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Clay Figurines (Niren)

Clay figurines represent another type of folk art in China. They are much liked for their vivid and amusing expressions and, for this reason, 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. 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. is ready to be painted on. The finished products are very durable and will not crack in many years to come. A piece of work takes about 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 of 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 makeups, 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.

Brick Sculpture (Zhuandiao)

Bricks carved with patterns in relief were used for decorative purposes on the exterior of old houses-mansions of officials and the rich, shrines and temples, landscape buildings in parts. They are also found on the entrance gates, windows and screen walls in houses which once belonged to big business and the landed gentry. "to bring honour to the owners and their ancestors. "

Carvings on bricks may cover a wide range of subjects. Usually seen are human figures drawn from popular legends, dramas and folklore, most of them lifelike and spirited. Animals and plants are also favourite subjects, mostly those portending power and good luck or representing certain lofty qualities, for example, dragon, phoenix, plum, bamboo, crysanthemum and so on. Other carvings represent attempts to reproduce traditional paintings on bricks. Apart from the sculpted pictures, they are often complete with inscriptions and seal marks.

This particular art of sculpture was done on a kind of carefully polished blue brick. It was called fangzhuan ( square brick) in the Ming Dynasty and jinzhuan (in the Qing Dynasty. This brick was fine in texture and most suitable for carving, but as it was also brittle, the work might be easily ruined by a slip of the carving tool.

The large numbers of brick carvings which we can still see today are impressive with their vivid figures, their composition in depths and on varying levels, giving a feeling of three dimensions and appealing with an impact not found in frescoes.

Shell Mosaic (Beidiao)

As an artistic craft, shell mosaic is relatively new, drawing its materials from the vast numbers of shells found on the shores of rivers, lakes and seas.

Shells had a special value in China in primitive times. They were used as personal ornaments and as money. Huobi, the China expression for "currency" or "legal tender", still contain in their characters an element which stands for "shell". Today, to the artistic eye of people of the trade, shells are still a treasure. Two categories of products come out of shell mosaic decorative pictures and art objects for daily use.

The pictures are traditional Chinese paintings expressed in an assembly of shells. They follow the same principles of composition and depict the same subjects ( human figures, landscapes, flowers and birds, pavilions and towers ). Only the means of expression here are shells, which are carefully selected for shape and colour, meticulously worked on, and pieced and stuck together to form the images. The resulting picture is in teas relief and rich in Chinese flavour.

In the course of the development of the craft, the artist has come to appreciate the intricate colour structures of various shells. Some show alluring undertones through their main colours, one on the outside and another on the inside-for instance, black and red, amber and violet-which he puts to good use and gives the pictures either colourful magnificence or quiet elegance as required.

The second branch of shell mosaic specializes in producing art articles for practical use, such as desk lamps, jewel boxes and other shell utensils.

The best-known shell products are turned out at the moment by the Dalian Shell Carving Factory in Northeast China.

Ice Carving (Bingdiao)

Ice carving, a seasonal art in the far north of China, is also called "ice lanterns" and has its origin in local life. To prevent lights from being blown out by the winter wind, people started long, long ago to use hollowed ice blocks as lantern bulbs, giving the art its primitive form.

The citizens of Harbin, capital of the northernmost Heilongjiang Province, put on the first "ice lantern show" in the winter of 1963. By means of moulds they made various ice lanterns, in which they lighted candles. It proved a success and established a custom since then an "ice festival" has been held every year lasting from New Year's Day to the traditional Lantern Festival (about mid-February), with the scale growing ever larger and the skills more and more perfected. Apart from the usual lanterns, pavilions, terraces, bridges and towers are built in ice to decorate the landscapes formed by sparkling mountains, crystal trees, glistening birds and animals, fish swimming in transparent pools. .. Ice sculpture is also found to be an artistic form suitable for reproducing scenes of well-known dramas and stories of science fiction often seen at the festival. Some works are of colossal dimensions a pagoda may be built of up to 200 huge ice blocks, and it makes an impressive sight when lighted at night by hundreds of built-in coloured lamps. The ice show, with its translucent works and sparkling lights, reminds visitors of the fabled emerald and crystal palace of the legendary Dragon King.

The main material for ice sculpture is obtained from the rivers. With the mercury constantly kept down at minus 20-30C in winter, the waters in the north provide an inexhaustible supply of ice. It is first sawn by workmen into blocks, and then the sculptors will put them to different uses according to thickness, strength and transparency. A large work is usually assembled of many component pieces.

Cloisonne (Jingtailan)

Cloisonne, in which China excels, is known as Jingtailan in the country. It first appeared toward the end of the Yuan Dynasty in the mid 14th century, flourished and reached its peak of development during the reign of the Ming emperor Jingtai (1450-1457). And as the objects were mostly in blue (lan) colour, cloisonne came to be called by its present name jingtazlan.

A jintailan article has a copper body. The design on it is formed by copper wire stuck on with a vegetable glue. Coloured enamel is filled in with different colours kept apart by the wire strips. After being fired four or five times in a kiln, the work piece is polished and gilded into a colourful and lustrous work of art.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), cloisonneware was mainly supplied for use in the imperial palace. in the form of incense burners. vases, jars, boxes and candlesticks-all in imitation of antique porcelain and bronze.

Present day production, with Beijing as the leading centre, stresses the adding of ornamental beauty to things that are useful. The artifacts include vases, plates, jars, boxes, tea sets, lamps, lanterns, tables, stools, drinking vessels and small articles for the desk.

A pair of big cloisonne horses have been made in recent years, each measuring 2. 1 metres high and 2. 4 metres long, and weighing about 700 kilograms. They took eight months to finish, involving the labour of hundreds of workers and 60 tons of coal for the firing. They represent the largest object ever made in cloisonne in the 500 years since the art was born.

Cloisonneware bears on the surface vitreous enamel which, like porcelain, is hard but brittle, so it must not be knocked against anything hard. I o remove dust from it, it should be whisked lightly with a soft cloth. Avoid heavy wiping with a wet cloth. for this might eventually wear off the gilding.

Potted Landscapes (Penjing)

China is the homeland of the potted or miniature landscape. The art began about 1, 200 years ago during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) and has been known under various names. An indoor decoration of refined taste over long ages, it has been praised as "wordless poetry and sculptured painting. "

The miniature landscape has become quite popular today and can be classified into two major categories miniature rockeries and miniature trees.

The rocks used for thc potted rockery are those that easily suck up water. .such as sandstone. stratified rock and stalactite. A chosen piece is cut and carved into the shape of a mountain of rugged beauty. and placed in a flat pot with water. As the rock is moist, green moss grows on its surface. Some miniature tree may also be planted in a crevice of the rock, sometimes decorated with a little pagoda. bridge or pavillion. A tiny sail or two on the water will complete an enchanting landscape with mountain and river.

Miniature trees, the second category. are usually diminutive pines, cypresses, wintersweets, elms and bamboos which, with small leaves and thin branches. are slow in growth but vigorous in vitality. And the most valued miniature tree its made of old tree roots. They belong to trees that grow on mountain rocks m the wild. People fell the trees, leaving the roots as they are. New trees sprout and grow up and are felled again. This repeats itself but the roots remain, some as old as hundreds of years, assuming hardy and grotesque forms. Uprooted and transplanted in pots, they are further pruned and trained to have the gnarled branches of rugged grace or elegant vigour.

Potted landscapes have become a common sight in China - in parks, galleries, conference and reception rooms, even at public squares. Competitive exhibitions are held every year, and an increasing number of people are making it a pastime to introduce bits of nature in pots into their living and working quarters.

Paper-cuts (Jianhui)

he making of paper-cuts is another popular folk art in China. A piece of paper can be turned in the hands of an artian, with the help of a knife or a pair of scissors, into any of a wide variety of patterns-landcapes, flowers, birds, animals and human figures. These simple works of art may be displayed in wall frames or pressed under glass talJit tUp.- ni grace the room with their elegant lines and pleasing images.

Paper-cuts fall into two categories:

1 ) The monochrome scissor-cut: This is cut from a single piece of paper with a pair of scissors. It requires imagination and dexterity on the part of the artist. A master in this field is Wang Zigan, member of the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute, who has practised the craft for more than 50 years since the age of 13. It is a delightful experience to watch him at it-turn the scissors this way and that, cutting through a large piece of paper and producing, in a matter of minutes, a picture of a crowing cock with a group of grazing lambs. To cut such a picture or any other from a vast repertory, he needs no draft or model, but his work is always done in smooth and flowing lines and with expressive figures.

2) The patterned paper-cut For this, patterns or models are first made by the master, and then the workers do the cutting accordingly, not on one sheet of paper but through a pile of some two dozens, producing as many paper-cuts at a time. The cutting tools used are knives of various sizes, some as long as cm, others as thin as needles.

It is difficult to tell since when the art of paper cutting began in China. Excavations made in 1949 at the ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang in Turpan, Xinjiang, unearthed paper cuts showing a pair of horses and a pair of monkeys. They date back 1, 500 years to the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties ( 120-589). They are the earliest specimens of ancient paper cuts that have been discovered.

In the old days, people of certain regions used to cut red paper and imitation fold foil into chickens, dogs, sheep, pigs, cattle and horses or pictures of "peaches of immortality" and "high ranking person on fine horse" and decorate their offerings to the gods with these by way of praying for prosperity and happiness. Today, on festivals or festive occasions such as a wedding, paper-cuts are still made and pasted on doors, windows, walls, rice jars and stoves to brighten up the house and add to the jubilance.

There is yet another kind of paper-cuts especially made as patterns for embroidery work.

The art of paper-cutting has experienced considerable development since the founding of New China. If Research societies have been set up in a number of areas and the number of lovers has been on the increase. The folk art, it seems. has a more splendid future in store.

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