For centuries, New Year paintings or nianhua have become an important component of household decorations in the celebration of Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, which falls on February 16 this year.
Many Chinese people return home to stay with their families during Lunar New Year, the nation's most important seasonal festival.
The contents of New Year paintings are usually objects, scenery and personages that symbolize wealth, happiness and longevity in accordance with traditional culture.
Let's take a look at a collection of New Year paintings produced by folk artists at different historical periods.
Welcoming back the God of Luck
As one of the most popular mythological activities in Chinese folk culture, the ritual to welcome the God of Luck back to households is often held on the early morning of the first day in the first month of the Lunar calendar.
It is said that the God of Luck will return to heaven along with other gods on the day of Little New Year, celebrated a week before Spring Festival, and report on the affairs of each family to the emperor of all gods.
The celebration is usually observed by all members of a household under the lead of the family head, with the aim of bringing more luck into home whilst deterring the occurrence of diseases and suffering.
There is no standard portrait of the God of Luck in Chinese New Year paintings.
Greeting the God of Wealth
Chinese people open their doors to greet the God of Wealth on the second day in the first month of the Lunar Calendar.
The most well-known God of Wealth is Zhao Gongming, who is usually dressed in the style of a Chinese mandarin official and worshipped by the public to bless them with a fortune in the upcoming year.
It is said that there are no pre-selected households for the God of Wealth to visit. Thousands of families across the country will compete against each other in winning his attention and possible entry into their homes by lighting firecrackers on the early morning of the day.
Apart from portraying how the public greets the God of Wealth on this day, some New Year paintings show the scenes of many women, along with their children, returning to their parents' homes.
The God of Wealth
No Disturbance to Wedding of Mice
A popular saying in the Chinese mythology goes, "Mice will hold their wedding ceremony on the third day in the first month of the Lunar Calendar."
As a result, the Chinese will not allow their cats to chase and eat mice. They will place a shoe of their children in a corner for mice to utilize as a "vehicle" to pick up their bride, light a candle and leave some food out on the special occasion.
The friendly measures are intended to cultivate a closer relationship between involved households and mice, with the aim of wishing the latter to inflict less damage upon their crops.
Welcoming back the God of Kitchen
The God of Kitchen, also called the "stove god," derives from ancient Chinese legends. The god is said to report the affairs of each family to the emperor of gods in heaven on the day of Little New Year, and to come back on the fourth day in the first month of the Lunar Calendar.
As the God of Kitchen can be mischievous, people thus often offer him food and drinks, hoping that he reports good things about their family and brings back blessings for the coming New Year.
All members in a family should stay at home, light firecrackers, offer their food and fake money, and open their door before the God of Kitchen goes away.
Greeting the God of Five Directions
According to the Chinese folk culture, the God of Five Directions was born on the fifth day in the first month of the Lunar Calendar. The god is said to have similar power as the God of Wealth in the distribution of fortune amongst his believers.
People will scramble to greet the God of Five Directions with drums and firecrackers on the early morning of that day, hoping to receive his blessings and make a fortune wherever they go.
Celebrating the Birth of Human Beings
As one of the important regular events at Spring Festival, the day of the birth of human beings, which falls on the seventh day in the first month of the Lunar Calendar, has been celebrated by the Chinese even before the establishment of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.).
According to Chinese mythology, the Goddess Nü Wa created human beings with mud on the last day of the first week when she made the earth in prehistoric times.
Before the birth of humanity, the legendary goddess made chickens, dogs and some other livestock.
She was also known for repairing the broken sky with a giant multi-colored stone at the start of the earth.
The Wedding of Mice
The God of Kitchen
The God of Five Directions
A painting of several children playing together in a courtyard
(Source: Tsinghua University Press/Translated and edited by Women of China)