The most beau­ti­ful and sought-af­ter woman in China dur­ing the early to mid 1900s was one not of flesh and blood, but wa­ter­color and ink.

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - In Shang­hai


Al­most al­ways clad in a skin-tight qi­pao, or cheongsam, this woman was once a ubiq­ui­tous fig­ure in Shang­hai. She wore dif­fer­ent faces and had no name, but she would cap­ti­vate the world with a smile that was laden with ori­en­tal se­duc­tion. Although even the most gor­geous of in­di­vid­u­als will even­tu­ally fall prey to the ef­fects of time and wither with age, this woman has seem­ingly de­fied this logic; her beauty for­ever im­mor­tal­ized, quite lit­er­ally, above time.

She is none other than Shang­hai’s iconic cal­en­dar girl.

This year marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the birth of cal­en­dar paint­ing, an art form which can still be found in old­fash­ioned restau­rants, movies about old Shang­hai and art gal­leries. It was once such a fa­mous prod­uct of Shang­hai that many peo­ple have even likened the art to be­ing “Shang­hai’s name card”.

“Cal­en­dar paint­ing is a pop­u­lar art form in lo­cal so­ci­ety that re­flects Shang­hainese style. It may just be a paint­ing, but it also evokes a sense of fas­ci­na­tion in peo­ple about the city,” said Dai Zhiqi, an art school teacher and a fan of cal­en­dar paint­ing.

Dur­ing a time when women in Shang­hai were con­ser­va­tively dressed in black or navy blue at­tire, the curves of these painted beau­ties on the cal­en­dars seem­ingly made up for the short­age of fem­i­nine charm in the so­ci­ety. Such cal­en­dars were deemed to be a nec­es­sary or­na­ment in Chi­nese fam­i­lies and were usu­ally kept in bronze frames for pro­tec­tion as these cal­en­dars would be hung on the wall for at least a year.

Cal­en­dar paint­ing ac­tu­ally started off as a form of prod­uct advertising. When Shang­hai be­came a treaty port af­ter the Qing gov­ern­ment lost the First and Sec­ond Opium War to for­eign armies, traders from abroad started com­ing to the city to sell Western prod­ucts such as soap, cig­a­rettes and medicine.

In or­der to at­tract the lo­cals to buy their prod­ucts, the for­eign­ers re­sorted to us­ing clas­si­cal paint­ings or painted ad­ver­tise­ments by Western artists to pro­mote their wares. But that failed mis­er­ably, as most of the lo­cals did not un­der­stand the for­eign cul­ture. As a re­sult, these traders turned to lo­cal artists for help in­stead.

“They took in­spi­ra­tion from tra­di­tional Chi­nese New Year paint­ings and started to in­vite lo­cal artists to do advertising paint­ing. This grad­u­ally gave birth to the Shang­hai-style cal­en­dar art,” said Chen Qi, deputy di­rec­tor of Shang­hai Art As­so­ci­a­tion, dur­ing an cal­en­dar art seminar held in Shang­hai ear­lier this year.

Apart from beau­ti­ful women, peo­ple could also find chil­dren and home dec­o­ra­tions in these cal­en­dars, which soon be­came the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what peo­ple should strive to achieve in life. The prod­uct’s im­age and slo­gan were usu­ally printed in a cor­ner of the paint­ing.

“It was a kind of advertising art. In the be­gin­ning, the advertiser in­vited Chi­nese artists to cre­ate their own de­signs, most of which were tra­di­tional Chi­nese sub­jects such as a pop­u­lar opera sce­nario or an ink paint­ing of land­scapes,” Chen added. “Grad­u­ally, as Western cul­ture started to ex­ert a big­ger in­flu­ence on lo­cal so­ci­ety, mod­ern women be­came an over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar sub­ject.”

For a long time, ex­pos­ing too much skin was con­sid­ered to be taboo in Chi­nese cul­ture, but cal­en­dar paint­ings shifted so­ci­etal per­cep­tion and made re­veal­ing at­tire ac­cept­able. These paint­ings al­ways de­picted a mod­ern Chi­nese lady; the an­tithe­sis of the tra­di­tional woman who would never ex­pose her teeth when she smiled. Be­sides body-hug­ging cheongsams, cal­en­dar women could also be found in sexy sports shorts, mod­ern Western dresses and even swimming suits, and they would be par­tic­i­pat­ing in ac­tiv­i­ties such as rid­ing a bi­cy­cle or play­ing ten­nis. Some would even be de­picted as a con­fi­dent, so­phis­ti­cated in­di­vid­ual smok­ing in a café.

“One rea­son the cal­en­dar lady be­came so suc­cess­ful was that it of­fered ev­ery­one the idea of the per­fect woman, which was more or less a short­age in the spir­i­tual Chi­nese so­ci­ety at that time,” said Wang Bangx­iong, pro­fes­sor from Shang­hai Theatre Academy.

Be­cause of the pop­u­lar­ity of these cal­en­dars, shrewd busi­ness­men of­ten bun­dled them with their prod­ucts to at­tract more sales. The Nanyang Broth­ers To­bacco Com­pany, which was set up in 1905 and be­came a ma­jor to­bacco pro­ducer in Shang­hai, re­lied heav­ily on these cal­en­dars to

Wang Bangx­iong, boost their sales. They even had an an­nual bud­get set aside for cal­en­dar paint­ing.

Due to its mas­sive de­mand, cal­en­dar paint­ing quickly de­vel­oped in Shang­hai in the 1930s and some artists started set­ting up their own stu­dios to cap­i­tal­ize on the boom. The pro­fes­sion was a lu­cra­tive one, too — dur­ing a time when the av­er­age monthly in­come of a mid­dle school teacher was be­tween 50 and 140 yuan, a paint­ing by a well-known artist could fetch as much as 500 yuan. But cre­at­ing top notch work was time con­sum­ing as well, and a piece could take as long as a month to com­plete.

Some of those who could com­mand such fees were artists like Jin Meisheng (1902 -1989). Jin started learn­ing about wa­ter color paint­ing in 1919 from a master crafts­man named Xu Yongqing and he grad­u­ally de­vel­oped in­ter­ests in cal­en­dar paint­ing af­ter work­ing in a pub­li­ca­tion house. He had five sons, but Jin Peigeng was the only one who fol­lowed in his fa­ther’s foot­steps. They be­came the only fa­ther and son duo in Shang­hai spe­cial­iz­ing in cal­en­dar paint­ing.

“Ladies in Four Sea­sons” was one of the most pop­u­lar art works by Jin, whose many other cre­ations had print runs of over 1 mil­lion. Peigeng re­vealed that though his fa­ther had painted count­less por­traits of beau­ti­ful women, none of them were ac­tu­ally based on a real per­son.

“My fa­ther didn’t in­vite mod­els to his stu­dio as so­ci­ety was not that open-minded. In­stead, he got his in­spi­ra­tion from mag­a­zines, or based his paint­ings on his imag­i­na­tion,” Peigeng said. “The ladies who were cre­ated from his imag­i­na­tion were the best-look­ing ones.”

One of the spe­cial skills that the Jins used in their work is called stump­ing, a com­bi­na­tion of tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Western paint­ing tech­niques. They would first sketch the sub­ject us­ing a pen­cil be­fore us­ing a mod­i­fied wool brush to care­fully rub stump­ing chalk pow­der on the pa­per, cre­at­ing a shadow ef­fect that makes the il­lus­tra­tion look three di­men­sional, an el­e­ment that is ab­sent from tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ings. The artist would then use wa­ter­color to add vi­brancy and re­al­ism to the work.

“Good artists only used im­ported ma­te­ri­als and tools like pa­per, col­ors, pow­der and paint­ing brushes,” Peigeng said. “Only the im­ported col­ors would show a very de­cent and bright red or blue.”

Apart from Shang­hai, cal­en­dar paint­ings were also very pop­u­lar in South­east Asian coun­tries and Europe. Jiang Xian­hui, editor of the book One Cen­tury of Shang­hai Cal­en­dar Paint­ing, noted that many traders would pur­chase hun­dreds of paint­ings in Shang­hai be­fore re­turn­ing to their home coun­tries.

Advertising ma­te­ri­als were on the de­cline fol­low­ing the lib­er­a­tion of China in 1949 as the gov­ern­ment launched a re­form over the com­mer­cial advertising in­dus­try and cal­en­dar paint­ing be­came a pro­tected folk art that later evolved into an art form as­so­ci­ated with Chi­nese New Year. In 1954, Shang­hai es­tab­lished a spe­cial pub­li­ca­tion house to pro­duce such paint­ings. Jin, along with other fa­mous artists such as Xie Zhiguang and Li Mubai, were in­vited to set up their own stu­dios.

As the gov­ern­ment sought to re­flect the new val­ues of the coun­try, il­lus­tra­tions of farm­ers and work­ers re­placed the iconic Shang­hai lady in these Chi­nese New Year cal­en­dars. To bet­ter un­der­stand their new sub­jects, stu­dios of­ten or­ga­nized ex­cur­sions so that artists can prac­tice sketch­ing scenes of peo­ple hard at work, such as farm­ers rais­ing healthy pigs.

The craft of cal­en­dar paint­ing took a hit in the 1960s when the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate pre­vented the de­vel­op­ment of art stu­dios. When the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion (1966-1976) came about, cal­en­dar paint­ing was ren­dered al­most in­ex­is­tent. The fi­nal blow to the art form came when pho­to­graphic tech­nol­ogy be­came pop­u­lar in the 1980s.

Though cal­en­dar paint­ings have now be­come a his­toric ar­ti­fact, the time­less beauty of those women are still etched into the minds of many peo­ple. He Xiao­liang, a Shang­hai na­tive, still vividly re­calls the woman on the cal­en­dar from his child­hood days in the early 1980s.

“Our old house was re­ally dim and ev­ery piece of fur­ni­ture looked a lit­tle sad in such light. The cal­en­dar that was hung in the liv­ing room was the only thing that stood out,” he re­called.

“I can still re­mem­ber the woman in the cal­en­dar. She was wear­ing white fur and red pants. She was the pret­ti­est woman to me at that time.”

One rea­son the cal­en­dar lady be­came so suc­cess­ful was that it of­fered ev­ery­one the idea of the per­fect woman, which was more or less a short­age in the spir­i­tual Chi­nese so­ci­ety at that time.”

pro­fes­sor from Shang­hai Theatre Academy


Jin Peigeng, son of Jin Meisheng, talks about spe­cial tech­niques in cal­en­dar paint­ing.

Time­less beauty: Jin Meisheng’s il­lus­tra­tions of the "Shang­hai lady".

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