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Ma Fuli and His Hairy Monkey and Opera Mask

What sort of handicrafts can be made from the shed skins of cicadas and white Mongolia buds? Hairy monkeys, a traditional Beijing folk art, of course. This kind of mimic mini-show of daily local life can only be found these days in the home-cum-workshop of Ma Fuli - a world full of "hairy monkeys" and opera masks.

The body of these delicate ten-by-five millimeter dolls is made from white Magnolia bud and shed cicada skin (as the doll's head and limbs). Because these dolls look so monkey-like, they are named after their shape as "hairy monkey".

In Ma's workshop, we can see hairy monkeys poised to display all facets of life on the stage: someone making ice cream, someone playing and enjoying Peking Opera, and others flying kites. Although they cannot move or talk, yet they exude great vitality.

"Can you work out who was the first person starting to make these," Ma asked in a sly tone. "Those clever and deft craftsmen!" I answered. "Concisely speaking, you are wrong. It was two young assistant chemists who brought life to the buds and shells about 500 years ago."

The story goes as follows: in their daily work, the two young chemists happened to find that the combination of cicada skins with white Mongolia buds had the appearance of a figure. To be concise, they look like small monkeys. So, with plenty of materials at hand, they sought pleasure in making them as a way of escaping from the tedium of their daily work. Like puppet shows, they made small tools used by the monkeys to illustrate different facets of common life. In the first temple fair after that, they took the monkeys there. People, especially those who were poor, found they could afford to buy these cheap products for their children.

"I was a poor boy and had few toys in my childhood. But when I saw it, I couldn't let it out of my hands. I like it. Even though the hairy monkeys were not expensive, they were not cheap enough to let me have many of them. So the only way to satisfy my curiosity out was to make them myself," recalled Ma.

"The most difficult procedure in making a hairy monkey lies in building the props. Even a scene with four hairy monkeys costs me a whole day."

Ma then showed me another exciting world, this time of masks, as he is also expert in making opera masks.

This can be explained by his 38 years' experience in Pingju, a local opera of north and northeast China. Though he never played on stage, he built up a detailed knowledge of the art form. What's more, he is an opera fan for more than 30 years. Besides Pingju, Peking Opera and Huangmei Opera (popular in central Anhui Province) are also his favorites. The make-up of these operas left a deep impression on him. As a man with deft hands, he started to make masks without anyone to guide him.

Foreigners usually have difficulty in understanding Peking Opera and its ilk. However, they are fascinated by these exotic masks and rush to buy them as souvenirs. Here remarks Ma, "The market has been overflowing with Peking Opera masks, lessening their collection value. To some degree, of the masks I made by hand, the pattern of Peking Opera masks are not as intricate as that of Chuan Opera masks (Sichuan local opera) and Shehuo (Shaanxi local opera) masks, both of which have a longer history and have more varieties in color.

"Unfortunately, foreigners seldom read the difference among them. Just keep it in mind, when you come across a mask which is more colorful and bizarre, it is absolutely my work," Ma pointed out proudly.

Ten years ago, the 69-year-old Ma had his right leg amputated to remove a tumor. The day after the operation, Ma resettled in his workshop and threw himself into hairy monkey and mask making.

"Only by concentrating on my work can I forget the pain in my body. Now, the work has become a part of my life. Getting along with it, I can live up to 99 (the traditional saying of a long life span)," he said with a smile.

Looking at the hairy monkey and mask, which one would you prefer? I cannot help admiring both of them as well as the devoted craftsman.

(China.org.cn by Liu Wenlong 06/15/2001)

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