Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall presents a journey into the centuries-old craft of woodblock printing and examines the tradition of new year prints in a special exhibition

Nian Hua Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious ArtNian Hua Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art

To herald this Lunar New Year season, Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) presents a special exhibition, Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art, which showcases the centuries-old Chinese tradition of Nian Hua and its significance. Taking place from 21 January to 25 September 2022, it features close to 70 artefacts that originate from different provinces of China and is presented in collaboration with one of the largest museums in China, the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum.

Nian Hua (年画), which translates to “new year prints”, are colourful woodblock-printed images that adorned homes in Chinese villages and cities during the Lunar New Year. They were used by families to seek protection and blessings for their households for the year ahead. Through the exhibition, the Memorial Hall seeks to shed light on Chinese traditions, popular beliefs and folk customs, and how these have evolved, particularly in Singapore, over the years. It also spotlights our intangible cultural heritage, which includes woodblock printing as a traditional craft, and the celebration of Lunar New Year.

Blessings Come A-Knocking - Tik Ka From East Lawn InstallationBlessings Come A-Knocking – Tik Ka From East Lawn Installation

The collection on display covers artefacts produced during the Qing dynasty (1636 – 1912) to the 1980s. It also includes curated prints from the collections of the National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum and Singapore Art Museum, and modern-day interpretations of Nian Hua by local and international artists. Woodblock moulds sourced from a private lender in Singapore will also be showcased for the first time.

Mr Loo Say Chong, the private collector and researcher who loaned the woodblock moulds, said, “Woodblock printing has an important place in Chinese history and culture. It is a craft that requires precision, both during carving and during alignment for printing. It also helped to facilitate the transmission of knowledge and information. I am glad that my collection of woodblock moulds can help to raise awareness about this intangible cultural heritage as part of the Nian Hua exhibition.”

SYSNMH exhibition Nian HuaMilitary door deities Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong (circa 1980s).
The Nian Hua depicts two military door deities, Qin Qiong and Yuchi Gong dressed in similar green outfits, with the influence of Chinese opera seen in the design of their facial features, cloaks and banners. Collection of Mr. Jimm Wong Pui Fatt.

Ms Jermaine Chua, curator at SYSNMH, said, “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. By taking a closer look at Nian Hua, we also gain a better understanding and appreciation of our intangible cultural heritage.”

The exhibition at SYSNMH will be open from 10am to 5pm from Tuesdays to Sundays. For more information on Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art, please visit here.

Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art is SYSNMH’s annual special exhibition and is launched in conjunction with Wan Qing Festival of Spring 2022.

About the exhibition

The exhibition will be presented across four main sections – Door Deities and Guardians; Kitchen God, Earth God and other Deities; Blessings for the Bedchambers; and Happiness, Prosperity and Longevity.

Entrance to Nian Hua special exhibitionEntrance to Nian Hua special exhibition

Protecting households from evil spirits

Door deities and guardians are painted or pasted on the doors of households to protect families by barring evil spirits from entering. Nian Hua depicting door gods usually come in a pair, one for each side of the door, and are the earliest form of new year prints. The sale of such prints for the Lunar New Year was believed to have started during the Song dynasty (960-1297), especially the 12th and 13th centuries.

These door deities and guardians were often originally demon slayers such as Shenshu (神荼) and Yulu (郁垒), and Zhong Kui (钟馗). From the 16th century, the Chinese also began to depict figures such as celestial officials, who are believed to bestow blessings of wealth and longevity upon the family. Subsequently, door prints came to include a repertoire of auspicious decorations ranging from immortals from folk religions to deified persons to Chinese opera characters.

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