AS early as 5,000 years ago, ancient Chinese already grouped the stars into 28 constellations and put them into four giant clusters: the blue dragon in the east, the white tiger in the west, the red bird in the south and the black tortoise and snake in the north.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), these symbols were widely used for decoration and other purposes in mansions and imperial palaces. Until recently, these animals have been carved on the eaves in Southwest China, expressing good wishes for residents.
Today, on four elegant one-square-metre kerchiefs, these celestial patterns have once again come to life in another form of folk art, the art of wax printing, or laran in Chinese.
The designer of the kerchiefs is Hong Fuyuan, 59, director of the Fuyuan Wax Printing Art Workshop in Southwest China's Guizhou Province.
Born into a family of artists in Anshun, one of the most famous wax printing sites in Guizhou, Hong has successfully applied the ancient technique of wax printing to make new expressions in the past three decades.
With over 3,000 years of history, wax printing is one of the oldest cloth printing techniques in China. Archaeological findings indicate that wax printing was popular in central China from the Han to the Song (960-1279) dynasties.
While it was replaced by other techniques in central China, ethnic groups in Southwest China developed this art style.
In villages, girls at the age six used to learn wax printing. The flowers, grasses, birds and animals all became harmonious patterns in the hands of these young artists.
With liquid wax, the folk artists first draw on the white cloth. When the wax is dried, the cloth is put into the dye vat. With wax, the design will remain white. The cloth is then boiled to melt the wax. The result is a clear blue-and-white picture.
Through twisting the cloth, the wax cracks and allows the dye to penetrate. This way the design is enlivened with irregular but beautiful veins called Bingwen, which some experts praise as the "soul of wax printing works."
But sadly, with the tide of modernization and the market economy, many folk artists have given up their work for other trades with better pay, said Gu Sen, research fellow at the Comparison Art Research Centre of the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts.
Once working in Guizhou for over 20 years, Gu is deeply worried about the gradual disappearance of the wax printing and other forms of folk arts.
"It is crucial for the survival of Chinese folk arts to get steady government funding to recognized folk artists, so that they can concentrate on perfecting their works and not worrying about earning a living," Gu said.
But clearly, it is unrealistic to rely on the government to revitalize the Chinese folk arts. And the efforts of the Guizhou Fuyuan Wax Printing Art Workshop might be a good example.
Founded in 1993 by Hong, the workshop has successfully established its place in the market.
Many of Hong's works have won prizes both at home and abroad. In 1997, when the Chinese Government regained the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, the gift that the Guizhou provincial government sent to Hong Kong was a wax printing work designed by Hong.
The work, where Hong showed what he could do, is a giant piece on Chinese dragon images from the prehistoric era to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
"I have always believed that folk arts should reflect the long history of China," Hong said. "I chose the dragon because Chinese people have always attached a special feeling to this legendary animal and called ourselves the descendants of the dragon."
Through his trips across China in the past decades, Hong visited many museums to study the dragon designs on pottery, bronze ware, architecture and such, and finally finished his master piece in 1996.
Hong said it is difficult to count the exact number of dragons in his work, as some old dragons contain a dozen smaller dragons in one design. If the rim of the work is included, the number of the dragons will exceed 100.
"There are no similar art piece in China," said Hong. "I am still improving the structure of this work to highlight its historical value."
In 1997, while participating in the International Folk Art Festival held in Beijing, Hong asked his friend Qin Linghai and his wife Chen Hua to set up an office in Beijing to sell and promote the folk art.
Since then, the little office in the Qinghua University has become a favourite place for professors and students looking for presents for foreign friends.
Qin has organized many small-scale exhibitions in universities and other institutions. Last month, a brief show at the Zhoukoufang Cultural Salon near the west gate of the China Ethnic Garden drew many experts in arts and clothing.
Wei Ronghui, director of the Clothing Centre at the China Ethnic Museum, was deeply touched by the magnificent works. Wei herself is of the Miao ethnic group, Guizhou Province.
"Wax printing works enjoy wide popularity abroad," she said. "I hope that this ancient art will become an ever-blooming flower with generous help from everyone."
Zhao Guangming from the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society said when he brought Hong's works to Israel in 1995, they were well received. In 1997, Hong was honoured by the society as one of the 10 great folk artists in China.
Zhou Lu, general manager of the Zhoukoufang Cultural Salon, said they have realized the importance of helping the folk artists, and they prepare to host more such events this year.
During this Spring Festival, from February 14 to 21, visitors to the Ditan Temple Fair and the Summer Palace will see rare high-quality wax printing and embroidery works, as well as Noh play masks, a form of folk art that originated in Anhui Province, all exhibited by the Guizhou Fuyuan Wax Printing Art Workshop.
Qin said they have spent over 10 years to gather the excellent embroidery pieces from remote villages.
Among the items is a magnificent outfit for the Miao King, the head of a Miao clan.
On the front of the coat are two giant dragons in Miao style, which has a smaller tail and a much simpler head than those of the royal dragon found in the Qing Dynasty. At the back of the coat are layers of dazzling embroidery in different colours.
Chen Hua said it must have taken many skilful embroiders years to make this coat.
"We will never sell it," Chen said. "It is a precious jewel unparalleled in the world."
Hong said each year he sets aside some money to collect folk art items like embroidery and masks. He said he hopes that soon he will be able to set up a museum featuring the Guizhou folk arts.
"The folk arts of Guizhou take up an unique place in China and the world," he said. "It is our mission to carry on this rich cultural heritage."
Hong's friend Qin will help the Art Department of the Beijing Languages and Culture University to start a course for overseas students to learn wax printing.
Meanwhile, Qin is preparing to set up a website, publish a VCD and a richly illustrated book. After that, he plans to go on a promotional tour to Japan and Southeast Asia.
However, Qin knows that these ambitions have to start from the present.
"We have to guard our artistic value," said Qin, adding that many similar promoters of folk arts have failed to settle down in Beijing, because they "neglected the art value and made their products mediocre replicas."
At the same time, Qin has to keep the price reasonable, often much lower than similar items of the same size in department stores.
"If we only aim at the wealthy, we would ultimately lose our root and the market," he concluded.