A Paper god (also known as Shenma or Zhima) is a type of woodut print on paper of the images of gods and spirits, which is used by Chinese as a tool of communication between mortals and the deities. During some traditional Chinese festivals, such as the Spring Festival, paper gods are either burned during religious ceremonies or put up on the walls in different areas of the house. As an important genre of Chinese traditional woodblock print, paper god has a history of more than one thousand years and is widely spread across China. However, as a part of Chinese folk religion, paper gods are produced and used mainly in the rural area and, as a result, seldom attracted scholarly attention and was hardly considered an art form. The neglect is also associated with the progressive modernists’ efforts of enlightening Chinese society in the twentieth century, as paper god, along with other folk beliefs, was regarded as superstation that should be eradicated. From the founding of the Republic of China in 1911 to the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976, many of the prints and woodblocks were lost and destroyed. It was not until the 1980s, as China began its economic reform, the political environment started to loosen, and the paper gods were rediscovered by scholars, like Wang Shucun, who recognized the cultural importance of this art form. In early 2000s, paper gods along with other forms of woodcut prints were listed as national folk cultural heritage, and studies of paper gods were encouraged and funded by the Chinese government.[1]

This exhibition aims to introduce paper god as an ephemeral yet essential component of Chinese visual and material culture. It documents China’s vast rural population’s value, spiritual life and the everyday, which, as the exhibition will show, sometimes are at odds with what is practiced and believed in urban regions. Looking at China through the lenses of paper god offers a rare glimpse into the diversity of Chinese society. More importantly, tracing its perception over time will shed new light on the historically existent and growing divide between rural and urban China.

 

This exhibition will focus on collections of paper god from Northern China, namely Neiqiu (a rural town in Hebei Province) and Beijing, produced between late 19th century to mid-20th century. The first section, “Paper Gods and Chinese Folk Religion,” will introduce three main types of paper gods, religious beliefs behind them, and how those beliefs are materialized on the paper gods. The next section, “Paper Gods in Folk Rituals,” will show how the paper gods are used in folk rituals the countryside of Northern China. We will also see how the changing landscape and lifestyle of rural area affect the usage of paper gods. In the third section, “Production and Styles,” we will see the production process of paper gods, the changing styles over time, and how such changes reflect the changing life in rural area in modern China. In the final section, “Northern China and Korean Peninsula,” we will look beyond the border of China, compare the paper gods with arts from Korea and discover the shared cultural elements between two countries.

 

[1] Feng, Jicai. Chinese Woodblock New Year Picture Collection: Neiqiu Shenma. Zhonghua Book Company. 2009: 204-205.