Man brings vigor to woodblock printing

TIANJIN: Xi Wang, a 29-year-old craftsman, hangs up a self-designed New Year picture depicting two cheerful kids and an adorable mouse on the wall of his room to celebrate the Chinese Year of the Rat.
As the youngest inheritor of Yangliuqing Woodblock Printing in north China’s Tianjin Municipality, Xi was busy making mouse-themed artworks at the beginning of this year.
New Year pictures in Chinese, are a type of traditional painting that people, particularly in the countryside, hang on their doors, windows or walls to ward off evil spirits and express good wishes for the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Yangliuqing Woodblock Printing is one of the most prestigious forms of New Year decorations in China, which flourished in Tianjin and the surrounding areas during a period between the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
As a local raised in Tianjin, Xi has been a fan of this art form since his childhood.
“Back then, every family would put up woodblock paintings on the walls. Their beautiful colors and vivid figures impressed me a lot when I was a kid,” Xi recalled.
Only when he grew up did he gradually come to know the splendid culture and history behind Yangliuqing Woodblock Printing, a national intangible cultural heritage featuring abundant themes inspired by literature, folk legends and myths.
He has devoted himself to engraving wood since he became an apprentice of woodblock printing in 2014.
Engraving wood is never an easy job. Xi pastes the outline of the design onto a piece of pear wood and carves the whole ink-line image out of the wood board, which may take one or even two months for him to complete.
The lines of kids’ arms and legs and the details on their faces including eyes are the most challenging parts to carve, as these thin lines should be smooth and graceful enough to show the figures’ vivid and artistic expressions.
Good tools are always essential to create an excellent woodblock. On Xi’s workbench are placed a dozen carving chisels and woodcut knives, all of which he made by hand. Prime wood is selected to make the hilt, while high-strength steel is the best choice to be ground into various types of carving knives.
“As I get more and more familiar with these tools, they seem to become part of my fingers,” Xi said. The master whom Xi follows is Wang Wenda, who has been engaged in woodblock carving for over 50 years. “My teacher often reminds me to maintain a peaceful mind, without which there will be no steadiness or accuracy in craftsmanship,” Xi said.
New Year pictures are one of the most influential cultural forms of traditional Chinese folk art. However, the artwork has been losing ground since the 1980s when the Chinese people had more options to furnish their houses than ever before.
Some experts and veteran New Year picture masters also ascribed its decline to a shortage of young qualified successors like Xi, which made it hard to pass down the unique, traditional art to the younger generation.
“Maybe this job seems tedious to others. But for me, only through repeated work can I better understand the meaning of Yangliuqing Woodblock Printing and master the techniques,” Xi said. “It seems that I am carving the woodblock, but in fact, I am carving out my life and purifying my soul in this fast-changing world.” – The Daily Mail-China Daily News exchange item