Ai Weiwei and FAKE design office’s Door Guardians for 2011 (image from theepochtimes.com)

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Rabbit began this month, and fireworks have been rocketing off in Chinese cities ever since. In celebration, provocative Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s FAKE (read fah-kuh) design office has created a contemporary version of a Chinese New Year’s tradition: Door Gods for 2011 (seen above). While they retain the ink-brush and watercolor style of traditional paintings, these modern guardians also feature anti-censorship symbolism unique to a Chinese audience of online netizens.

Traditional door gods on a temple door in Taichung, Taiwan (image from wikipedia.org)

Door Gods are an ancient Chinese tradition first documented in the 2,200-year old text Classic of Mountains and Sea. According to China’s Epoch Times, legend has it that the original door guardians were “two ghost hunters who lived in an enormous peach tree on a mountain in the East Sea.” These hunters’ specialty was “catching evil spirits and feeding them to tigers.”

As word of the hunters’ prowess spread, families began to hang peach wood strips inscribed with the hunters’ names over their front doors to invoke their protection. The wood strips gradually became “paper scrolls with pictures of the Door Gods,” along with paper strips on either side of the door inscribed with “a pair of New Year blessings,” or a rhyming couplet.

In China, the rhyming couplet paper strips are as iconic as a stocking hung over the fireplace would be in the US. Ai Weiwei and FAKE have appropriated this icon and turned it on its head, remixing classical iconography with the visual vocabulary of Chinese youth. The Door Gods, looking a little bit like Ai himself, feature a computer mouse on one side and a laptop emblazoned with the Twitter logo on the other, after Ai’s chosen means of communication. At bottom are a llama-looking creature and a crab. These are a little tougher to decipher.

The llama is actually a “grass mud horse,” an actual creature that sounds harmless enough until you realize that the Chinese term for it is “cao-ni-ma,” the same syllables as “fuck your mother.” The crab is a river crab, or “he-xie,” which is pronounced the same as the Chinese word for “harmony,” as in the government’s simple justification for oppression: a “harmonious society.”

Ai’s New Years couplets are similarly rebellious: “Eliminate Cruelty and Evil, We Want Fairness–Diminish Ghosts and Demons, We Want Righteousness,” and the other, “Kill the Ghosts and Demons, Let Peace be Our Measures–Escape Police and Special-Forces, Here Come National Treasures.” “National Treasures” refers to the river crab and the grass mud horse, terms that function as safe euphemisms on a censored internet.

Blatantly political as they are, these images have gone viral. But it seems that even appreciative audiences are hesitant to put them up outside their doors. The Epoch Times quotes one (slightly) tongue-in-cheek blogger:

How to put these couplets up is a problem. You have to worry about how your neighbors will look at you and about the possibility that those women working for the Neighborhood Committee might want to have a talk with you.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

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