Beijing artist’s obsession saves traditional print art

ZHANG Kuo, 58, always associates his art with Chairman Mao Zedong.

In the 1970s, when he was a middle school student, houses and streets in Beijing were posted with woodcut prints of the “great helmsman” during the Spring Festival.

He was fascinated by the traditional folk art but did not dare to try at that time, because any mistakes on Chairman Mao’s portraits could bring bad consequences.

Today, he is recognized as “the last master of Beijing’s woodcut New Year prints.”

The art — nianhua — dates back to more than 600 years when people pasted woodcut prints on doors and walls and the gates of palaces, to ward off devils or simply to express good wishes during festivals.

Subjects varied from place to place, but Beijing natives preferred pictures of gods, heroes, ancestors, folk tales and Peking operas.

Zhang’s family lived in a hutong (alleyway) near the Forbidden City. He learned carpentry, including woodcutting, from a neighbor at a young age. He got a job as a truck driver on road construction projects.

In 2007, he travelled to Shaanxi and Henan provinces, where he found local woodcut print artists still working. A determined Zhang was determined to master the craft.

He bought wood and spent months in libraries and antique shops, looking for traditional prints, books and carving knives. He rented a small house and converted it as his studio in downtown Beijing.

The four steps of printing

Woodcut printing has four steps. Zhang usually sketches a picture on a piece of paper before carving it on a set of boards. He paints the boards in different colors. Later, he presses a piece of paper to the board to print the picture. In the bygone days, they were done by different craftsmen, but Zhang does all of them himself.

For a decade, he spent hours each day carving, often forgetting to eat.

His early works drew little attention. For a long time, he sold two or three paintings a month, each priced just 20 yuan (US$2.94). He earned a living by running a restaurant.

Today, machine-made prints sell faster and cheaper, but Zhang is unfazed by the competition. He comforts himself with a Chinese saying: “Soft fire makes sweet malt.”

Though woodcut prints bring little money, he is happy with the satisfaction his job gives.

In the past, woodcut printing was a low-paying job. Industrialization made the skills rare and the craftsmen more respected. Zhang’s story has been covered in newspapers and books, and attracted a lot of attention on the social media.

He and his wife are regularly invited to demonstrate at temple fairs and exhibitions. Last year, he was invited to speak at primary and middle schools to talk on the traditional art, which was added to China’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2006.

Zhang has also tried to infuse modern culture into the art, like adding Chinese and foreign cartoon characters in his work, and printing on shopping bags.

The Monkey King, the map of Middle Earth from “The Lord of the Rings” and popular Japanese cartoon and video game characters are also on his printing list.

His favorite piece, however, is a QR code that took three days to carve. He uses it on each print so that customers can scan it and reach him on WeChat.

Zhang’s biggest wish is to hold an exhibition of his prints. “For a craftsman, being respected matters more than making money,” he says.