The Nianhua


       Nianhua are traditional Chinese posters that were commonly used as home decor up until the middle of the 20th century. They were introduced every New Year, as the household would discard the old year and the old nianhua and bring forth the new. The word nianhua literally translates to "year picture," and they began as woodblock prints in the Tang dynasty. In those days, the brightly colored images most commonly featured the door god, but with time, his image was considered too frightening. This led to the use of more gentle and lively symbolism, which included animals, flowers, women and babies. 


Nianhua of Baby and Fish


 The nianhua that came to dominate the Chinese cultural tradition saw these images as representations of favorable wishes for the New Year. Such symbols included long life, a government career, and wealth. They were good luck charms to drive away bad fortune. These themes of enduring optimism remain manifested in the lively coloring of these images, a characteristic which has endured since the Tang dynasty. 

The end of the 19th century saw a steady decline in the interest of these images. With a rise in cosmopolitanism, the people of China looked away from this form of folk art which recalled the Feudal and Confucian superstitions of the farming class. In the 1940s, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party brought forth a sudden revival of the nianhua tradition, albeit in a much more revised manner.

The CCP carefully appropriated the "year image" tradition by continuing within the visual vernacular of the people. The bright colors remained, as did the chubby babies, thus still eliciting cheerfulness and confidence in the New Year. However, the CCP managed to enhance these posters with the new and proper revolutionary ideas that could carry their political messages further. Moreover, in order to maintain the unanimity of their correct ideologies, they prohibited the production of any other nianhua. This in turn did not warm the image tradition with the people of China. For the elite class and the most learned of the country, the CCP's politically enhanced nianhua were seen as vulgar and "too Chinese." The masses in kind did not react favorably, as they saw these images as much too westernized and over-simplified. 


Nianhua of Baby and Horse


Although still used in China, the 1990s saw a much more sharp decline in the purchases of nianhua. The images we have here are representations of the CCP's earlier endeavors with this traditional form of image-making. The image that is most unlike the others, the Nianhua of Toddler and Crafts is one of the later pieces of propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party. In the later years, a significant shift in style saw movement away from nature-filled images that recalled the more well known visual language of the Chinese people. By slowly altering certain thematic elements, the nianhua began to illustrate idealized images of labor and lifestyle that were deemed appropriate for the People's Republic of China.  

View our entire collection here



Nianhua of Toddler and Crafts