Clay figurines represent another type of folk art in China because they are much liked for their vivid and amusing expressions. For this reason, they make good indoor decorations and welcome presents between friends.
The principal material for making these figurines is porcelain clay. Though this is found in most localities of Chinese, the best is supposed to be that at Huishan Mountain in Wuxi. Normally, when people talk about clay figurines in China, they tend to think of those made at Huishan. Indeed, the earth from the paddy fields of the surrounding area is very fine and sticky, containing little sand. Moulded into figurines, it needs no firing but after being dried in the shade for 3 or 4 days they are ready for painting. The finished products are very durable and will not crack in many years. A piece of work takes about a half a day to complete, depending on the size and complexity.
The moulding of clay figures in China seems to have come from a long tradition. It is said that Sun Bin, famed strategist of the state of Qi who lived in the 4th to 3rd century B.C. during the Warring States period, in order to break an enemy formation, used clay figures for mock exercises. Because of this legend, Sun Bin has been regarded as the founder of the craft. Legend aside, the art can be traced in written history at least 400 years back to the Ming Dynasty. It was an age when Buddhism flourished in China, and an increasing number of pilgrims came to visit the temples on Huishan Mountain. In the vicinities of the hill began to appear handicraftsmen who hand moulded clay into images of the Goddess of Mercy, the God of Longevity and other deities to be sold to the visitors. Later on, the subjects became expanded to include toys, dramatic and everyday characters, plump babies and clownish figures. The clay figurines were sold as they were moulded, and many shops thrived on them.
Today there is a clay figurine factory and a research institute on the art in Wuxi. The factory not only produces traditional figurines but has made new creations of smooth lines and bright colours. Many foreign tourists visit the factory, showing special interest in their dramatic characters and operatic facial makeup, cats, figured pencil shapeners and children's toys, all made of clay.
Sharing the fame with Huishan in this field is a family in the northern port city of Jianjin. Nirer Zhang (the Zhang famiIy of clay figurine moulders) has been in the trade for four generations. They specialize in figures of popular tales and classical novels and are renowned for the drama and life they give their creations. They have also portrayed in clay men in various trades at different times, reflecting social life as genre paintings do. The family, regarded as a pride of the city of Tianjin, is also known abroad.