Putting All One's Passion into Clay Sculpture

Feb 25, 2019

Suzhou clay sculpture has a history of over 2,000 years. It can be roughly divided into two types: one is large clay sculpture and the other is small clay sculpture, also known as Tiger Hill Clay figurines. Suzhou clay sculpture integrates folk customs, religion, sculpture, painting and calligraphy. It is not only a traditional folk art unique to Suzhou but also precious material for studying the art of Chinese sculpture. In the Temple of Preserving Sacredness in Luzhi, Suzhou, there are nine well-preserved clay arhat sculptures made by Yang Huizhi, a renowned sculptor of the Tang Dynasty. In the Nunnery of Purple Gold in Dongshan, Suzhou, there are 16 colored clay arhat icons made by the Lei Chao couple, sculpture grandmasters of the Southern Song Dynasty. These clay sculptures show vivid and diverse attitudes, each of them presenting a different appearance as lively as if they would answer if you called them. All these are the essence of ancient Chinese sculpture art.
Zhu Wenqian, now in her 60s, is the inheritor of the Suzhou clay sculpture technique, a national in tangible culture heritage. She has been devoted to this art for over 40 years, having personally restored or created over 100 large clay sculptures. The Heavenly Crown Icon of Maitreya in the Temple of Mount Magical Rock, the Icon of Master Xuan Zang Translating a Sutra, the Seated Icon of Master Jian Zhen, and Tang-style colored paintings on the circular ceilings of the five stories of the Pagoda of Universal Brightness in the Cold Mountain Temple are all her artworks.
I visited Zhu Wenqian at the Suzhou Buddhist Nursing Home, where two groups of large colorpainted clay sculptures  completed by Zhu Wenqian in a period of four years ine the southern and northern walls inside the Buddha Hall on the first floor. The respective themes of the groups are the 32 nirmanakayas of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta and the Thirteen Patriarchs of the Pure Land Sect. The figures look vivid and lively in their sedate and composed attitudes, and are painted in warm and bright colors. They are the largest color-painted wall sculptures in the urban area of Suzhou.
Zhu Wenqian described the process of creation of these wall sculptures. Each step involved a separate exquisite technique. For example, the clay used for the clay base needed to be mountain clay generated from weathered rock, which has good cohesiveness, a high degree of hardness and relative stability. In order to find such clay, Zhu Wenqian visited all the large and small mountains and hills around Suzhou. The clay had to dry naturally through all the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter before the next step could proceed. “I followed the traditional techniques for each of the steps,” she said. When restoring the icon of the sea isle Avalokitesvara behind the Mahavira Hall in the Western Garden Temple, she found that the straw stuck inside the clay base was still fresh. This sparked in her a great interest in the materials and techniques of clay Buddha sculpture. The conclusion she drew was that “raw lacquer can not only prevent damage from fire and water but also create a strongly airtight space so that the straw can be preserved for a long time without decaying.” She applied this conclusion to her practice. Zhu Wenqian also adopted the Taihu rock stacking method and totally changed the relatively tedious appearance of the sea isle in the picture of traditional Buddhist wall sculpture.
The sea isle she created shows exquisite and dainty carving work and circuitous but interesting artistic taste. These two groups of wall sculptures used seven to eight tons of mountain clay and 200-250 kg of raw lacquer. Great elaboration is clear in composition, layout and material. During the four years, Zhu Wenqian each day climbed up and down a six-m-high scaffold dozens of times. The finished art- work is 4.5 m tall and five m wide. The main sculpture is 1.8 m tall, and the rest are about one m tall. There are altogether more than 60 large and small Buddhist figures.
Zhu Wenqian, who liked playing with clay and models from her childhood, was enrolled at the Suzhou Arts and Crafts School at the age of 17, and then embarked on a career as a clay sculptor. Despite the job being rather hard and the payment poor, she was completely obsessed with the art right from the beginning. Zhu Wenqian loved making Buddhist figure sculptures because as an artist she could inject her own feelings into them and present different personalities with different sculptures. In order to make each of the Buddhist sculptures lively and vivid, Zhu Wenqian would study Buddhist lore before starting artistic creation so as to thoroughly understand each target figure. During artistic creation, she would pay attention to the details of their status, clothing, expression, gesture and background. She was not only able to present facial features in her sculptures but also fully reveal their psychology and bearing. In 1981 Magic Rock Mountain Temple started a major renovation project, and hired Zhu Wenqian, who was still in her 20s at that time, to sculpt an image of the Maitreya Buddha. Half a month later, an almost perfect sculpture of the figure was completed, and Zhu Wenqian earned the reputation of “Clay Sculptor Magician.” She then went on to sculpt a group sculpture centered on the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of the Universal Salvation of the Benevolent Vessel. Later she created the standing and recumbent sculptures of Living Buddha Ji Gong and also the icon of Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. In 1993 Zhu Wenqian sculpted the Picture of the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, which consisted of 120 Buddha sculptures, for the Temple of the Jade Buddha at the behest of Master Ming Ru. When creating this group of Buddha sculptures, Zhu Wenqian adopted the approach of combining traditional and modern sculpture arts. She joined empty and solid elements together and stressed the various facial expressions. Thus each Buddha sculpture is an independent artwork, while the whole of them form a huge Buddha sculpture group at the same time. They show both respective imagery features and artistic unity. Zhu Wenqian said, “I just wanted to leave to future generations all the knowledge and experience that I have obtained and also some insights that I have got from clay sculpture during the whole of my career. This can be my contribution as the inheritor of Suzhou clay sculpture.”
There is a unique technique in Suzhou clay sculpture called “portrait molding.” Facing a customer who is a stranger, the artist can grasp his/her characteristics within a short period of time and immediately mold a clay figure that presents a good resemblance of that person’s form and bearing. This high-standard technique had been lost for a century, but after many years of relentless efforts, Zhu Wenqian successfully restored it.
Although she possesses superb clay sculpture technique, Zhu Wenqian looks very worried when she talks about the future of clay sculpture. She says, clay sculpture is an art form of very high comprehensiveness; it requires an artist to have good spatial concept and to understand the difference between primary and secondary elements, the various layers of elements, and the coherence between different elements. The artist should have   a deep understanding of religious culture and express it in his/her artwork. Only in this way can the clay sculpture show its spiritual energy. In addition to the high technical requirements, clay sculpture also involves dirty and tiring work. However, people only like splendid and colorful artworks, and often avoid dirty “plasterers.” More importantly, because of the limitations of its materials, clay sculpture does not have as good a market as other handicraft arts like jade sculpture. Therefore, few young people are willing to learn clay sculpture technique. The great reputation that Suzhou clay sculpture once enjoyed in China is increasingly fading nowadays. Nobody wants to learn the art be- cause there is almost no place to apply the technique after one has mastered it. Speaking of her wish for the future, Zhu Wenqian hopes that there can be a Suzhou Clay Sculpture Museum to preserve the clay sculpture artwork of veteran artists, and carry forward this art of clay sculpture permanently.

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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