Tantou New Year wood-block prints are the only hand-made wood-block printing pictures in Hunan Province, featuring the unique local characteristics of Southern Chu. The Town of Tantou, which is located in the southeast of Longhui County, Hunan Province, has simple and honest people and unique customs. Once upon a time, it was home to villages of paper-making, villages of carving, lanes of colored paper, stained paper and blotting paper, and streets of New Year prints. At that time, these handicrafts were well developed, with clear division of labor supporting one another. Tantou has an old tradition of belief in witches and sacrifice is popular among its people. In the sacrificial ceremony, a great variety of paper horses are used and the production process of these horses was inherited by the subsequent Tantou New Year wood-block prints. According to the document Longhui County Annal, the Tantou New Year wood-block prints dates back to 300 years ago, but an oral description states that it is Wang Dongyuan, nicknamed "Monkey Wang", who founded the first workshop of new year wood-block prints in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties to produce a series of new year pictures, including Qin Shubao and Yuchi Gong. During the Reign of Emperor Daoguang in the Qing Dynasty, Hu Qifu opened his workshop named "Heshunchang", adding The Oath of Brotherhood in the Peach Garden and other new types. During the Reign of Emperor Tongzhi, Tantou New Year wood-block prints were sold across the country. In the early 20th century, the production of Tantou prints had a golden age when 108 painting workshops were set up, selling products to the southern provinces of China and Southeast Asia, with an overall annual capacity of over thirty million copies. Tantou prints had been regarded as superstitious objects and therefore been prohibited since 1949. The production was once recovered in 1958, but was devastated again in 1966. It was not until 1979 that this art form was finally brought back to normal operations. In 1984, the Town of Tantou was named by the Ministry of Culture as the Hometown of Modern Chinese Folk Painting. In 1994, the Tantou New Year wood-block prints won the Silver Award of Unique Chinese Folk Art organized by the Ministry of Culture. In 2003, the Tantou prints won the Gold Award of Traditional Chinese Crafts on the First Exhibition of Culture Relic Imitations and Folk Artworks of China.
All processes of the Tantou New Year wood-block prints, from papermaking to the finished product, are completed in Tantou, thus forming a complete production line, which is rarely seen among its kind. The traditional Tantou New Year wood-block prints have more than 40 varieties, mainly categorized into door-god pictures, auspicious emblems and dramatic stories. Traditional processes such as paper steaming, alum water brushing and powder brushing are unique for Tantou New Year wood-block prints, as is the "face painting". When it comes to wood-block engraving, the challenge lies in carving of the ink line. In this regard, the Gaofuchang, a famous New Year picture workshop, is known for its "perpendicular knife and ink line" engraving skill, which requires consistent blade angles, appropriate wrist strength, and a steady hand in turning, which all depends on the feeling and exquisite skills of the artist.
With a history of over three hundred years, the art of Tantou New Year wood-block prints is still well recognized and appreciated by today’s people, with many copies collected by large museums in Britain, America, Japan, and other countries. However, recent years have witnessed a rapid decline of the market for Tantou New Year wood-block prints, leaving workshops striving to make ends meet and some artists have chosen to make a living in other professions. Only two workshops still have their shops, among them, Jinyumei has largely stopped production, while Gaolamei is struggling with an annual production of less than 50,000 copies, and neither of the workshop owners have any offspring willing to inherit their property. The Tantou New Year wood-block prints, suffering from destruction and losses, along with the disappearance of many unique processes and skills, are in urgent need of rescue and protection.