Throw together pomegranates, cranes and fat babies, and presto – the future is a lucky one. These and more auspicious symbols can be found in a slew of Chinese Lunar New Year prints at Asian Village Antiques. Today marks the first day of The Year of the Monkey, and the Edwards gallery is celebrating with traditional snacks and blessings from 4-8 p.m.
The rice paper prints date back to the late Qing Dynasty, which flourished from 1644 until 1911. Made with wood blocks, they were an important aspect of New Year’s celebrations. Craftsmen would sell the prints in towns, and people bought as many as could fit on the walls of their homes.
“To the Western eye, they’re bright,” said Susan Bristol, gesturing toward a print of the Kitchen God looking over a family. “But they’re images for the common folk. They’d hang them inside and outside, as many as they possibly could.”
The prints are fraught with symbolism, always lucky and forward-looking. Cranes and peaches bring longevity, tigers mean courage, fish promise wealth. Fat babies are giggling vestiges of abundance. In their initial incarnation, the prints were images of door gods, who would drive away evil spirits. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) they began to showcase common folk and local customs. They were windows into daily life.
The simple, bright prints were common, and the craftsmen who made them held an important place in society. But in 1966, radical Communist followers of Mao Tse-tung, commonly known as the Red Guards, began destroying anything that spoke to another time – another rule – in China. So New Year’s prints, pottery and furniture began to be destroyed en masse.
“Anything old was threatening to the Red Guards,” explained Bristol. “So they burned it. They did away with the wood blocks, and still these prints survived. It was a very big thing.”
Bristol and her business partner, UnChu Ring, specialize in all sorts of Asian antiques, but they have an emphasis on Chinese artifacts. That’s due in part to their working relationship with the Asian Arts Council, and also because they have a good source for Chinese furniture. Bristol is especially drawn to the Ming aesthetic, which is a miracle of simplicity and sustainability. Graceful lines complement solid craftsmanship.
“It’s simple, but it’s never seen the American West,” said Bristol. “Unlike the prints, which were mass produced, furniture was made specifically for families and individuals.”
There’s a concubine’s chair in the gallery, which has a carved plate of the concubine to whom it belonged on the back support. The chair is lower than most, signifying the concubine’s lower status in the family. It’s a fluid piece of work, and has been restored – as all of the furniture in Asian Village Antiques has been – without embellishments. The gallery’s desk is full of gouges and burn marks, a map of its life before it came to reside in Edwards.
“These burn marks are what makes this desk so special,” Bristol said.
In addition to antiques, Bristol and Ring’s gallery has clothing, teapots and tokens of Asian cultures, such as cards and fortune sticks.
“People came in who liked the aesthetic and wanted to be a part of it,” said Bristol. “So we started carrying things that would be appropriate as birthday gifts, not just antiques.”
For more information on Asian Village Antiques, call them at 926-6188 or visit them in Edwards Village Center. And look for the chubby babies.
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