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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Living auspiciousness : the resurgence of Mianzhu's new year picture (nianhua) industry Liu, April


Chinese nianhua, or “New Year Pictures,” refers to a broad category of popular prints and paintings displayed during the Lunar New Year but also throughout the year to mark seasonal festivals, life cycle rituals, and popular religious practices. Despite the widespread circulation of nianhua today, the scholarly literature has largely characterized it as a thing of the past, as that which died out with the state circumscription of the woodblock printing industry during the 1950s print reforms and the ban on nianhua during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Although the industry has since rebounded, the scholarship continues to relegate nianhua to the past, as a prescriptive tradition represented by historic works rather those emerging in the marketplace. Drawing on historic archives, interviews, and firsthand observations, I will critique the recent rise of nianhua in Mianzhu, Sichuan. The primary goal is to rethink nianhua as a “living archive,” an evolving body of works firmly embedded in its immediate contexts of production and use. Mianzhu is a powerful case study because its historic woodblock printing industry never completely died out during the upheavals of the 20th century. In the early 1980s, the industry was catalyzed by a resurgence of ritual practices and a state-led folk art revival, two competing and often conflicting discourses that have fought for prominence in the marketplace. These developments push for a performative view of nianhua, where meaning is not fixed in representation but continually innovated upon, appropriated, and activated in situ to meet specific ends. Building on the “performative turn” in art history and ritual studies, this study challenges methodological approaches that treat nianhua as discrete visual texts or folk art objects belonging to a shared system of auspicious signs and symbols. Each chapter deploys a different strategy for rethinking nianhua’s attributed function to “pursue the auspicious, repel the portentous” as an open-ended site of contestation tied to ritual agency, lineage identity, and symbolic capital in the marketplace. Moving away from decoding symbols and towards analyzing practices, this study reveals the high stakes involved in recognizing nianhua as a living entity.

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