CHINA Cultural inheritor gives traditional Chinese dough figurines a modern twist

CHINA

Cultural inheritor gives traditional Chinese dough figurines a modern twist

Global Times

05:59, March 13, 2018

Dough figurines by Lang Jia Ziyu Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dough figurines by Lang Jia Ziyu Photo: Li Hao/GT

Dough figurines by Lang Jia Ziyu Photo: Li Hao/GT

Lang Jia Ziyu poses with some of his dough figurines. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Walking into Lang Jia Ziyu's "storage house" in Beijing feels like entering a mini-sized Madame Tussauds': There are figurines of Superman, basketball player James Harden, Chinese actor Ge You, characters from various films, legends and cartoons such as Monkey King and Sakuragi Hanamichi from the hit manga Slam Dunk. These small figures are so lively, that you probably wouldn't be surprised if they came to life just like the exhibits in Night at the Museum. Unlike Madame Tussauds', however, all these figurines are made from flour instead of wax. 
Making the old new again
"I started to learn dough modeling when I was 3. I saw my dad making dough figurines and became fascinated with the art immediately. Creating things is like magic," said the 23-year-old inheritor of this national-level intangible heritage as he pinched different colored pieces of dough into tiny stripes and quickly put them on a larger ball of dough. Minutes later, the ball of dough transformed into a lively boy wearing a fancy hat. 
Lang's family has been making dough figurines for three generations. Lang's grandfather, Lang Shao'an, and his father, Lang Zhichun, are big names in the field known for their exquisite craftsmanship, with their works having been exhibited both at home and abroad. The family's history with dough figurines dates back to the 1920s when Lang Shao'an began an apprenticeship with the celebrated "master of dough figurines" Zhao Kuoming, and later founded the famed studio brand "Mian Ren Lang" (Lang Dough Figurines). During a time when these figurines were commonly sold by street vendors, this handicraft kept the whole family fed for decades. Today, however, it is rare to see a craftsman selling his wares outside of major tourist markets or temple fairs during the holidays. 
"My grandpa made this his career, while my father kept at it as a lifelong hobby. Now that it has been passed on to me, my wish is to reintroduce it to the modern market," said Lang. Like many other traditional art forms that have faded away over the years, dough figurines face limited market demand as people's interest in old-fashioned wares is not that high, despite a recent trend that has seen a revitalization of traditional Chinese culture. 
"I think the best way to allow this art to survive is to innovate and renew it in a modern cultural and social context as well as establish a good market environment," Lang said. 
Lang's attempts to incorporate fresh cultural elements into this traditional handicraft can easily be seen in his current work, which features characters from the popular mobile game Travel Frog and movies and animated works such as Despicable Meand Star Wars, commonly used emojis and even figurine sneakers modeled after NBA player Michael Jordan's footwear series. Young people of all ages can find something they like in his work. 
Films are one of Lang's favorite subjects for his art. He once made a set of figurines featuring the two main characters of the 1994 film The Professional, which he later had the opportunity to present to the film's main star Jean Reno himself. The star was impressed with his work and graciously thanked him for the gift.   
The next work Lang wants to make is the main characters from the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water
"The softness of the female image and the solid physique of the fish-man will form an interesting visual contrast as a dough sculpture," he said.  
Aside from the introducing modern themes into his work, Lang has also turned to new media to promote the art of dough modeling. He and his colleagues frequently post dough-figurine-making tutorials on their WeChat account, which has gained a small but loyal following. 
Emotional outlet 
For Lang, dough modeling is not just about promoting a unique culture and art, it is also a channel through which he expresses himself as an artist. 
"Taking your ideas and turning them into something real is very fun and enjoyable. It provides me an outlet for my feelings and helps me relax," Lang said, going on to explain that he also creates original artworks in addition to copying images from other mediums. 
One of his works that he created right after the national colleague entrance exam, Hua Ji (blossom season), conveys how he felt during his last year of high school: nervous and stressed. The sculpture is of a young teenage boy whose body has been encased by a school desk piled high with books. The boy struggles but cannot escape his predicament, thereby reflecting the real life pressures young students face as they prepare for university. 
"You can see that one of his toes is curling upward in an attempt to maintain part of his lively nature," Lang said, smiling. 
His work has resonated with numerous netizens in China. 
"It's an emotional outlet. Once I finish a work, I feel relieved and relaxed," Lang said. 

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