Perseverance, InnovationChinese Women Inheriting Intangible Cultural Heritage

October 23, 2018
By Chen Xiao, Gu Wentong and LilyEditor: Zhang Shanshan
Perseverance, Innovation
Yu Xianglian


As the Chinese Government has been making greater efforts to protect China's cultural heritage in recent years, an increasing number of Chinese have been placing greater value on "knickknacks" and "old-folk items" than they have in previous years. When you marvel at the beauty and artistic charm of such items, you might not fully appreciate how much effort the craftspeople put into making the items. They spend years creating crafts, with skill, determination and patience, and they constantly work to perfect and innovate the skills they use to create the crafts. We should give thumbs up to the women inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, especially to those who are breaking the gender barrier by inheriting the crafts traditionally passed down to men. In this edition, Women of China English Monthly shares the stories of women inheritors who create exquisite figurines.

Yu 'Root' of Huishan's Clay Figurines

Huishan's Clay Figurines

Huishan, a town in Wuxi, a city in East China's Jiangsu Province, is renowned for its production of clay figurines. Craftspeople use malleable black clay, at the foot of the Huishan Mountains, in the town, to make the figurines. The bright-colored figurines, which come in different shapes, embody the city's distinct cultural features, and its rich historical and cultural messages. Given the ingenious designs and the superb workmanship, an increasing number of people the world over have become fascinated with the works of art created by the craftspeople. There are two ways to produce clay figurines; first, 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. The second technique is the hand-kneading method, during which the artist kneads 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 scenes depicted in operas and stories. The artworks, characterized by vivid images depicted in an exaggerated way, have attracted countless people from both home and abroad.

Records indicate the craft of making Huishan's clay figurines originated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The craft flourished during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early Republic of China (1912-1949). However, the traditional Chinese craft started to wane during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945). 

Elder generations of craftspeople have tried their best to pass on the craft to the younger generations. However, given the rapid industrial and technological development during the past several decades, more, better mold-making clay figurines have been produced. That has adversely affected the development of the handmade items. In 2006, China added the craft of making Huishan's clay figurines to the list of the country's intangible cultural heritage.

Yu Xianglian, a native of Huishan, has been making clay figurines for more than 60 years. In her eyes, clay is a priceless treasure, and she always takes delight in using clay to make figurines.

Yu notes that intangible cultural heritage is an important part of people-oriented dynamic culture. She says craftspeople, who play important roles in human life, are somewhat like coriander, which adds flavor to a dish.

"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, she, then 15, began studying how to make figurines under Jiang Zixian, a well-known craftsman in Huishan. In the same year, she attended a course on the craft. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills, under the guidance of Bo Tingying and Zhang Genbao, both of whom were masters of arts and crafts in the town. 

"My teachers always attached great importance to observing and learning from real life. They made friends with many Peking and Kunqu opera performers, and they helped them build a stage and carry props. Every evening, my teachers made clay figurines based on their observation of the performances during the daytime," Yu recalls.

She notes that "creating art with a fingertip" is by no means an easy task. She during the past several decades has read extensively to increase her literary and philosophical knowledge, so she could create items with "vigorous vitality." She has also practiced calligraphy, to increase her hands' strength and flexibility. 

Many residents bought clay figurines in the past, as they believed the items would bring good fortune, ward off evil spirits and prevent calamities. However, as electronic mascots have become increasingly popular among Chinese in recent years, there has been smaller market demand for the crafts. Fortunately, Da'afu, or clay sculptures of a little boy and a little girl, which are representative of Huishan clay figurines, are popular among Chinese. Dressed in Chinese-styled 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.

Yu and Wang Nanxian, a master of painted sculpture, have worked together to reproduce more than 400 traditional clay figurines during the past several decades. They have also created many lifelike figurines based on traditional Chinese operas. 

Although Yu has become known far and wide in recent years, she keeps a low profile, and she stays industrious 
and thrifty. Despite her advanced age, she works hard in her studio every day. 

"Making clay figurines involves several complicated procedures, including processing the raw materials, designing the artworks, creating molds, shaping, baking and painting. Skilled craftspeople, 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 has been implementing measures to ensure the craft does not die out. For example, the government in recent years has provided training courses to cultivate craftsmen/craftswomen who make Huishan clay figurines. However, many of the trainees have had to take other jobs after they have learned how to make 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 considers herself the "root" of Huishan's clay figurines, who will always firmly protect the national cultural heritage. She believes, despite all odds, the traditional Chinese craft will survive, even if merely one or two craftspeople strive to keep it alive.

Woman Creates Dough Figurines Based on Traditional Chinese Operas

Shanghai's 'Dough Figurine Zhao'

Chinese dough modeling evolved from the folk art of pastry decoration during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Many Chinese refer to Zhao Kuoming, creator of Shanghai-style dough figurines, as "Dough Figurine Zhao." Zhao often made dough figurines while he watched Peking opera in a theater. Given his keen observation and superb workmanship, he created numerous lifelike figurines. When you look at Zhao's works, you will surely be impressed by the items' exquisiteness. For example, one could clearly see the teeth of the figurine of the God of Longevity. As he integrated the characteristics of Peking Opera and the Shanghai-style clay figurines, Zhao gradually developed his own artistic style, and he established the Shanghai-style dough figurines.

In 1959, Zhao began working at the Shanghai Institute of Arts and Design. During the following dozens of years, he created numerous excellent works that depicted modern life. Zhao Yanlin, daughter of Zhao Kuoming, is the second generation of "Dough Figurine Zhao." During the past several decades, she has put a lot of effort into inheriting and innovating the craft-making skills, to display the charm of the figurines to the world. By integrating the characteristics of dough modeling and miniature engraving, Zhao Yanlin has created a new craft, known as miniature dough modeling.

Chen Kaifeng, Zhao Yanlin's son, is the third generation of "Dough Figurine Zhao." During the past decade, he has offered courses on dough figurines at Shanghai Beijiao School (the Primary School Division) and Shanghai Mass Art Center. He has also provided online courses to popularize the art form. To meet people's aesthetic preferences, Chen has integrated modern artistic elements in the designs of his figurines. In 2008, China added the craft of making "Zhao's Dough Figurines" to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage. 

Zhao Kuoming took Zhao Yanlin as his apprentice when the latter was 18 years old. Zhao Kuoming often draped a bedsheet over his shoulders and mimicked various movements of Peking Opera figures, so his daughter could see the ruffles on the figures' costumes. To make her figurines look lively, Zhao Yanlin often observed the facial expressions of passers-by in the street.

As Zhao Yanlin often went to theaters with her father, to watch Peking and Kunqu operas, she got to know several well-known opera performers. She sought advice from them on how to vividly depict figures in traditional Chinese operas. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills. She was especially good at making figurines of beauties (in ancient costumes) and figures in traditional Chinese operas. By integrating the cultural elements of the Jiangnan areas (the areas south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) and absorbing the advantages of sculpting and other art forms, Zhao Yanlin gradually developed her own artistic style.

Zhao Yanlin during the past several decades has participated in international exhibitions and cultural activities in more than 70 countries, during which she has showed the artistic charm of the Shanghai-style dough figurines. Many of her works have earned her prizes for Shanghai's light and tourism industries.

When Zhao Yanlin participated in a cultural activity in Houston (a city in the United States) in 1981, an elderly American man asked her to help him repair the dough figurines, which were created by a well-known Chinese craftsman. When the octogenarian opened the several layers of cotton paper that wrapped the figurines, Zhao Yanlin discovered, to her pleasant surprise, all of the artworks had been created by her father.

Both Zhang Chongren, a well-known Chinese sculptor, and Wan Laiming, one of the earliest Chinese directors of cartoon films, wrote "magic hands" as an inscription for Zhao Yanlin, during the Third National Artists and Craftspeople's Conference. The event was held in Beijing in 1988.

Zhao Yanlin and Chen Enhua, her husband, who specializes in miniature engraving, take delight in working together to create dough figurines. The figurine, entitled Chang'e (the Chinese Goddess of the Moon), is one of the works that has given the couple their greatest satisfaction. The figurine of the goddess, made by Zhao Yanlin, is exquisite beyond compare. Chen engraved more than 300 Chinese characters on the fingernail-sized letter (held by Chang'e). That gave a golden touch to the artwork.

In 2005, both Zhao Yanlin and Chen were named Shanghai municipal masters of arts and crafts.

In July 2008, Zhao Yanlin's work earned her first prize for creative design during an Australian international exhibition of sculptures (including dough modeling). She has received a certificate of honorary citizenship and gold keys (which represent the citizenship) presented by the governors of Louisiana and Texas and the mayors of New Orleans and Houston. 

Peng Liyuan, China's first lady (wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping), on May 21, 2014, invited wives of State leaders, who attended the Fourth Summit of Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), to visit the exhibition of the Chinese intangible cultural heritage. The event was held in Yuyuan Garden (in Shanghai), one of the best-known classical Chinese gardens. Zhao Yanlin's work, Lin Daiyu (one of the principal characters of A Dream of Red Mansions, composed by Cao Xueqin, during the Qing Dynasty, and considered one of China's four classic novels) Burying Fallen Flower Petals, attracted many visitors' attention. Peng said the dough figurine was "very beautiful." She exhorted Zhao Yanlin to develop the craft and cultivate more inheritors of the craft.

The couple's home is their treasure house, and it is filled with their art. A warm, romantic atmosphere permeates the house as Zhao Yanlin and Chen busy themselves creating crafts on the same table.

In Her Father's Footsteps: Lang Creates Dough Figurines

Beijing's 'Dough Figurine Lang'

Dough modeling is one of the traditional Chinese folk arts. The terra cotta warriors and horses, which were created during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), and puppets in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) were the embryonic forms of Chinese dough modeling. In ancient times, residents of many regions in China used dough figurines as sacrificial offerings to their gods and/or ancestors, and/or gave the items as presents to their friends or relatives during festivals, holidays, weddings or funerals. 

Throughout the past two millennia, women and craftspeople have developed the traditional craft into an art form, which vividly — but in an exaggerated way — depicts figures and animals. Some dough figurines of figures in traditional Chinese operas, kept by Puyi (1906-1967, the last emperor of China and the final ruler of the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911]), were exhibited in the Palace Museum, the largest museum in China. In the past, it was fairly common to see adults and children watch craftsmen make dough figurines on the roadside in Beijing, especially during festivals and at market fairs. "Tang's Dough Figurines" and "Lang's Dough Figurines," which are named after the family names of the craftsmen who established the schools, are most representative of the Beijing-style dough figurines. The former is somewhat like the traditional Chinese freehand brushwork paintings, which depict figures, animals and/or landscapes in an exaggerated way, to reflect the spirit of the characters and/or animals and/or the beauty of the scenes, or to express the painters' feelings; whereas the latter is somewhat like the traditional Chinese realistic paintings, which are characterized by fine, delicate strokes that vividly depict figures, animals and/or scenes. In 2008, the craft of making "Lang's Dough Figurines" was added to the list of the country's items of intangible cultural heritage.

The board, which read "Dough Figurine Lang," displayed on a wall in Lang Zhili's living room, is eye-catching. The Langs' history of making figurines can be traced back to more than 100 years ago. Many Chinese refer to Lang Shao'an, Lang Zhili's father, as "Dough Figurine Lang." Of Lang Shao'an's nine children, only Lang Zhili, who is the third child of the family, follows in her father's footsteps and creates dough figurines.

Lang Shao'an taught his daughter, at an early age, the skills needed to make the figurines. In 1957, Lang Zhili began working at the Beijing Institute of Arts and Design.

The Langs have always attached great importance to depicting figurines' details, including their hairstyles and headgear, such as hats and scarves. Lang Zhili has not only inherited the traditional craft, but she has also blazed new trails, including making figurines, with different themes, and using different materials and new techniques, as she has created the items.

"Through repeated experiments, my father and I eventually discovered that by adding honey, glycerine and other materials to glutinous rice flour, we could preserve our figurines (for dozens of years). The works usually last just a few days," says Lang Zhili.

A friend of Lang Zhili offered two gourds, as presents, to her, when Lang Zhili visited the friend more than 10 years ago. Chen Yongchang, Lang Zhili's husband, who specializes in porcelain engraving, suggested Lang Zhili should use the unique-shaped plants to make figurines. Lang Zhili took his advice and she decided to use the gourds to depict scenes of a story. She cut the gourds into halves and painted the background of the story on the plants' inner surfaces. Then, she made figurines and put them inside the gourds. The "dough figurines inside gourds" has become Lang Zhili's "signature craft." Compared with the traditional dough figurines, the artworks have higher decorative value, and the works can depict stories' scenes in greater details, so the viewers can better understand the stories' plots.

The series of figurines (inside a fist-sized gourd), entitled The 108 Generals, characters depicted in Heroes of the Marshes (composed by Shi Nai'an during the Ming Dynasty [1368-1644], and considered one of China's four classic novels), is one of the works that has given Lang Zhili the greatest satisfaction. From the figurines' facial expressions and postures, one may get a glimpse into the characteristics of the figures. 

"I conceived the figurines' facial expressions and postures, before I started to create the items. I was so absorbed in the work that I forgot all about food," says Lang Zhili. "A craftsperson should be highly absorbed in his/her work, when he/she creates a figurine. He/she had better accomplish the work at one go. Why? The craftsperson might lose the inspiration for the artwork if he/she stops midway. Also, the craftsperson must stay coolheaded, so he/she can work efficiently."

Lang Shao'an and Lang Zhili in recent years have visited more than 10 countries and regions, including Japan, Britain and the United States, to display the unique charm of the traditional Chinese craft. 

Lang Zhili has three items on her wish list: Publishing a book to introduce the unique craft and the life story of her father, creating more and better figurines and cultivating more inheritors of the art form. 

Shadow Puppets Superb Works of Art

Huaxian's Shadow Puppets

Shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, is one of the world's oldest forms of folk plays. While they tell stories, puppeteers manipulate the figurines, which are made from donkey hide, cowhide or paperboard, behind a translucent screen. Huaxian, a county in Weinan, a city in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, has long been known for its top-quality shadow plays. The art form was added to China's list of intangible cultural heritage in 2006. Huaxian's shadow-puppet-making craft was added to the list of Shaanxi's items of intangible cultural heritage in 2017. 

The shadow play dates back more than 2,000 years. The play originated in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Before the art form was performed for the masses (during the Tang Dynasty [618-907]), it was performed solely for emperors and monarchs. The earliest records of craftspeople, who created the puppets, was written during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), performers spread the art form throughout Central Asian countries. Shadow plays performed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties represented the acme of the art form. Twenty-four complicated procedures — including selecting the cowhide, removing fat from and polishing hide and carving and coloring the figurine — are involved in making a shadow puppet. Huaxian's shadow play ingeniously integrates folk art with Wanwan Opera, which is popular in Shaanxi Province. The figurines, which are carved on cowhide, and which have vivid, yet exaggerated, expressions, are nothing less than superb works of art. Through a figurine's appearance, one can tell his/her characteristics. For example, a craftsman usually carves a male figurine with a square face, big ears and wide shoulders, to show his masculine attractiveness, while a female figurine is carved with curved eyebrows, narrow eyes, a small mouth and small feet, to show her feminine beauty. Craftspeople also put a lot of effort into carving the figurines' costumes, which are usually dotted with the patterns of Chinese plums, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums, which, according to Confucian thought, stand for the "four men of noble characteristics." 

Wang Haiyan, a native of Huaxian, is an inheritor of the craft of carving shadow puppets. She began studying the skills of making the figurines when she was 14. She studied under her father, Wang Tianwen, who was one of China's best-known shadow puppet craftsmen. As the eldest child in her family, Wang Haiyan felt obliged to promote the development of the traditional Chinese craft.

During the past two decades, Wang Haiyan has developed her own artistic style. She has been invited to attend cultural activities held in different countries, including Singapore and Switzerland. Numerous people have been fascinated by her exquisite artworks.

In 2000, Wang Tianwen and Wang Haiyan established Tianwen Shadow Play Studio. To meet people's aesthetic preferences, Wang Haiyan and her father in recent years have led craftspeople in integrating modern, fashionable elements in their shadow puppet designs. Many puppets, animals, plants and popular cartoon figures, designed and created by the craftspeople, have sold well throughout the country.

An increasing number of people in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, in recent years have bought shadow puppets created by Wang Tianwen, Wang Haiyan and their employees. The customers have used the artworks to add to the festive atmosphere during Spring Festival (on the first day of the first lunar month), the Mid-Autumn Festival (on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month) and other festivals. Many residents have also used the artworks to decorate their houses for birthday celebrations  and wedding ceremonies.

"There is a shortage of young craftsmen, who can both design and carve the figurines," says Wang Haiyan.

Wang Haiyan and her father in recent years have held several exhibitions in Southeast China's Taiwan Province and Switzerland to promote the art form. They have also provided shadow puppets as props to several modern drama troupes in Huaxian.

In 2014, Jiangsu (in East China) Fine Arts Publishing House sent an editor with the publishing house, to Xi'an to contact Wang Haiyan, before the publishing house published a picture album on folk arts. The editor marveled at the ingenious designs and superb workmanship of the artworks in Wang Haiyan's studio. "It's a shame that people, especially art enthusiasts, haven't seen the many beautiful items here," said the editor. That remark strengthened Wang Haiyan's determination to make greater efforts to promote the puppet-making craft.

To promote the craft, Wang Haiyan established a shadow-puppet-making plant, with a sales department. In addition to tourist souvenirs, the plant offers "tailor-made" puppets, including items for home decorations and art collections. "I hope through our efforts, more people around the world will 'fall in love' with the craft," says Wang Haiyan. 


Perseverance, Innovation
Perseverance, Innovation
Perseverance, Innovation
Perseverance, Innovation
Perseverance, Innovation


(Source: Women of China English Monthly July 2018 issue)

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