nianhua also became a way to depict current events. For those who couldn’t read, nianhua were newspapers. There was a time when hardly a town along China’s wealthy, densely populated eastern flank didn’t have a shop dedicated to nianhua , and prints from the largest production centres, such as Yangliuqing, outside Tianjin, were traded across the country. While every nianhua -producing region developed its own aesthetic over generations, the art form arguably peaked in 18th-century Suzhou, where sophisticated carvers experimented with European techniques such as cross-hatching, linear perspective and realistic scale. The spread of such advanced techniques was, however, interrupted by a century of foreign invasion and civil war, not to mention competition from newly invented mechanical lithography. Then came the Cultural Revolution: woodblock-printing studios were wrecked, artists beaten, prints and printmaking materials destroyed. By the 1990s, with China casting off its “century of humiliation” and enjoying new prosperity, this ancient folk art was on its last legs. By the time nianhua were awarded Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2006 – followed by a series of commemorative postage stamps – major workshops had long since ceased large-scale production. By virtue of their ephemerality, a renewed interest in nianhua has sprung up, increasing their value as works of art: last year, a set of 18th century prints sold for € 31,000 (US$35,000) at auction in Vienna, Austria, and prints from as recently as the 1980s, once sold for a few fen, can fetch hundreds of yuan. Studios lucky enough to still have stock are digging out old blocks and designs, looking for new ways to market their prints to tourists or sell to serious collectors who see nianhua as an art form in need of protection. From the eastern belt of cities where most nianhua were produced, swinging south to the Pearl River Delta and west to the far-flung corner of Yunnan province, a handful of studios are keeping the craft alive; some of the last remaining links to a centuries-old tradition on the brink of extinction. ZHUXIAN Aside from a few historical monuments as reminders of former glory, Kaifeng, in Henan province, is a workaday place. Not much more than a rebuilt city wall is left to indicate it was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), an era depicted in the famous scroll painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival , by Zhang Zeduan. At the heart of the old town, Shudian Jie (Bookshop Street) runs north from the fortress-like drum tower, lined with wood-fronted stores selling books and stationery. As recently as 2007, many of these places were packed with nianhua from studios in nearby Zhuxian town, stacked up in piles on the floor like bundled daily editions, sold for a trifling two yuan each. Zhuxian’s nianhua-printing industry began under the Song, making it the oldest surviving centre for woodblocks in the country. Today, Shudian Jie is better known for its night market, an after-dark obstacle course of fast-food trolleys and trinket stalls, crammed with teenagers and young families. Nobody here is interested in folk crafts. “Woodblock prints?” snorts one shop owner contemptuously, “Dog farts more like!” Her assistant is more helpful: “Have you tried the woodblock museum? They open after 11am.” I go along the next day to find the 1930s brick facade intact, but the museum’s interior long since gutted and derelict. An hour by bus southwest of Kaifeng, across Henan’s flat, dusty plains, the busy market town of Zhuxian proves more promising. Experts believe the city’s nianhua -printing industry began under the Song, making it the oldest surviving centre for woodblocks in the country. In its heyday there were more than 300 studios here. The master begins by drawing a design onto a block of wood, ranging from paperback-size to, albeit rarely, a metre or more across. Larger blocks are made from planks pegged together. Any surface area not part of the desired image is etched away with handheld chisels, “eagle-beak” gouges and fine knives for details such as strands of hair. Ink is applied to the remaining lines and areas, and paper is pressed onto the block to produce an inverse image. Separate blocks of hard, long-lasting wood must be created for each desired colour, which all have to be registered exactly when printing to create a crisp image. Some studios overpaint complex colours and small details with a brush. Zhuxian designs are characterised by a bold palette of red, green, yellow and purple, and feature compact compositions isolated against a plain background. There is also a strong element of hidden meanings. A picture of a giant rooster – da ji – is a homonym for “great good fortune”; a scholar on horseback, surrounded by red bats and holding a ruyi sceptre and picture of a deer, is a rebus for “wishing for the speedy arrival of good fortune and official rank”. Folk prints include Song general Yue Fei in battle, fierce portraits of the demon hunter Zhong Kui, various door guardians and “Flying Bear Exits the Curtains” – a design as mad as it sounds. Zhuxian rose to prominence during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when the Jialu River, which bisects the town, was opened up as a transport canal, feeding into waterways running southeast towards the Grand Canal, the Huai River and the rich cities of the lower Yangtze. This allowed Zhuxian to export its handicrafts, including nianhua , far and wide. By the early 19th century, business was booming. There were 11 theatres and more than 100 temples here. Enough, it was said, for every Chinese deity to find a home. But within a century the Jialu had silted up, new railways bypassed the town and Zhuxian went into decline. Today, a lonely few woodblock-printing studios survive. At the Tiancheng Workshop and Museum I meet Yin Guofa, a fifth-generation craftsman. As Yin puts it proudly, “My grandfather’s grandfather founded this studio in 1812.” Tiancheng grew to have a string of offshoot branches run by family members and disciples, including the Tiancheng Old Workshop, just around the corner. Both have archives of old woodblocks (including a door guardian carved onto a single, unusually large plank), and between the two stores you can watch the print process in full, from carving the blocks to inking, printing and drying on racks. Zhuxian’s studios have become increasingly popular tourist attractions, selling a range of traditional prints alongside commercial souvenirs of zodiac animals, and even a few popular designs blatantly pinched from other regions. Business is brisk, but compared with just a decade ago, prices are steep – up to several hundred yuan per print, which has dried up the original market. No local farmer is going to buy handmade nianhua at these prices when cheap, modern machine prints are available at every market stall. FOSHAN Hidden amid shopping malls and high-rises in the Guangdong province town of Foshan there lurks a shabby district of brick shopfronts and narrow market lanes, full of butchers hacking up meat, vegetables piled on the pavements, open-fronted shops selling clay pots and women with bulging carrier bags discussing the cost of greens. Until the 1940s, this district was the centre of a woodblock-printing industry whose nianhua were distributed right across southern China and Southeast Asia. At 86 Pujun Nan Lu, I find the last surviving workshop in town, run by 83-year-old Feng Bingtang. Feng’s grandfather, Feng Biao, founded the studio before an addiction to opium, taken to relieve chronic pain, brought him to bankruptcy. His son, Feng Jun, rescued the business and became so skilled at designing guardian figures he was known as “Door-God Jun”. Apprenticed to the trade when he was 12, Feng Bingtang has, almost uniquely, mastered the separate skills of design, block preparation, carving, printing and overpainting, giving him a rare insight into the complete creative process. Glass doors slide open straight off the street and into the living room-cum-workshop. Feng doesn’t speak much Mandarin (he speaks Cantonese), so his wife translates. The room is full of paint pots, brushes and splattered worktops. Walls are crowded with his own work, as well as masterpieces by his father: Plum-blossom Boy, the God of Wealth, Magistrate Bao and the door gods Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong. The prints feature bold black outlines filled with yellow and green wash, with vivid vermilion backgrounds or details painted in gold. We’re recognised as a century-old business, they wouldn’t dare knock us down. My son and apprentices will continue Feng Bingtang, owner of Foshan’s last woodblock-printing workshop Like all surviving woodblock-printing studios, Feng’s business has suffered over the years. Red Guards destroyed 200 original blocks during the Cultural Revolution, though Feng Jun recut some based on old prints he had hidden away. Feng Bingtang later worked in construction, and it wasn’t until his father died, in 1989, that he decided to resurrect the business. Progress has been erratic but now he and his son, Feng Jinqiang, are training a new generation of apprentices. Aside from selling traditional prints, their designs have been licensed for use on everything from calendars to T-shirts, and they run tours of the studio where visitors can try their hand at the printing process. At prompting from his wife, Feng Bingtang pulls up his shirt to show his stomach badly scarred from a recent operation, “I’ve lost some weight, but am doing OK,” he says. With redevelopment edging closer, I ask if the studio is under threat: “Oh no, we’re recognised as a century-old business, they wouldn’t dare knock us down. My son and apprentices will continue.” Feng’s wife carefully stamps my purchases with the generations-old studio seal, and I leave, heading across town to the Pearl River and the 21st-century glitter of Guangzhou. HESHUN Near the Myanmese border in Yunnan province lies Heshun, a small village of cobbled lanes, stone bridges and antique residential architecture. During the 18th century, Heshun grew wealthy on the caravan trade with Burma in cotton, jade and gemstones, and emerged somehow unscathed from Japanese occupation during World War II, when the nearby walled city of Tengchong was completely destroyed. Far-flung Yunnan is the one part of the country where woodblock prints are still in widespread use. Not the bright, complex nianhua now sought as art by the rich, but monochrome, fairly basic jiama , palm-sized prints of folk deities, burned in handfuls at festivals and religious ceremonies. Jiama translates, bizarrely, as “armoured horse”, a local corruption of zhima , “paper horse” – a far more believable term for something designed to carry your prayers to the gods. There are jiama for every occasion: popular deities such as Wenchang and the Bodhisattva Guanyin, site alongside a pantheon of lesser-known spirits for success in business, rocky outcrops, old age, roads and bridges, beds and even (in a village full of felters) a god of wool. Given that Heshun still looks like a Qing-dynasty town, it is not surprising to find old customs preserved here. The isolation has been good for their preservation and at Lunar New Yearthe place is plastered with jiama . Perhaps the most popular image is of Hehe Erxian, the twin deities of agreement and harmony. Pairs of prints, one on green paper, one on red, are pasted to either side of doorways, or carefully laid on top of each other, folded up and stuck up in buses and taxis, perhaps to prevent arguments over the fare. A few hours northeast of Heshun, near Shangguan village, in a band of farmland between Erhai Lake and the Cangshan mountain range, stands a 13th-century mud-brick watchtower, a reminder of the Mongol invasion that overthrew the local Dali Kingdom, in 1253. In the tower’s shadow sits a modern, two-storeyed courtyard home, the workshop of Zhang Ruilong, a tall, tough man in his 50s. The Zhang family has been making jiama for six generations, and nowadays, Zhang Ruilong and his son design, carve and print the blocks while his parents – both in their 80s – manage the papermaking side of the business. Unlike the hand-printed nianhua elsewhere in China, local demand for jiama has remained high, but, as they sell for just a few yuan per hundred, Zhang expanded the studio a few years ago to produce large souvenir prints of traditional designs on thick, good-quality mulberry paper to sell to tourists. Zhang offers a quick tour of the studio, explaining the various types of wood used for blocks – pine for the cheap stuff, harder camphor for better prints – and provides some tips: the ink is transferred from the block to the paper by pressure, not absorption, so there is skill in the quantity used. Too much creates splotches, too little and there’s no image. He works his chisel with a calloused thumb while we talk, carving a block with casual mastery, inhaling the scent of freshly gouged wood, a craftsman in love with his art. While Zhang seems intent on continuing his work in Yunnan, whether nianhua will thrive locally elsewhere or be further commodified, subsumed into the fickle art world, remains to be seen. Before I leave I give Zhang a print for safe travels I’d bought at the market, emblazoned with a car deity. He chuckles, and gives me a printed deity in return, on lucky red cloth, and shows me his own copy, folded into his jacket pocket. It is the God of Gamblers.