(Text by reporter: Huang Jingjing/photography by reporter Yu Ruwen) Many people still remember in their childhood, the colorful dough would turn into “Monkey Subduing the White-Bone Demon” in the dough figurine master’s hands, wining great acclaim of onlookers. Now with the changes of the times, however, it’s increasingly rare to see anyone making a dough figurine.
Liu Weihu, a member of Chinese Arts Association and of Shanghai Folk Artists Association, is known as “Dough Figurine Master Liu” by insiders. The 3,000 odd lifelike works in his old one-bedroom flat in Taixing Road, Jing’an District, are witnesses to his story with dough figurine making over the past 30 years.
It took one year to learn kneading dough
The art of dough modeling, commonly known as “dough figurine making”, is a Chinese national intangible cultural heritage. Liu Weihu told the reporter that the main ingredients are flour and glutinous rice flour which are dyed different colors, and then kneaded into different lifelike figurines with hands and other simple tools. “Despite the relatively simple making method, dough figurines are highly artistic folk handicrafts.” Liu said the creation of Chinese dough figurines has a long history, and it was recorded in text as early as in the Han Dynasty and dough figurines were used on occasions of traditional festivals, celebrations and ceremonies. After thousands of years of inheritance and innovation, they evolved into artworks popular among the public.
Liu’s grandfather was a great master of dough modeling and root carving. Liu became very fond of making dough figurines when he was a little boy. Due to his old age, the grandfather asked his best pupil to teach the grandson dough modeling. Since then, the boy has been tightly bound to the art. “My motivation was very simple: for one thing, I love it; for another, I wanted to learn some means of livelihood.”
For a work of dough figurine to look true to life and artistic, the dough is kneaded, twisted, rubbed and stirred in hands and then dotted, cut, carved, marked and modeled with a mall knife into the body, hands, head and face, and then dressed in hair ornaments and clothes. Liu explained, great care is devoted to each step. Take kneading dough for instance. It’s a heavy job and the toughness of the dough of different quality completely depends on how the hands are applied to kneading. “I spent a whole year learning how to knead dough as an apprentice.” Take dyeing as another example. Pigment is divided into two kinds: edible and inedible. Inedible pigment is extracted from minerals. Dough figurines made of such pigment can be long preserved. Edible pigment is extracted from eggplants, tomatoes and other vegetables, so figurines made of such pigment can be viewed and eaten as well.
“A Hundred-Odd Children Welcoming World Expo” set a world record
In 2009, after over a month of painstaking efforts, Liu completed a traditional miniature dough figurine work, “A Hundred-Odd Children Welcoming World Expo”, his gift for Shanghai World Expo 2010. The image of 122 Chinese children in traditional costumes is vivid and lifelike, the height of the children ranging three to six millimeters. The work set two Guinness World Records for being the “tiniest” Chinese tough figurine with the “biggest number” of characters.
In additional, Liu is also the creator of the art of “dough figurine painting”, forming pictures of landscape with works of dough figurines, which completely changed the form of expression for dough figurine works. “Dough figurine is just a name actually,” said Liu. Dough figurines are by no means confined only to characters, but also they can be extended to plants and animals and every other thing in the world.
Perfection of the craft is always what Liu pursues. Through continuous research on dough formulation, Liu created his own unique formula and method that can make his works last twenty or thirty years without going moldy, rotten or off-color. In recent years, Liu has made another new breakthrough which makes his works more resistant to fall or crush and thus ensures the integrity of the works in preservation.
Works are not for sale, but for gifts only
Liu once thought of making dough figurines for a living, but soon gave up the idea. He changed his jobs again and again in the past 30 years, a skilled worker, an A-type licensed driver and a first chef. But he remains keen on making dough figurines, even though he has been recognized as an artist of dough modeling. “It’s too hard to purely live on this craft. You can’t create anything great if you’re obsessed with making money when creating your works.” He accepts the helpless fact that devoting to folk art means choosing a poor life. The market is small and economic returns low, so you have to pay out of your own pocket.
Regular expenses have to be paid for flour, glutinous rice flour, honey, salt, oil and other raw materials. Standing figurines need mahogany pedestals; most of works need mahogany frames and glass shields, which often cost hundreds of yuan; and the mahogany display cabinet costs even more.
“Each piece is the one and only, and cannot be copied.” Liu takes good care of his works as if they were his children. “They are all results of my painstaking labor, from originality, composition to every single hair of the figurines. I can’t state a price. Some works can be given as gifts, but they are never for sale.”
The 23-square-meter house is filled with figurines. “There’s no room for a wardrobe, so clothes have to be stuffed under the bed.” Liu’s wife, Wang Jianfang, said.
Small reword makes it hard to take pupils
When making a small dough monkey, pig or rabbit, Master Liu is often surrounded by a group of children. He makes any dough figurine as asked by the kids. “I make a few more to please the kids. If the figurines are well-preserved, people will still be able to know what a dough figurine is like in decades of or even a hundred years.” It may be a casual remark, but he is really worried that no one would carry on the craft.
Over his 30 years of creation, he hasn’t found any apprentice. “I don’t have too harsh requirements: the students must be really fond of the art, willing to study, patient enough and prepared to live a poor life.” In recent years, some students came to him, either brought by their parents or introduced by their schools. Once they found out the economic returns for this job are low, they quit, and most of they quit before they even started. Liu confessed, “I wish this time-honored folk art and craft can be inherited, advanced, and persist despite the changes of the times.”
(Source: Jing’an Newspaper)