The figurines produced in Wuxi are often called Huishan clay figurines, because they are made of unique clay found on Huishan Mountain. This clay is characterized by its soft texture and excellent plasticity, especially suitable for sculpting.
The history of clay figurine modeling in Wuxi goes back over 400 years. The figurines are divided into two types. One type refers to those produced from molds in large quantity, usually as toys, while the other type is made by hand and often features characters from traditional opera and folk tales. The handcrafted figurines are more detailed, slender, and vividly expressive, so of course more popular among both locals and tourists. Few visitors to Wuxi leave without buying at least one clay figurine as a souvenir or gift.
One piece particularly representative of Huishan clay figurines is Da A Fu, meaning “great good fortune.” It features two lovely, plump children, a boy and a girl, each holding a tiny lion. The figurine is considered a symbol of happiness and auspiciousness. In 1992, it was made the official mascot of China International Tourism Year.
The Huishan Clay Figurine Studio, located at the foot of Huishan Mountain, is the largest clay figurine workshop in China, and is visited by tens of thousands of people each year. The studio produces more than two million clay figurines annually, over 80 percent of which are exported abroad.
Shen Dashou, head of the studio, says that in order to make Huishan clay figurines known to the rest of the world and to inspire traditional folk art with new ideas, his studio is always seeking to strengthen cultural and artistic cooperation with other countries. Artists from the factory are invited abroad every year to demonstrate their skills and exchange ideas with foreign artists.
“Our clay figurines are very popular with both Chinese tourists and overseas customers. They are now sold to more than 60 countries around the world, and are highly acclaimed for their unique local flavor and exquisite craftsmanship. Works featuring the Da A Fu and theatrical figures are especially appreciated. I believe art has no national boundaries. It’s a universal language. Constant collaboration with international artists has greatly contributed to Huishan clay figurines’ worldwide fame. We have drawn inspiration from the best of foreign art in our own artistic creation.”
Li Renrong from the Huishan Clay Figurine Studio is one of the most prominent clay figurine artists in China. He is often invited to demonstrate his craftsmanship abroad.
“When I perform in foreign countries, many people tell me they are amazed to see such a small piece of clay be transformed into such a marvelous work of art. When they tell me how much they admire the folk art of clay figurine making, I always feel very proud.”
Through frequent artistic exchanges, the Huishan Clay Figurine Studio has established a close friendship with a large number of foreign artists. The late Japanese folk artist Kato Manpei is one of them.
Manpei founded the Furusato Mingei Manpei Company, which produces Japanese clay figurines. In 1992, he paid his first visit to the Huishan Clay Figurine Studio. Fascinated by the exquisite Huishan clay figurines, he immediately placed an order and decided to begin a long-term cooperation with the studio. Manpei frequented Wuxi over the course of six years. After his death in 1998, his son-in-law, Satojima Akihito, continued to cooperate with the Huishan Studio. Thanks to both their efforts, Huishan clay figurines have entered the homes of many Japanese families.
In the past few years, Akihito has come to Wuxi almost every two months. He says he has fallen deeply in love with the city and the delicate Huishan clay figurines.
“My company and the Huishan Clay Figurine Studio are both engaged in making works of folk art. We are not only commercial partners. I think it’s our shared responsibility to develop and promote the fine tradition of folk culture. I truly admire the Huishan clay figurines, and I hope to share this appreciation with people in my own country.”
For centuries the adept and skilled hands of folk artists have shaped the local clay into human characters with life and soul. Huishan clay figurines have become Wuxi’s artistic ambassadors worldwide, spreading their good wishes to people everywhere
(Cri.com.cn July 30, 2002)