The term "popular print" refers to mass-produced single-sheet color prints on auspicious or protective subjects that range from seasonal celebrations to figures from folk religion and popular literature. Due to their extraordinary popularity, prints made for the New Year's Festival constitute a special category: nianhua (New Year's pictures). Most common are images of door guardians thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the family in the coming year.
Although successful designs were quickly copied, some workshops became known for their distinctive styles or technical refinement. Prints from Taohuawu, in Suzhou, for instance, are admired for their subtle coloration, those from Yangliuqing, near Tianjin, for their painterly execution, and those from Mianzhu, in Sichuan, for their bold, bright designs. In the early seventeenth century individual workshops in Yangliuqing produced more than a million sheets per year. The twentieth century witnessed the rise of Shanghai as a production center, where a vibrant poster industry developed.
The early years of the twentieth century were marked by a powerful revival of black-and-white woodcuts in China, with similar developments in Europe, Japan, and America. Most prints in this section of the exhibition date from the period of political and cultural turmoil that began with the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and continued through the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45).
In the late 1920s, the artist Li Shutong (1880–1942) and the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) founded the Modern Woodcut Movement, championing pictorial prints as an ideal populist medium for advocating sociopolitical reforms. Breaking with traditional woodcut practices, artists assumed the heretofore separate roles of designer, carver, and printer while creating a new rustically expressive style. Early centers included Shanghai and Guangzhou. After the outbreak of war, left-leaning artists in Yan'an, the Communist base in the northwest, integrated folk-art elements to present idealized images of party heroes, while right-wing artists in Chongqing, the wartime capital in the southwest, called for resistance with compelling imagery marked by dramatic visual contrasts.