Clay sculpture artists Zhao Yuming. Photo: Xinhua
For nearly 50 years, Zhao Yuming has been immersed in his own world of clay figurines. At age 62, Zhao is the only remaining clay sculpture master craftsman in Laoting County, Hebei Province.
FIVE HUNDRED YEAR HISTORY
Clay sculpture is one of the main traditional crafts in Laoting. For Zhao, becoming a master of intangible cultural heritage is not only an honor, but at the same time a responsibility and a source of pressure.
Zhao can get financial support from the government, but he must personally teach the next generation to avoid the loss of this traditional art.
Laoting clay sculpture has a nearly 500-year history.
"If we do not pass it on, we will do a disservice to our country. Inheriting the skills, honoring ourselves and repaying the country is the best option," Zhao said.
In ancient times, Laoting clay figurines were mainly children's toys made by rural artisans. But in the 1930s, folk art, such as drum operas and shadow play, provided another use for figurines that exhibited decorative or collection value, which became known as "literary clay figurines."
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, there were several workshops in villages in Laoting County and the production reached a high level, but the prices were too low. Clay figurines were sold for just a few pennies each.
Nevertheless, for a long period, many clay artists relied on making and selling clay figurines at those meager prices to make ends meet.
Until the end of the last century, the clay figurines were the only toys of many Chinese children. At that time, even children living in cities had few toys, let alone those in rural areas.
In the past 10 years, China has become the second largest economy in the world and is now a significant toy production and consumption market. Shopping malls are full of high end toys, so the rustic Laoting clay figurines have gradually fallen out of favor.
However, some craftsmen, like Zhao, have chosen to continue the tradition. He said that although his children have other jobs to feed their families, he still wants to pass on his skills to them and his grandchildren.
Facing a demand for sustained economic development, many regions are increasingly attaching importance to the protection and inheritance of valuable traditional cultural skills, so as to promote the development of local economies and contribute to the goal of building "a beautiful China."
REVIVAL IN A NEW ERA
Shi Tinghong, director of the Laoting Cultural Heritage Center, said that the government has encouraged the elderly to pass on traditional skills as much as they can.
Supportive policies include subsidies, encouraging folk artists to produce more products and organize more performances for local residents, and granting "Master of Intangible Cultural Heritage" certificates at national, provincial and local levels.
Shi said that the government will also step up efforts to protect and support Laoting clay figurines, and continue to develop and innovate on the basis of preserving its artistic features and combining them with modern aesthetic needs, so that this craft can better reflect the characteristics of the times and retain its beautiful nostalgia.
With the support of the government, local craftsmen have begun to pay more attention to passing on their skills. In some families parents are actively encouraging their children to pick up the craft they had given up many years ago.
Thirty-one-year-old Dong Zhuangzhuang was born into a family of craftsmen in Laoting. From his grandfather's generation, the Dongs have been renowned clay artists.
Dong has been influenced by his family since he was a child, and it is not a surprise that as an adult he has continued the tradition. However, after graduating from the sculpture department of Langfang Teachers College in 2008, Dong spent some years working in other regions, without a clear plan for his life.
Finally, he chose to return to his hometown and open a clay figurine workshop.
Laoting is known as the "Home of Chinese Folk Opera," and its bass drums and shadow play are also listed as state-level intangible cultural heritage.
In Dong's mind, Laoting clay figurines are just as important as drums and shadow play, because they have been loved by the people for many years and have provided for many generations of Laoting residents. He said that he cannot bear to see this tradition lost.
"All I know is that I do not want to let this local characteristics disappear. I want to pass it on to let more people know about this distinctive cultural feature from Laoting," he said.
Dong is so obsessed with his work that he often eats in his workshop, and sometimes even continues working past midnight. He also has a furniture store but, as he is busy with his art, the store and the care of his son are left to his wife.
Dong's mother, Song Jingyan, was one of his early mentors. She did not challenge his decision to ignore the furniture business, despite it was the economic foundation for the family, as she was adamant he must continue studying the skills of clay sculpture.
Dong's wife, Zhang Yunqing, admitted she initially questioned her husband's choice. "For a long time after our wedding we could not agree about the future of our family and our life."
She said her husband often told her that he had a mission to pass on the skills of clay sculpture to the next generation, and demanded that their son, now five, should follow suit.
Although clay figurines are not very profitable, definitely not enough to feed their family, she eventually agreed to support her husband.
Dong skills have improved substantially. He has attended various exhibitions, and some of his works are now part of a collection at Dhaka University in Bangladesh. Currently, he is planning a trip to Japan to research Japanese methods of clay sculpture, with the hope to raise the level of craftsmanship in Laoting.
In 2017, Laoting clay figurines were listed as a provincial-level intangible cultural heritage, and Zhao, who is a county-level master craftsman, will soon become the first provincial-level master.
His future plans coincide with those of Dong. "I must work hard and make great strides in the production of clay figurines, creating pieces of even better quality," Zhao said.
Laoting clay figurines has now entered the school syllabus at the district's number two and number four experimental primary schools.
Clay sculpture classes are aimed at encouraging more young people to fall in love with the art and, eventually, produce more craftsmen like Zhao.
Yue Jing, an art teacher in Laoting County, said that schools are a fertile ground passing on the skills. Introducing local intangible cultural heritage into the syllabus is of extraordinary significance. Children can play and at the same time learn to appreciate art and see the aesthetic value of the figurines. And what's more important, they are a guarantee that this traditional craft will be inherited by the next generation.