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Firecracker label depicting 4 male figures. Descriptions of figures go clockwise, starting with central figure. The central figure is a male with a long mustache and a long beard separated into three parts. He is holding the central part of his beard. He is wearing a purple hat that protrudes from each side with long horizontal pieces, and a green robe with colourful detailing. To his right is a servant wearing a yellow robe and a purple cap. He is holding an orange and green umbrella (or parasol) over the first figure. The next figure, underneath the servant, is wearing a pink robe, a purple head covering and a beard also separated into 3 parts. He is facing to the left of the image and is holding up a child in both arms. To the left of this figure is a bald man with white facial hair, who is holding an object toward the child. The background is gold with floral images in red, pink, and orange all over. The image is surrounded by a red geometric pattern.

History Of Use

Invented in China around the 12th century or earlier, firecrackers have been widely used in China to serve a variety of religious and secular purposes. In both the past and present, firecrackers are used to ward off evil spirits, to honour spirits and deities, and to mark special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, funerals, shop openings, or festivals. Firecrackers are by far in greatest demand during the annual Lunar New Year, when they are ignited to purify a space and to blast away negative energies and demons. Firecrackers are also used in “fengshui” geomantic practices, as ritual objects to be hung in the home to stimulate new beginnings, prosperity, and the protection of the household. A large number of gold firecracker labels were produced from approximately 1850-1910, in the Guangdong region of southern China, to decorate the wooden crates that they were shipped in. Since many of these were produced in Foshan (Fatshan), a city noted for its manufacture of handmade ritual goods, collectors often refer to them as “Fat Shan” labels. The characteristic "gold" effect is produced from bronze or copper sheets and gold leaf, and is recognized as a speciality of Foshan. They range in size from smaller four-inch squares to larger circular labels with a twenty-four inch diameter. The gold labels are colourfully painted with auspicious themes, including depictions of deities, legends and myths, historical narratives, and scenes of everyday life. The images enhance the fireworks’ role in dispelling evil while attracting virtue and prosperity. These gold labels were widely sold in south-central and south-west China, and south-east Asia. Local manufacturers and merchants would order bulk firecrackers, pack them into wooden crates, and decorate the crates with these labels to entice potential distributors and consumers. Aside from their use as firecracker labels, many people in south China used the labels to decorate their rooms and utensils. Few labels survived to today because of their fragility and the small value placed on them at the time. After 1910, these painstaking production techniques were gradually replaced by lithography machines, which allowed artisans to print full colour labels on rice paper.

Specific Techniques

Gold labels were handmade in workshops using assembly line techniques. Artisans first cut out the labels' overall shape from bronze or copper foil. Next, they apply a thin rice paper backing to strengthen the foil. To texturize the foil, the artisans used pointed tools to emboss designs. These sheets were pinned to a wall or table so that several painters could work on them. The backgrounds would be painted first, followed by the details in the foreground using smaller brushes. During the last application, even finer brushes were used for the facial features and calligraphy. Some shiny areas of the original bronze or copper foil were left exposed. It was also common to add a layer of gold leaf designs, pressed out of hand-carved wooden blocks, to further accentuate the design.

Iconographic Meaning

This image depicts one of the most popular themes in the art of the Chinese Lunar New Year: the “Three Stars” (sanxing). The Three Stars refers to a grouping of three immortal deities who are named Fu (prosperity), Lu (emolument), and Shou (longevity). These deities are regularly portrayed in human form on firecracker labels, prints, altar objects, and paintings. The tall figure in the center, who is wearing green court robes, an official’s cap with wide flaps, and holding a ruyi sceptre (symbolic object of power, status, and prosperity), is the Lu deity of emolument. The figure on the right, holding a baby boy, is the Fu deity of prosperity. The figure on the left with a protruding bald head and holding a longevity peach, is the Shou deity of longevity. Four colourful bats hover above the deities, a rebus sign of prosperity since the name for bat (fu) serves as a homonym for prosperity (fu). An attendant holds a large parasol over the deities, indicating their high status. The piece is designed to convey blessings for an auspicious and successful Lunar New Year.

Item History

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