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Clay figurines in China

Updated: 2011-05-11 15:00
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Clay figurines in China

A boy helps his father painting clay figures in the family studio.


Chinese folklore has it that humans were originally created out of clay by the Goddess Nüwa. Still using her simple materials, Chinese folk artists revive this legend daily by molding delicate clay figurines.

Numbers of clay animal sculptures are unearthed in China regularly and they reveal that the history of making of clay figurines probably dates back to the Neolithic Period. However, it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that clay figurines came into their heyday and became one of the most popular art forms.

To make a fine clay figurine, craftsmen first need to select proper clay – neither too sticky nor too stiff. Then they mix the clay with water, and hammer the mixture repeatedly until it is malleable enough to be molded. After that, craftsmen will knead the clay into different shapes and dip the figurine in rosin or Chinese ink (this depends on the need for a base color). The next step is to apply pigments or gouache colors on the molded base and refine the image with a flax pen.

Figurine making requires the skills of stone carvers, painters, papercut makers and, sometimes, embroiderers as well. When the basic figurine is detailed, it needs to be coated with varnish to preserve the color. Clay figurines are not fired to dry like pottery. Instead, the final step consists of leaving the figure to dry in the shade. The entire process lasts at least one week.

Various types of clay figurines are indigenous to different places in the country, often based on special techniques passed down from ancestors. The best known brands are those made in Fengxiang of Shaanxi Province, Xunxian of Henan Province, Huishan of Jiangsu Province and by the Zhang's Family in Tianjin. They are all on China's national intangible cultural heritage list.

In Fengxiang County, clay figurines have been made for hundreds of years. Works by the Zhangs in Tianjin (referred to as Clay Figure Zhang) are famous for their utmost attention to detail and elaborate depiction of facial expressions and garments. Clay figurines made in Xunxian County are essentially flutes, fashioned as they are with small holes for the purpose. Different from those made in north China, clay figurines in Huishan in the southeast are distinguished by their plump shapes and mellow colors.

The diminutive clay figurine is still freighted with cultural connotations and reflects a whole way of life. Based on characters in Chinese folklore and traditional operas, they also reflect the artists' knowledge and ingenuity. During Spring Festival and other festive occasions, local craftsmen gear up production for what will be a peak season. These eye-catching works are often sold at local fairs, enlivening the ho-hum daily fare.

More new designs are emerging. With the rapid development of the tourism industry in recent years, more people have an opportunity to see these elegant works with their own eyes. Loved and cherished by clay figurine fans, this folk art is growing in popularity and prestige. These days, the craftsmen are connected to diverse cultural activities worldwide, offering China's clay crafts in more than 60 countries and regions.

Fengxiang Clay Figurine Fengxiang County is in Shaanxi Province in northwest China. It is widely believed that the Fengxiang clay figurine originated in the Ming Dynasty when six barracks of troops were stationed in a village there. When conflicts were resolved, the demobilized soldiers settled down in the village and named it after their military unit – Liuying – meaning "six barracks" in Chinese. Some of the soldiers were craftsmen before they joined the army. They revived their careers as potters in Liuying Village, and were delighted to find deposits of a very special clay unique to the area. However, the clay was too sticky to make pottery, so the craftsmen worked with it until they realized it was an ideal material to make clay sculptures; it didn't crack easily while drying. They mixed the clay with lime powder, animal-hide glue and other materials, shaped the mud and then brought the replicas to life with paint.

The experimental works were brought to village fairs, and to the craftsmen's delight, the figurines sold well. Local residents regarded the sculptures as a protection for a house and a blessing for children, so they were used to ward off evil or given as gifts to youngsters.

Clay figurines in China

The image of a Fengxiang clay horse appears on a 2002 stamp.

Clay figurine making skills were then passed down from generation to generation in Liuying Village and spread to other parts of the county. Soon the area was famed for clay figurine arts. Even today, nearly all the residents in Liuying can show you how to make a clay sculpture.

Images most commonly applied to figurines are flowers, animals and patterns that convey auspicious meanings. Though simple in style, the images are strong, vivid and impressive.

The colors of Fengxiang clay figurines are always in sharp contrast. After a piece of clay is shaped, craftsmen first paint the model white before outlining on it an image in black ink. Bright colors are blended into the design, contained within the outline. The overall effect is cheerful but distinct.

The colors and patterns are quite important in themselves; different meanings are signified, and certain patterns bring good luck. Red often means prosperity while green stands for longevity. A coin pattern calls on good fortune. The peony is a symbol of happiness and good health. A pomegranate expresses the wish for more offspring. There is a long-standing tradition in this area that exactly one month after a baby is born, a grandmother will give him or her a clay tiger, conveying wishes for a healthy and happy life. And these are just a few examples.

The Fengxiang clay figurine is widely recognized today as one of Shaanxi's specialties and is gaining increasing popularity among people in and outside the county.

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