Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Figures of fun

Huishan clay figures have been produced for 400 years but their popularity has waned. An exhibition at the National Museum of History takes a look at their appeal


Huishan clay figurines represent a tradition of popular folk art stretching back over 400 years


In the 1930s, every household in the small town of Huishan, Wuxi, in China's Jiangsu province, knew how to knead the town's famously malleable mud into amusing fat children figurines. In the 1950s, there were 120 shops selling such exquisite palm-size Huishan clay figurines to families wanting auspicious decorations for weddings, births and the Chinese New Year.

In China, as in Taiwan, folk art has fallen victim to modernization in the past 50 years. The once thriving clay figurine industry went into a downward spiral and in today's Huishan, clay figures are now mold-casted and mass manufactured to cater to tourists.

To preserve the moribund craft, Taiwan's traditional arts magazine Echo (漢聲) cooperated with the Arts Department of Southeast University, Nanjing, to set up the Graduate School of Chinese Folk Arts in 1995. Yu Xiang-lian (喻湘漣) and Wang Nan-xian (王南仙), the town's two remaining clay figure masters, were then invited to create some 300 figurines in the traditional method.

Mud Play and Figurine Portrayals -- An Exhibition of Huishan Clay Figures, (戲泥話偶: 惠山泥人展) currently on show at National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), presents the results of their cooperation with over 130 sets of figurines.

With no written history to record the development of the craft, locals claim that the technique has been around for 400 years. The 3,000 steps in the kneading procedure, the history of which has been handed down orally, was recorded on celluloid by the magazine for the first time. The exhibition also includes some these photos.

Apart from mischievously smiling Big A-fu and his partner at the entrance of the exhibition, most of the displays are vignettes from Beijing opera and Kunqu opera, a performance genre popular in the region.

Big A-fu is the best-known clay figurine. It is based on the Huishan folk hero who tamed the tigers and leopards that plagued the area in ancient times. After the Ching dynasty, the beast-tamer began to hold the auspicious animal chilin in his hands, as a symbol of fertility. Various fat children figures and the little girl Xiao Hua-nan (小花囡) are all variations on Big A-fu.

The exaggeration of posture makes the opera character

figures such a delight to look at. The young woman accepting a jade bracelet from a young man has a slight smile on her face. The matchmaker, watching their moves, shows her satisfaction with her feet, which seem ready to jump in the air, making this vignette from the Beijing opera number Picking up Jade Bracelet so amusing.

Another fine treatment of the figurines is the "movement" of their clothing. The robe of the drunk monk flutters as he tussles with a peddler, whose blouse seems frozen in mid-air as he rolls over to escape the monk's kick, in a vignette from Kunqu opera.

Although what is going on in these vignettes is crucial to the appreciation of the figurines, the museum, disappointingly, provides only the Chinese names of the characters and the title of the operas.

Mud Play and Figurine Portrayals -- An Exhibition of Huishan Clay Figures, will be on show through Dec. 28 at National Museum of History, 49 Nanhai Rd, Taipei (台北市南海路49).

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