Going to temple fairs is a common tradition during the Chinese Lunar New Year. And that's also the time of year when you see the best of China's arts and crafts all come together. One of the art forms that's always part of the mix is dough sculpting. On today's Faces of a Nation, we hear the story of Beijing dough sculptor Zhang Baolin, honored by UNESCO in 1995 as a Chinese folk art master.
If you think these works of art are made of jade, then LOOK again! All of these detailed sculptures are made from dough. And fifty-year-old Zhang Baolin is the man whose magical hands have given life to them.
Dough Sculptor Zhang Baolin said, "It doesn't matter whether you have talent or not - I didn't spend a long time at school - the most important thing is that you like this profession. You have a passion for it. You can learn by yourself: sketching, the structure of human body, color and perspective. As long as you try, you observe, you get some experience - you can make them."
The earliest dough sculptures discovered date back to the Han Dynasty nearly two thousand years ago. Throughout the ages, dough sculptures have been made as sacrifices for the gods and ancestors and were eaten after the ceremony. Even today, in some rural areas in China's northwest, the custom continues to be handed down. But it wasn't treated as a type of art until the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, about three hundred years ago.
Dough Sculptor Zhang Baolin said, "The first step is to choose the flour - white, fine and the most flexible when made into dough - otherwise the sculptures will easily crack. Then add some sticky rice, to make it stickier. And some honey, as an antiseptic and to prevent cracking. Then cook it. Traditionally, it's boiled. But I prefer braising it, like steamed bread. Then knead it until it's soft. As far as color is concerned, you can use the pigments from traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings, poster colors, gouache or water colors. All are OK."
The fifty-year-old Beijing craftsman was born into a family known in the capital as "The Zhang Family Carpenters". The city's older generation of dough sculptors were friends of his father and frequent callers at his house. Zhang fell in love with the handicraft when still a small boy. And during the time he worked in factories or hotels he never gave up this "hobby", at which, after 35 years of practice and research, he is now an expert.
Dough Sculptor Zhang Baolin said, "It doesn't work, if you've got a hasty temper. You have to sit down for hours - even a whole day - to make them, bit by bit. So you need to be very patient."
"There's no other material like dough that can be made into such fine small sculptures in such bright and beautiful colors."
"Complicated ones are very difficult. They take time and need to be completed step by step: for example, this sculpture of ancient Chinese woman general Mu Guiying dressed in a suit of armor. But this kind of difficulty is just a case of time and patience. "
"This isn't the greatest artistic difficulty. The key point of Chinese art is to be simple. Using simple methods, with a couple of colors, just black, white and grey, to make vivid and expressive figures - this is much more difficult. "
(CCTV August 1, 2005)