Chinese folk artists use simple and cheap materials to make small and delicate handicrafts, won great favor among folk people. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, painted clay figurines were very popular. The most famous were the Clay Figurine Zhang ( Niren Zhang) made in Tianjin and the Huishan clay figurines made in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Clay Figurine Zhang
Clay Figurines Zhang was a kind of school of art in northern China. It was initiated by Zhang Mingshan in the late Qing Dynasty. Zhang Mingshan was born in a poor family in Tianjin. He learned from his father how to make clay figurines at a very young age. Zhang was clever, deft and full of imagination. He carefully observed people at different places, such as market fairs, theaters and so on. Then he would secretly make clay figurines of those he met and hide them inside his sleeves.
His clay figurines were very vivid and expressive, and Zhang and his figurines were soon well known in the surrounding area. Zhang not only inherited the legacy of traditional skills but also incorporated skills from other art forms such as painting, opera singing and Chinese folk wood engravings. He created more than 10,000 clay figurines during his life, and his unique handicrafts became famous both at home and abroad. People liked his clay figurines very much and gave him the nickname of Clay Figurine Zhang.
Clay figurines created by Zhang include heroes and villains from Chinese folk stories, novels, and operas as well as scenes from life, which are full of appeal.
Jiang Menshen，a local despot, is one of Zhang's most representative clay figurines. It is only 11 cm high, with a head in the size of a broad bean .
Jiang's distinguishing characteristics are vividly depicted. People can see there are some blue veins in his neck, and a murderous look on his face with raised eyebrows and downward curling lips.
His bulging belly and forbidding countenance seem to show he might show his bad temper at any time. Such a vivid and bold feature reveals Zhang's adept skills and a desire to expose and attack those evil forces.
Huishan Clay Figurines
The Huishan clay figurines of Wuxi, Jiangsu Province are in a different style and have a long history.
In the slack seasons, nearly all families in Wuxi make clay figurines. When festivals approaching, many people sell clay figurines at temple and market fairs.
In the Qing Dynasty, there were some professional clay figurine workshops in Huishan. Clay figurine artist Wang Chunlin once made five plates of clay children to the Emperor Qianlong and received high praise. From Emperor Tongzhi's to Guangxu's reign in the Qing Dynasty, more opera figurines were produced and Huishan clay figurine production reached its peak. At that time, there were over 40 clay figurine workshops and stores in Huishan, with more than 30 professional craft workers. When the Empress Dowager Cixi celebrated her 60th birthday, the local officer of Huishan presented a set of clay figurines named Immortality Peach Gathering. From then on, Huishan clay figurines were officially recognized as articles of tribute to the imperial court.
Huishan clay figurines include fine and coarse figurines. Coarse figurines are made from moulds and produced in large numbers. However, fine figurines are made by hand in the shapes of oxen, tigers, the God of Longevity and so on. Generally speaking, Huishan clay figurines are short in stature, full with big heads, and their facial expressions are vividly depicted. Bright red, yellow, green and blue colors are applied to them to make them more distinct and beautiful.
One piece particularly representative of Huishan clay figurines is Da A Fu, meaning great good fortune. It features two lovely, plump children, a boy and a girl, each holding a tiny lion. The figurine is considered a symbol of happiness and auspiciousness. In 1992, it was made the official mascot of China International Tourism Year.
SOURCE : www.chinastyle.cn
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