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February 7, 2012

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Preserving 'dramas' of dough

Once upon a time, making dough sculpture was an honored handicraft and dozens of sculptors showed off their meticulous craftsmanship in the streets. They carried their flour, water and ingredients, plus samples and traveled about, telling stories of legendary figures they modeled.

With a lump of dough impaled on a thin bamboo stick, they dexterously kneaded, twisted, pressed and rolled the shapeless blob into famous generals, emperors, lovers and beautiful women whose necklace beads could be counted and whose pearl hairpins and fabric patterns could be clearly discerned.

Often they were followed about by children, watching their every move.

Sha Rugeng, in his 70s, recalls that he was so enchanted by the craft in his childhood that he started collecting dough figurines and preserved them for many years as treasures. But over the years, many have broken and crumbled. Nostalgia took him to the ongoing exhibition of dough modeling at the Shanghai Public Art Center on Guyi Road through the end of March. Admission is free.

Displayed are marvels of dough figurine master Zhao Yanlin and her son Chen Kaifeng. Zhao is the daughter of Zhao Kuoming (1900-1980), revered as China's godfather of modern dough art.

Their works feature vivid facial expressions, intricate costumes, lively movement and some modern themes. There's an elegant lady from old Shanghai, wearing an emerald bracelet, talking on the telephone and listening to a gramophone. And a Chinese Taikonaut stands proudly in his spacesuit.

Typically dough figures are historical figures or characters from literature and folklore, but subjects are getting more modern and many are humorous and involve multiple figures. One man, a legendary hero, is doing a one-hand handstand on a chair back. Children are playing in a snow scene.

Dough figurines are usually 12-15 centimeters in height, no higher than 25cm.

The dough is made of flour and glutinous rice flour mixed with salt, oil and preservatives. Sculptors forever seek better preservatives, experimenting with polymers and new materials.

Silent dramas

One scene by Zhao Yanlin depicts Xiang Yu, a formidable general in the late Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) who wears a black war robe and grips his sword. He stares in anguish at his beloved concubine Yu Ji whom he must leave since his army has been defeated. She performs a sword dance, showing him she is willing to sacrifice her life.

Zhao is famous for these "silent dramas" and "solid pictures."

The exhibition features scenes from novels such as "A Dream of Red Mansions" and "The Butterfly Lovers." Female general Mu Guying of the Northern Song Dynasty(960-1127) is there too.

Viewers can count the petals on a flower, the number of flowers on a fan, the layers in an elaborate costume.

"My father always told me that art originates from daily life, and I should pay close attention to details of the subjects before creating figurines," says Zhao, who is 71 years old. Her father exposed her to traditional Chinese operas to understand characters, facial expressions, gestures, props, costuming and setting.

She practiced the modeling at least eight hours a day and also studied Chinese painting and calligraphy.

Her famous father started out as a day laborer who studied the craft under Han Liangying, a celebrated artist in Tianjin. Han died after nine months of teaching and Zhao was on his own, eventually developing the "southern school of dough modeling." He modeled for more than 70 years.

In the past, dough modelers had low status, like that of street performers. Zhao's father was an itinerant craftsman, carrying a box on his back, going from street to street to make a living. He told great stories to attract buyers.

He developed eight hand techniques and eight techniques involving tools such as spicules, tiny scissors, comb, writing brush, tweezers and awl.

Zhao carried on, but her eyesight is failing. She is dedicated to teaching children the craft. Her son Chen Kaifeng is the next generation.

He jokes that his home is more like a chemical laboratory where he tries to perfect dough that lasts a long time.

"In my grandfather's time, there was no good way to solve the problem. My mother used salt and I find a polymer is useful," Chen says.

Last 100 years

The works he makes today can last at least 100 years if they are well cared for, he says. His own collection is preserved in paper and placed in a glass case to control temperature, humidity and oxidation and to repel pests. Some are 100 years old.

Chen used to live with his famous grandfather and got hooked on the craft, the fascinating techniques, the colors and the stories behind the figurines. But he was too young to actually learn. He later studied with his mother.

Unlike northern modelers, Shanghai craftsmen focus more on detail, such as eyes, facial expressions and poses to convey emotion, Chen says.

He says his grandfather could stare at a model in front of him and shape the dough at the same time, without looking at his hands. Such "blind modeling" is the height of craftsmanship. It takes a lifetime of practice.

It took Chen six months and 10 attempts to create a work called "Jiang Ping Steals an Official Seal," from a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) novel. Jiang does a one-hand handstand on the back of a wooden chair.

"It was difficult because the dough is heavy, the center of gravity is low and the acrobatic position difficult to render in balance," Chen says. It was difficult to get the facial expression right, because each change could affect the stability of the whole. Each time he was dissatisfied, he threw the figure out, even if it was almost complete.

"Unlike sculpture, dough figurines must be shaped once, in one session," he explains. "When flour dries, there's no chance to rework it or make even minor changes."

Chinese opera, a standard theme, is not indigenous to Shanghai and Chen prefers to focus on Shanghai culture. He researches history, culture, fashion, hair styles and furnishings from the 1930s and 1940s. Scenes involving women in cheongsam are a favorite and he studied many old calendars featuring pretty girls.

For his Shanghai lady sitting on a sofa and listening to a gramophone, he studied gramophone models. He places a lotus flower, symbol of beauty, purity, near the sofa. She wears a simple white dress with blue trim.

Other works feature childhood memories and settings in traditional longtang (lanes) and shikumen (stone-gated) houses. People travel in rickshaws and children play games such as "eagle catches chickens." They also fly kites and skip rope. Each child wears a vivid expression.

Edible history

The ancient handicraft dates from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when dough was modeled into fruits and animals for sacrifice to deities and ancestors. Some were burial objects.

Most were edible and during festivals and big occasions people in rural areas, such as today's Shanxi and Shandong provinces, presented dough-modeled food for good luck. The tradition lives on in some villages for events like weddings and birthdays.

With the development of pastry, dough modeling developed into a folk art during the late Qing Dynasty.

Although dough modeling is part of China's national cultural heritage, it's slipping into obscurity. Few people are learning the craft since it's very demanding and not very profitable.

When dough modeling was popular, Chen's grandfather and his mother each had more than 10 disciples.

The Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute nurtures craftsmen, but has difficulty finding serious students to become "heirs." Old artisans who worked there have died or retired.

But Chen and his mother Zhao are dedicated to teaching.

As an art teacher at the Siping Middle School, Chen teaches dough modeling to many students. In the old days craftsmen only taught family members, but Chen teaches anyone who is interested.

His students created the figurines of China's Taikonauts Yang Liwei, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, which are on display at the exhibition.

"We must cultivate more students who are passionate about the old art," Chen says. "In that way we can pass it from generation to generation."

Time: Through March 31, 9:30am-4:30pm

Venue: Shanghai Public Art Center, 125 Guyi Rd, Xuhui District

Tel: 5424-4152

Admission: Free

How to get there: Metro Lines 3, 4 and 9, Yishan Road Station


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