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Clay Figurine Art Carries On

A traditional Qing Dynasty clay figurine handicraft is staging a comeback in southwest China, thanks to a Sichuan family which now operates a school teaching the art.

Cai Daquan represents one of China's two major families now producing the art, which has been handed down from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The other family, the Zhangs, is based in the northern city of Tianjin.

The Cai family works based in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, use delicate mud material mixed with a variety of traditional Chinese herb medicines.

After unique technical treatment, vivid skin colors and lifelike hair are produced and used to bring clay figurines to life.

The technology helps the figurines to keep their original color and shape without cracking or transfiguration for centuries.

Cai Daquan's great-grandfather and grandfather, the first and second generations of the Cai family, focused their art on religious figures and the deceased.

Cai Jiwu, Cai Daquan's father, added more to the art in the form of celebrities, ancient beauties and characters from famous plays and stories. According to Cai Daquan, the strangest skill to master in producing the art is kneading figurines inside sleeves. "If guests were at home, my father often offered them a cup of tea, and while chatting, a portrait figurine of the guest was being made secretly inside his sleeves," said Cai.

"Clothes at the time usually had big sleeves, so my father's secret actions were hardly ever discovered. After the tea, the guest was always amazed by the clay portrait figurine which magically turned up on my father's palm."

The Cai family's clay figurines are under state-level protection and on display in a number of art and history museums across the country.

After the founding of New China, clay figurines were listed as important historical relics and attracted worldwide attention.

State leaders, including late president Liu Shaoqi (1898-1969) encouraged Cai's family to pass the art form on from generation to generation.

To improve the art, Cai Jiwu decided to ask his son to learn more about the human skeleton and muscle structure. Cai Daquan carried out his father's instructions and went on to higher education at Sichuan Medical College in 1959.

While studying and working, Cai Jiwu started strictly tutoring his son. Gradually, Cai Daquan mastered the spirit and soul of the art and became famous in the field.

Many Chinese and foreign people flock to see Cai Daquan's exhibitions of clay portrait figurines, and he has hosted a series of art shows at home and abroad.

As a distinguished artist of clay figurines, Cai began to worry about passing on the art 20 years ago.

"I am over 60 years old, but it seems that my son has never had any interest in handicraft," he said.

Now the dilemma has been solved because Cai broke traditional rules that the skill must be passed down among family members.

(Xinhua 03/12/2001)


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