Printing Intangible Cultural Heritage for the New Year

Photograph courtesy of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

As part of its efforts to showcase intangible cultural heritage, Singapore’s Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall (SYSNMH) is presenting a special exhibition, Nian Hua: Of Deities, Guardians and Auspicious Art which features the centuries-old Chinese tradition of nian hua (or new year prints). Nian hua are colourful woodblock-printed images that adorn homes in Chinese villages and cities, and they are often put up by families to seek protection and blessings for their households for the year ahead.

Running from 21 January to 25 September 2022, the exhibition is a collaboration with the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum and features close to 70 prints which originate from different provinces of China. The collection on display includes curated prints from in the collections of National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum and Singapore Art Museum, and modern-day interpretations of nian hua by local and international artists.

The exhibition is arranged in five main sections comprising Door Deities and Guardians; Kitchen God, Earth God and other Deities; Blessings for the Bedchambers; Happiness, Prosperity and Longevity; and New Life for New Year Prints. The first section focuses on nian hua depicting door deities and guardians which are painted or pasted on doors of households initially to protect families by barring evil spirits from entering and subsequently, to bestow blessings of wealth and longevity upon the family.

Photograph courtesy of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

The second section showcases nian hua depicting images of deities, immortals and deified heroes printed on paper and worshipped by the common people in their homes for both blessings and protection, while the third section features nian hua pasted inside or on the bedroom doors of married couples and featuring fertility symbols and related auspicious phrases.

The four section focuses on nian hua that reveal the common wishes of the people, including the desire for a long life, prosperity and a happy family with successful heirs, and the exhibition’s final section examines how the art form is still practised and preserved by a small group of artisans and how it continues to evolve as artists start to experiment with the style of new year prints and incorporate contemporary subject matter into their works.

Through the exhibition’s display of nian hua, the memorial hall seeks to shed light on Chinese traditions, popular beliefs and folk customs, and trace how these have evolved, particularly in Singapore, over the years. It also spotlights Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage, which includes woodblock printing as a traditional craft, and the practice of putting up nian hua for various purposes as highlighted by the exhibition.