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Prints of Deities and Popular Operas – Exhibition at the Museum Rietberg

In nineteen sections the basement exhibition in the beautiful premises of the Rietberg museum shows Chinese woodblock prints of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The exhibition starts off with Door Gods, the guardians of the house, who were watching over the gate between the human and the spirit world. The guardians who are depicted on the prints that used to be stuck on both sides of the outer gate, wear general’s uniforms. On the inside of the doors, Celestian Civilian Officials are depicted, wearing the clothes of civilian officials: patterned robes with dragons and cranes or the long scepter that granted them entrance to the court.

Another extremely important deity that, just like the Door Gods and the Celestian Civilian Officials, hung in every household, was the Kitchen God. Throughout the year, he observed family life from his recess in the kitchen. A week before the New Year’s celebration, the print would be taken down from his elevated post and dunked in wine or be smeared with honey. Since he was responsible for reporting to the celestial administration all that the family had done in the past year, the head of the household tried to make him either drunk or glue his lips with caramel, in order to prevent a negative report. After this ritual, his picture would be put on a paper sedan chair and burnt, in order to send him to the heavens with the smoke. He was believed to come back from his celestial trip only a week later on New Year’s Day, on which a new print of him would be stuck up on the kitchen wall. In the week without the Kitchen God, the family enjoyed some time without supervision and it was possible revel in gambling and other pleasures.

Detail of the Moon Hare
Detail of the Moon Hare

In the sixth and seventh section of the exhibition, the museum shows prints of two other important festivities in China: the Dragon Boat Festival and the Moon Festival. Section 6 shows two large-size prints, prominently depicting the Moon Hare in his celestial palace, preparing the elixir of immortality. The prints are made on red-tinted paper and decorated with thin layers of gold.

The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated at the beginning of summer and since in the north there were frequent droughts and in the south, there were floodings during summertime, images of Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of demons, were set up. His pictures were attached to the back door of the house, from where he prevented evil spirits from slipping inside bringing pests, diseases, and epidemics.

The legend of Zhong Kui, the model student turned guardian deity, is a cruel one: He was such good a student, that he was one of the few who were admitted to the palace examinations. The successful passing of this last test would allow him to marry one of the beautiful princesses of the court, and become a high-ranking officer in the administration. Unfortunately, the brilliant young man was not blessed with good-looks, on the contrary, he was so repulsive, that the examiners decided to fail him on the last examination, in order to protect his unfortunate future wife. Having lost face in such a shameful way, Zhong Kui went to the palace and hit his head on the stairs until he died. The conscience-stricken emperor thereupon posthumously granted him the high-ranking position he would have deserved. Zhong Kui’s ghost forgave and swore to protect the world against evil spirits.

“Retribution of Infanticide”

Prints didn’t have an exclusive use for rituals, they were often used for amusement, education or even decoration. The stories that were told in the prints were taken from operas and plays, some of them from shocking current events. One of them is shown in section 12 of the exhibition, called “Retribution for Infanticide”. The nine comic-like panels printed in five colours, tell the story of a widow who starts an affair with a monk. Being discovered by her two children, she becomes especially angry at her son who reveals the story to his teacher, who then calls the mother for an explanation. After she denies everything in front of the teacher, she takes revenge on her son and stabs him in his sleep. She covers up the murder by cutting his body into pieces and hiding the parts in an oil jug. This cruel story happened in the year 1897 and quickly became a popular opera all over China.

In the last section of the exhibition, called the Chinese Pantheon, a whole wall is dedicated to the goddesses of women and children. The 12 prints are from a workshop in Beijing and are dated at about 1940. From the meticulous distinction, one can guess the importance of the deities and what worries and concerns the Beijingers had during the 40ies. The goddess of women and children has many assistants, to which she delegates most issues: four are goddesses of pox, one prevents babies from falling out of bed, one helps the young mother with breastfeeding and one assigns the babies to their new families. The prints are printed on especially thin paper and not coloured, the design of each deity also resembling each other, showing their practical nature.

Just as unembellished in character are 13 prints of deities of astronomical phenomena and natural elements, and 18 images of guardian deities of various professional groups. Facing the practical prints are the images of the extremely popular eight immortals, who keep re-appearing in Chinese art in different formats.

Exhibition view

All the prints are accompanied by black-and-white photographs, hung high over the prints, and are aimed at giving the viewer a feeling of what life in China could have been like on the verge of the 20th century. No direct connection to the prints is drawn though, as no printing workshops or artists at work are shown. One short video shows the practice of dragon dance in a village and another video shows a video-installation of Chinese opera, trying to give a sense of the vivid opera scene, that was very closely entwined with the printing business.

To make an arch to today and to show that the worshipping of gods is not a relic from past times, the exhibition is concluded with colour photographies by Michael Wolf, who takes pictures of shrines dedicated to the Earth God, popularly still tended to by store-owners in Hong Kong, to make sure business flourishes.

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