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Clay figurines in China

Updated: 2011-05-11 15:00
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Huishan Clay Figurine

Huishan clay figurines are produced in the western suburb of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, and are one of China's most famous folk arts, having a history stretching back over a thousand years.

The craft originated in the Southern Dynasties (420-589) and reached its peak in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During the Qing, an artist made five clay figurines for Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) and was rewarded with high praise from the royal family. The production of figurines went on to flourish in the reigns of emperors Tongzhi (1861-1875) and Guangxu (1875-1908), and when Empress Dowager Cixi celebrated her 60th birthday in 1895 Huishan craftsmen presented a gift set of exquisite sculptures. Huishan clay figurines were then designated as a tribute to the imperial court.

Huishan figurines differ from those of other localities in that they are always small and always feature a big head. They divide into two types – mold-pressed and hand-crafted. The cheaper, molded, figures often serve as children's toys while the hand-crafted pieces are more refined and original, often having the status of high-class art.

Clay figurines in China

Iconic Da A Fu from Huishan.


The characters depicted come mainly from legends and Chinese opera plots. Da A Fu, a plump boy holding a fish or a qilin (a mythical animal believed to punish the wicked), is the most popular figure in Huishan clay art. The legend goes that long, long ago, Huishan was plagued by a ferocious lion that devoured children, and the people prayed for help to get rid of the lion. One day, a god, disguised as a boy, fought the beast and finally subdued it.

To express appreciation and to commemorate the god's beneficence, local people started to make clay figures of their boy savior Da A Fu. One-third of the overall figure is taken up by Da A Fu's large head, with a face round as a full moon and big ears reaching down to his shoulders. It is an image implying happiness and good fortune. A further symbol of auspice is the fish or qilin that he holds.

The God of Longevity is another popular character. During festival periods these characters are bestsellers at local fairs, representing people's best wishes for family, friends and life.

Clay Figurine Zhang

Zhang clay figurines, one of Tianjin's most prestigious folk arts, has a history of 180 years since its origins in the Qing Dynasty.

The art takes its name from Zhang Mingshan (1826-1906), its initiator. Zhang, son of a poor family in Tianjin, was taught clay-sculpting skills as a child by his craftsman father and he went on to develop a great interest in creation in clay. He would observe people from different walks of life in different places and would work those observations into his sculpted pieces, all executed with outstanding skill. They say Zhang could chat to people and sculpt at the same time, producing a lifelike figure with a striking facial expression.

Zhang's skill was not limited to deftness: he brought originality and imagination to his work. His subject repertoire was wide and he would apply bright colors. Not content with sticking to traditional skills, Zhang Mingshan incorporated painting and wood-carving techniques as well, and studied operas to ensure that his opera-based figures would be vibrant and expressive.

During his lifetime, Zhang Mingshan created more than 10,000 clay figurines and won a high reputation. His offspring took up the baton and it is now in the hands of the fourth generation. Because of the superb craftsmanship and the rich cultural connotations they embody, Zhang clay figurines have become must-have souvenirs, appreciated by Chinese and foreign tourists alike.

Nigugu in Xunxian County

Xunxian County is located in northern Henan Province and was a garrison county for peasant uprising troops at the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618). Some of the soldiers were good at making clay sculptures and created many figures in memory of those who had been killed in battle. When the uprising succeeded, many demobilized soldiers settled in the area and handed down the craft of making clay figurines.

Nigugu are made in a variety of animal and bird figures and range in size from 4 cm up to 20 cm. But their modest size is in contrast to their exquisite appearance. The background color is usually black but sharp contrasts are formed with bright motifs painted in red, yellow, green and other vibrant colors.

The special thing about Xun-xian County clay figures is that they can whistle: there are two small holes on the body that make a coo-coo sound when blown into. The name nigugu can be translated as "clay coo-coo."

Clay figurines in China

Preparing nigugu for one or two days of kiln-firing. Photos by China Foto Press

Salvation of a Tradition

In common with many other traditional crafts in a modern society, the making of clay figurines is in danger of extinction. The younger generations like the products, but few show much interest in learning the skills, aware that their making is a complicated process but one that reaps meager profits.

Step in the government, with a range of policies and funding to help preserve and pass on the craft: institutions and factories specializing in this folk art have been established in recent years; first-rate examples are being acquired for national museum collections and displayed in art galleries; increasingly, young people are getting apprenticed to respected craftsmen and are determined to inherit and spread clay figurine culture.

Family workshops like Clay Figurine Zhang no longer confine their teaching to family members exclusively, but will take on those willing to make a lifelong career of the art. Today, the fourth generation of Clay Figurine Zhang is transmitting its precious skills to the fifth. Apprentices are required to learn basic skills and to take related courses on culture.

Many exponents have been invited abroad to demonstrate their art and to exchange ideas with counterparts overseas. Huishan Clay Figurine Studio, for example, has benefited greatly from communication and cooperation with foreign folk-art circles. The largest clay figurine workshop in China, the studio produces more than two million clay sculptures every year and interaction with artists worldwide has greatly inspired the local craftsmen, adding to the popularity of their creations on the global market. Currently, over 80 percent of the studio's output is exported.

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Tea    Peking Opera


Cultural Heritage

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