The Paper Horse of Tengchong, an Ornate and Magical Art
In the border region of western Yunnan, where China is linked with Myanmar by common mountains and rivers, there is a large expanse of beautiful land, Tengchong, which is known as "an emerald in the depth of great mountains."
A view of the colcano of Tengchong
Tengchong used to be a hub of communications on the ancient southern Silk Road. As long as more than 2,400 years ago, it was visited by merchants from the middle reaches of the Yangtze River on their way to Myanmar, India, Pakistan and Iran.
Magnificent volcanoes, erupting geysers, enchanted meadows, elegant emeralds and 1,000-year-old towns can be found here, as well as a folk art that is almost extinct in other parts of China-the paper horse.
A Porter, a piece of paper horse made in the Republic of China Period
The paper horse is also called horse paper and divine horse. It is the general name for the various kinds of printed matters of woodblocks that are burned in sacrificial customs among the Chinese people. It originated from the prayers of people in ancient times to deities to receive happiness and to exorcize evil spirits. The paper horse is a crafted art, which is burned after its birth. It never appeals to refined tastes, and its fate is not to be hung in grand halls or elegant rooms, but to end in wisps of fire and ashes on the ground. However, it has already a history of over 1,000 years. Although it has an ordinary appearance, its patterns of primitive simplicity have a particularly pleasing quality. And its rich religious and folklore subject-matter make it even more enigmatically attractive.
The Gods of Conjugal Happiness, a paper horse made in the Qing Dynasty
The paper horse of Tengchong, which is locally called "divine horse," as with paper horses of other regions, was introduced from the central plains. With the paper horse of the Han nationality as its basis, Yunnan has gradually formed paper horses with local characteristics by integrating the local customs of worshipping national deities, ghosts and spirits in the primitive religions. The art of making "divine horse" is a recreation based on the rich folk culture of the central plains and the folk art among ethnic minorities in the frontiers of Yunnan Province.
In essence, the paper horse is a black-white woodblock painting and a monochromatic printing from a carved woodblock, that is, black-white woodcarving. The printing of the horse is simple. Usually prepared Chinese ink, soot from the bottom of pans, ink in red, blue and black are used as the printing materials. The natural colors of the paper usually are used and, although little attention is paid to the quality of the paper, the quality of the paper, the quality of the tissue paper produced in Tengchong is considered the best. In printing, first, a brush is dipped in color and brushed on the woodblock and then the woodblock is covered with paper. The paper is pressed by being lifted from the woodblock; thus, the finished paper horse. The majority of the people buying the paper horse do not care about the quality, as long as it meets the definition of paper horse they are satisfied, because ultimately it will be burned, unlike New Year paintings, which are pasted on doors and walls.
A printing block for paper horse
The divine horse of Tengchong merges calligraphy, painting and carving into an organic whole. Its shape is striking, bold, free and varied, far from the stereotype of a typical, simple woodcarving. The artist draws inspiration from people and nature and produces unrestrained creations in line with his understanding of deities and bodhisattvas. The patterns include deities, ghosts, spirits, birds, animals, mountains and rivers. According to analysis of existing works, the divine horse of Tengchong mainly draws on the following subject-matter: first, worship of nature in primitive religion, such as heaven and earth, the sun palace, the moon hall, and the mountain god; second, hunting and traveling in the agricultural society, such as male and female deities of land, the hunting god, and the god of transportation; third, celebrations and domestic matters, such as the god of marital intimacy and the god of safety; fourth, worship of ancestors, ghosts and spirits, such as Marquis Guan Yu; fifth, the deities of different trades, such as Confucius and the woodworking master Lu Ban. Confucius classics are also reflected in paper horse, which tells people what should and should not be done and has the practical significance of social education. A large number of woodblock paintings with Buddhist scriptures can be included among works of paper horse.
In Tengyue Divine horse Art Gallery of Heshun Town, Tengchong County, 303 woodblocks carved with divine horses-collections of Mr. Jia Zhiwei-are on exhibition. These woodblocks reflect the history of almost 200 years in the development of the art of divine horse. They are an invaluable resource as research on folk customs and religion, as well as being a precious art collection. The curious, fantastic images on the woodblocks, the primitive straightforwardness and unruliness are wonderfully esoteric.
Paper horse, this art that originated in the Central Plains and has been little known for a long time, has been preserved in the region inhabited by minority ethnic groups in the depths of the mountains in Yunnan Province. Compared with such highbrow art as elegant porcelainware and exquisite brocade embroidery, paper horse is but "a song of the rustic poor" -colorless and in plain clothes. However, in their conscientiously observed deities, a unique and strongly human element can be gleaned, and by closely examining those characters, you will learn a bit about the actual lives and spiritual sustenance of their ancestors.