Huishan, a town in Wuxi, a city in East China's Jiangsu Province, is renowned for its production of clay figurines. The local craftspeople use black clay, from the foot of the Huishan mountains, to make the figurines. The bright-colored figurines, which vividly depict figures and scenes based on operas and stories, embody the city's rich historical and cultural messages. In 2006, China added the figurines to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.
The world-famous Huishan clay figurines, which originated in the Southern Dynasties (420-589), and which flourished during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), date back more than 1,000 years.
There are two ways to produce the clay figurines; first, there is the mold-making method, during which the artist creates the figurines, such as the God of Longevity and the God of Wealth, from clay set in molds. Second, there is the hand-kneading method, during which the artist kneads the clay into the shapes of different animals, such as the Chinese zodiac (the 12 animals, which represent the 12 Earthly Branches, to symbolize the years in which people are born) and the scenes depicted in operas and stories.
Da'afu, or clay sculptures of a little boy and a little girl, are representative of Huishan clay figurines. Dressed in Chinese-style clothes, and holding a large lion or kylin (an auspicious legendary animal with a horn and scales) in his/her arms, each da'afu looks gentle, but powerful and dignified. For hundreds of years, the figurines have brought happiness to countless Chinese families.
The large-eared da'afu, created during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), sit upright in their seats — and they look merciful. The peonies in their hair represent wealth and rank; their Chinese-style clothes, good-fortune; the "long-life locks" on their chests, longevity; the large lions (or kylins) in their arms, the warding off of evil spirits; and the ceremonial boots on their feet, the passing of the imperial civil examinations in early youth.
Yu Xianglian, 76, is a native of Huishan. She is a State-level inheritor of the craft. She has been creating clay figurines for more than 60 years, during which she has won many prizes for her works. Many of her works, which have been displayed in some of the world's top museums, have amazed people with their charm and unique artistic beauty.
"My grandpa ran a store, which sold clay figurines. I began helping him make the figurines when I was 8 years old," Yu recalls.
In 1955, when she was 15, Yu began studying how to make figurines under Jiang Zixian, a well-known craftsman in Huishan. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills.
"Making clay figurines involves several complicated procedures, including processing the raw materials, designing the items, creating molds, and shaping, baking and painting (the items). Skilled craftsmen, most of whom are advanced in age, have few apprentices who can create the figurines independently, as one can get little pay for the arduous work," says Yu.
Luckily, however, Wuxi's municipal government has become aware of the importance of protecting the national treasure, and the government has been implementing measures to ensure the craft does not die out.
For example, the government in recent years has provided courses to cultivate craftsmen/craftswomen who make Huishan clay figurines. However, many of the trainees have had to take other jobs after they learned how to make the figurines, as they have had a hard time finding work in enterprises that produce and/or sell the figurines. In fact, many of the enterprises have had a hard time surviving the fierce market competition.
Yu, who has taught some of the courses, says she is proud of some of her students, especially those who worked and studied hard. "We cultivate professional workers, who design and create the figurines. It's really a pity that many of our trainees have to take jobs irrelevant to what they have learned, to make a living," Yu has been quoted as saying.
She believes, despite all of the odds, the traditional Chinese craft will survive, even if only a handful of craftspeople strive to keep it alive.
(Executive Editor: TONG XIN, Women of China English Monthly January 2017 Issue)
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