Chinese Arts & Crafts

Chinese Arts & Crafts

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Wuxi Clay Figurines – Trip to Huishan Ancient Town

Last week we visited a workshop in Huishan Ancient Town specialized in making Clay Figurines.
The owners are Ni Jun and Cao Zhiwei, a young couple who in 2007 joined a project launched by the Chinese Government aiming to preserve Chinese Intangible Heritage and teach young craftsmen the technique of making clay figurines. They studied with three representatives of the highest level of clay kneading, rewarded the status of master of national arts and crafts in this field, Yu XiangLian, Wang NanXian and Liu ChengYin. In 2012 they open their workshop in Huishan Ancient Town, where they mix tradition with innovation to make clay figurines of extraordinary vividness and refinement.

The entrance to the workshop

At the workshop you can also try to knead the clay and make your own figurine. Cao Zhiwei taught me how to make this panda. Since I used to make salt dough when I was a kid I was quite confident in my skills, but the clay is actually not so easy to knead and, as it also turns out, I`m obviously very bad with proportions.

Before talking about the clay figurines I`d like to spend a few words about the picturesque Huishan Ancient Town. Located at the foot of Mt. Huishan in Wuxi (Jiangsu Province), a 10 minutes ride by taxi from the station, Huishan Ancient Town has a history of more than 2.000 years and abounds in well preserved authentic temples and ancestral halls.
The old streets have been restored, and now is a free open air museum, where you can see lovely traditional buildings with stone guardians, carved rafters, beautiful stonework and elaborately carved wooden fronts, all this with scenic hills in the background and a canal flowing through the central part of the town. It`s also possible to visit a few of the houses, temples and gardens. The most attractive part of this place, especially for those who need a break from the overcrowded Shanghai, is that there are very few visitors, it`s probably the least commercialized touristic sites in Jiangsu Province, and is therefore very quite.

In the area around Huishan can be found a fine-grained type of clay characterized by high viscosity and flexibility, which neither cracks when drying nor breaks when stretched. The local clay has been used since the Ming Dynasty to make Wuxi Huishan clay figurines, which nowadays are still representative of clay toys in China.

Huishan clay figurines can be divided into two categories, coarse and fine. The two styles differ in their shape, decoration, production, and also history.
Coarse clay figurines feature a simple and distinctive folk style, bright colors and many more auspicious themes. They are first shaped with a simple mold, and then hand painted by artisans. The main styles of traditional figurines are animals and chubby babies depicted with rosy cheeks and bright eyes to show their good health. The babies are always shown holding plants, animals, or household objects with allegorical meanings promising heath, wealth, or happiness.

One of the most popular designs is “Da A Fu”, based on a local folk tale about the guardians of Huishan. According to the legend many years ago in the Huishan area lived wild beasts endangering children. To rescue the children the Jade Emperor sent two fairies, one in the form of a baby boy and the other a baby girl. They were without equal in strength, and as soon as they smiled the beasts would fall into their embrace. Since then, people began to enjoy peace and prosperity, and to thank them, local people used the clay of Huishan to mold the images of the babies and enshrined and worshipped them. Because they had brought happiness, the local people gave them the name "Da A fu", meaning "great happiness".  

Among animal figurines cats are the most classic design. One of the main industries in Jiangsu province has always been silk production, and peasants traditionally kept cats to scare away mice, a threat for silk worms. The cat figurines were both a good luck charm against mice, and also a reminder of the prosperity that came from a successful silk harvest. 

Fine clay figurines are completely handmade, more creative and vivid, and some of the most popular motifs are drawn from Chinese myths and legends, characters in classical operas, beautiful women, and playing children. It`s very fascinating to observe the process of making fine clay figurines, how black clay is made into vivid, lifelike human figures by skillful hands.

Whether coarse or fine, the clay figurines of Huishan are all artworks of clay, which combine clay sculpture with colored drawings. More than a dozen processes are involved, including filtering and beating the clay, designing, hand-molding, molding, engraved molding, repairing, priming, coloring and oiling. Coarse figurines are mostly made with molds. First, the craftsman makes a prototype to make a mold, which is then used to press out clay bases. They are then brushed with a writing brush dipped in water or rubbed with a wet cloth to make the bases smooth and neat. After being air-dried, the clay bases are colored and painted. Molds are not allowed in making fine figurines, which must be hand-molded by accomplished artists.
Decorating clay figurines with colored drawings is an important part in their production. A saying goes that a good clay figurine depends 30 percent on molding and 70 percent on its colored drawings. After painting with colors, black ink is necessary to define and draw facial lines and hair. 

Cao Zhiwei in the process of painting coarse figurines

Ni Jun kneading a fine figurine

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