‘Nian Hua’ Chinese New Year door deities shine a light on Chinese folk beliefs
The colourful, complex world of Lunar New Year woodblock prints of door deities, or Nian Hua, is explored in a new exhibition at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. These Nian Hua, from the 1980s, depict a pair of military door deities, Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong. (Photo: Jim Wong Pui Fatt)

‘Nian Hua’ Chinese New Year door deities shine a light on Chinese folk beliefs

In China, door deities and guardians have been painted and pasted on household doors for millennia to protect the occupants by barring the way to evil spirits. These colourful woodblock images, or Nian Hua, which usually come in pairs – one for each side of the entrance – are the earliest form of Lunar New Year print.

Chinese people venerated, and still venerate, dozens of deities ruling over the realms of heaven, Earth and hell in an interweaving of folk mythology, Taosim and Buddhism – and the Nian Hua made them a tangible presence in the homes of ordinary people.

Now you can find out all about this ancient form of popular art at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) until 25 Sep. Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art is free to view for Singaporeans and PRs.

We know Nian Hua were sold commercially in China from the time of the Song Dynasty more than a thousand years ago, and became a cultural norm from the 13th century, but it is likely that the first examples were crafted about 2,000 years ago using woodblock printing and hand-painting techniques.

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The 1911 revolution inspired by Sun Yat Sen ended dynastic rule in China and gave rise to new ways of thinking. This unusual Nian Hua disposes of traditional deities in favour of two young mothers with their sons in modern, military-style uniforms. One holds the 18-Star Flag (the banner of the Wuchang Uprising) and the other the Five-Coloured banner – the first national flag of the Republic of China. The slogans read “towards a progressive civilisation” and “a harmonious and equal society”. (Photo: Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum).

The exhibition is a collaboration between the SYSNMH and the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum and showcases new year prints produced in China from the Qing Dynasty to the 1980s. The iconography of these prints, which are deeply rooted in popular beliefs and folk customs, offers insights into the rarely documented attitudes and values of the common people of China.

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A modern twist on the Nian Hua genre by Hong Kong artist Tikka, reimagining American superheroes as General Iron and General Loyalty. (Photo: Tikka from Far East)

A world-class collection of Nian Hua is on loan from renowned collector and researcher, Loo Say Chong, to the delight of SYSNMH curator, Jermain Chua. “While new year prints are no longer commonly found in Singapore and Southeast Asia, it remains an important art form in Chinese culture, as the characters, motifs and stories depicted reflect the values, beliefs and traditions practised by generations of families, and their hopes and wishes for the future, which have been rarely documented.”

There are four main sections to wander around: Door Deities and Guardians; Kitchen God, Earth God and other Deities; Blessings for the Bedchambers; and Happiness, Prosperity and Longevity. There are interactive exhibits as well as the prints themselves; one of them mapping 20 production centres in China to show different styles and manufacturing techniques.

Find out more about Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art here.

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