Working in clay may remind many Chinese people of their happy childhoods.
There are many different styles of clay-sculpting all over China, but Zhang Clay Figurine in Beijing is among the most famous practitioners of the art.
As the fourth generation in the family preserving the traditional technique, Zhang Chang, 71, bears the duty of sharing Chinese history.
“The ancestor of Chinese clay figurine-making is probably Nuwa,” he jokes, citing the goddess in ancient mythology who used clay to create human beings.
His family business can be dated back to the mid-19th century, when Zhang Mingshan, from Zhejiang province, settled in Tianjin. Craftsmen of the time absorbed Western painting elements into their art to create more vivid details. Though clay figurines were traditionally considered to be grassroots pieces, the delicately made art was soon cherished by royal families in Beijing, especially by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908).
Zhang explains that he keeps adjusting his work until the clay has completely dried; sometimes the making of one piece will last as long as one year as Zhang seeks just the right mood.
Zhang, who is now an art professor at Tsinghua University, has compiled academic works to document the traditional craft.
“The figurine-making conveys not only aesthetics and creativity, but experiences of life in society,” he says. “The inheritance of the skill in our family reflects a special spirit to guide generation after generation to find their way when chasing an art career.
“However, not everyone in the family will love the work. Only when they love it will they inject their personal feelings into the work. Figurines made by different people thus have different characteristics even though they follow the same discipline.”
Zhang says a person can usually learn the basics of figurine-making within three months, but much more practice is needed to perfect the art.
“Masters are only ushers at the gate, and each student needs to develop a personal understanding in their heart.”
by Xiao Xiao firstname.lastname@example.org
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