Clay Sculpture

Feb 25, 2019

Archeological discoveries show that there were hand-made clay sculpture artworks in China as long ago as in the Neolithic Age. It developed into an important art genre in the Han Dynasty. Clay sculpture pottery figurines have been excavated from Han Dynasty tombs in Suzhou. The rise of Taoism and the introduction of Buddhism during the Western and Eastern Han Dynasties (206 BC-220 AD) resulted in the construction of large numbers of Taoist and Buddhist temples, and further promoted the growth of the demand for clay sculpture icons and the progress of the art of clay sculpture, which reached its peak in the Tang Dynasty.
Yang Huizhi, the most outstanding representative of clay sculptors in the Tang Dynasty, was called the Sage Hand of Clay Sculpture. The arhat (Buddhist saint) statues in the Temple of Preserving Sacredness in the township of Luzhi, Suzhou, were sculpted by Yang Huizhi. Although new decorations have been added to them in different dynasties so that their original appearance has been gradually altered, people can still see a landscape where there are fleeting clouds, rolling waves, soaring peaks and interweaving caverns. Nine arhats are placed among the clouds and mists in the landscape. All show life like postures and countenances. These statues are truly unparalleled artworks of all time. The three Buddha statues in the main hall of the Nunnery of Purple Gold, located in Dongshan, Suzhou, and built in the early Tang Dynasty, are also great artworks. Although the temple has been rebuilt several times, these statues still show plump figures, which is typical of the statues of the Tang Dynasty. What is particularly amazing is that the half-opened eyes of these statues seem to be following the visitor. The 18 arhat statues inside the Nunnery of Purple Gold were sculpted by the Lei Chao couple, great masters of clay sculpture in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). Although these statues were painted with full-length colored Chinese clothing, theircountenances show the features of the people in the Western Regions in ancient times, their foreheads protruding and cheek bones round with square corners. The Annals of Suzhou Prefecture written during the Kangxi reign period (1662-1723) records that “The Lei Chao couple are both masterly artists. They have only made statues of this kind in three places. The group in this nunnery is the best of them.” It is said that the eight statues, such as that of Prince Guan Yu and that of the star god Prince Wenchang, were sculpted by Qiu Mituo, an artist of the Ming Dynasty. Although their imagery is slightly inferior to that of the arhat statues, they are still excellent artworks. Particularly, the canopies and silk scarves sculpted with clay look light and flowing, presenting the quality of real silk and showing amazing workmanship that resembles Nature’s own work.
In the Tang Dynasty small-sized clay sculpture started to develop in Suzhou. It became a very exceptional art in the following Song Dynasty. Two icons of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, clay sculptures made in the Northern Song Dynasty, were discovered in the Auspicious Light Pagoda in Suzhou. These two sculptures were made through combining the pieces shaped with the front and rear molds filled with clay slurry mixed withhemp fiber. The body has a thin, smooth and glossy surface painted with bright colors. These are the earliest molded clay icons of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva so far found in China.
At the time, there were also two very distinctive sculpting handicraft arts in Suzhou, one called “playing goods” and the other “portrait kneading.” Artists of these two genres all gathered in the region of Tiger Hill and Shantang. Their artworks are called “Tiger Hill Clay Figurines.” Playing goods are in fact toys. These are clay figurines dressed in thin silk clothing. Only the face and hands of these figurines are sculpted with clay. Their clothes and hats are made of different kinds of silk. Sometimes camphor wood is used to make their limbs. These artworks look lively and vivid. Their hands and feet are movable. Different clothes are made for them to change in different seasons. Famous makers of playing goods were Sun Chengzu, Sun Rong and Yuan Yuchang. The figurines made by Yuan Yuchang are about 20mm tall. The characters in Kunqu and Peking operas are usually taken as themes. Eight or 16 pieces from one drama story are made into one set of figurines.
These figurines have splendid colors and lively postures. Portrait kneading, also called “true face sculpting,” means sculpting a client’s portrait. This art flourished in the Ming Dynasty, and Wang Zhulin was its greatest exponent at that time. The most famous artworks in this genre made in the Qing Dynasty were known as the Xiang family’s portrait kneading. The art was passed down through generations from Xiang Tiancheng during the Kangxi reign period of the Qing Dynasty. Xiang Chunjiang became a leader in the art later. But after Xiang Qinfang passed away in the early years of the Republic of China there was no one to carry forward the art of the Xiang family’s portrait kneading. It is said that the artist would hide the clay piece in his sleeve when he kneaded the portrait. He looked at the client, talking with them warmly002Cand, after only a few minutes he would take out the finished art piece. A record in the book The Painted Orchid Boat Notes says that “all the wrinkles, scars and moles of the person were presented exactly.” In the 67th chapter of the novel The Dream of Red Mansions, Xue Pan brings back a portrait figurine made of him on Tiger Hill when he comes back from Suzhou.
The region around Tiger Hill produces fine, soft and sticky clay, which is ideal for kneading and sculpting. Tiger Hill is also a famous tourist resort. A great many people come to visit the place. And the cost of the clay sculpture trade is very low. These conditions resulted in the great number of artists in this trade. In the middle of the Qing Dynasty there were 30 to 40 kneading workshops and a huge number of figurine booths around the place. These have since disappeared, but in order to carry forward the traditional clay sculpting art, the Suzhou government found two old artists in their seventies in 1958. But these two soon passed away. In 1981 the Tiger Hill Camellia Production Brigade, which was a village of clay figurine artists, rebuilt the Tiger Hill Clay Figurine Studio and produced a group of clay figurine drama story sets such as the Wild Boar Forest and Drunken Concubine. Its products once were exported to foreign countries. But the studio was later closed down due to various reasons.
The latest leading expert in clay sculpture and portrait kneading in Suzhou is Zhu Wenqian. After she graduated from the Suzhou Arts and Crafts School in 1969, Zhu Wenqian devoted herself to the art of clay sculpture. She was familiar with the teachings and stories in the Buddhist scriptures, and able to accurately represent Buddhist statues and their variations in facial muscles and textures, and so she specialized in Buddhist icon sculpting, an area that used to be limited exclusively to male artists. She sculpted a score of Buddhist statues for the Temple of Mount Magic Rock and other temples. Her reproductions of Buddhist statues show religious solemnity and Buddhist serenity, and have been highly praised by Buddhist circles. From 2007 to 2011 she was engaged in sculpting two five-m-high colored wall projects on the southern and northern sides, respectively, of the Buddhist Hall in the Suzhou Buddhist Nursing Home. They display superiority in layout, story presentation, character modeling and color filling. Zhu Wenqian devotes herself to exploring and developing the unique skill of Suzhou kneading, as she is the only inheritor of this art. She has created a large group of drama sets such as the characters in the
Dream of Red Mansions, Liu Hai Playing with the Golden Toad and The Romance of the Western Chamber. She can make a bust portrait of a sitter within about half an hour. This skill revives the art of “true face sculpting,” which had been lost for over a century, and restores a fascinating genre to China’s folk art.

About the Column

Carving Arts in Suzhou

Carving Arts in Suzhou is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. The good things in Suzhou are hidden and living freely in it without giving any hint of their existence. So you need to make extra efforts if you really want to get an eye-opening experience in Suzhou.

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