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Hairy Monkeys

When talking about hairy monkeys, young people of today usually have no idea what they are and tend to think of them as a kind of monkeys, like the white monkeys and macaques. Actually, hairy monkeys are a kind of folk handicraft of old Beijing. The body of these delicate ten-by-five millimeter toys is made from white Magnolia bud and shed cicada skin (as the doll's head and limbs), and because these handicrafts look a lot like monkeys, they are hence named "hairy monkey".

With an air of charming naivety, the hairy monkeys are enormously popular among old Beijingers. However, for various reasons, the folk art is facing extinction, as in today's Beijing, only several artists are well acquainted with the techniques of making hairy monkeys.

The creation of hairy monkeys was quite an accident. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there was a drug store named "South Qingren Hall". One day, two assistant chemists in the store, while fiddling with some Chinese medicine, worked out a small monkey-like toy with a shed cicada skin, a hairy white magnolia bud, a bletilla striata (the stem of a kind of plant) and an akebi (another kind of plant).

Their accidental creation caught the attention of the shopkeeper, who then suggested selling the four Chinese medicines in a pack as raw materials for making such toys. Hairy monkeys then became popular as a folk handicraft, but were limited among the small number of folk artists and the banner men ("Banners" is the military organization of the Qing Dynasty).

Though the raw materials are quite simple, the artists are capable of designing exquisite patterns through their observation and perceptual knowledge of a wide range of images. By using the hairy magnolia bud as the body, and adhering the head and claws cut from the cicada to it, they can create artworks of various kinds of shapes and postures.

Modeled on human actions and scenes from daily life, the handicrafts vividly represent urban life and customs, like barbers, fortune-tellers, hawkers of sugarcoated haws on a stick and so on. Some of the handicrafts form a complete set of artworks, such as "The County Magistrate on Inspection," and "Marriage Series," which were sometimes available at the stalls of temple fair and in the Dong'an Market as well as some toyshops in Quanye Department Store. In recent years, additional creations of this handicraft, which, while sticking to the traditional subjects, also reflects the real modern life.

In Beijing today, Cao Yijian is the most famous of the several hairy monkey craftsmen, as he is also the man who resumed the production of hairy monkeys after its disappearance from the public for a long time, hence his reputation as "Hairy Monkey Cao".

It is well known to old Beijingers that there used to be craftsmen selling hairy monkeys at the small and large temple fairs, in the Dong'an market and around the Front Gate. Cao, who fell in love with the small toys when a little boy, often went to the Dong'an Market to gaze at them.

The craftsman, upon seeing the little boy so fascinated with the toys, told him the raw materials and basic techniques for hairy-monkey making. Back home, Cao set out to try his hand at hairy-monkey making. With painstaking efforts, he gradually grasped the essentials of the handicraft and became a master of it.

Over the last decades, Cao has been engaged in the making of hairy monkeys, not simply following in the footprints of predecessors or pursuing similar external forms, but rather treating it as a marvelous folk art. Cao has never ceased to try bold innovations, always trying to achieve a likeness in spirit, and to improve his techniques.

Cao's hairy monkeys, exquisite and original, cover a wide variety of subjects under five categories:

The first category of works mainly focus on traditional subjects, with a strong Beijing flavor.

The second category is about historical subjects, with lifelike images and profound implications. The "Martial Arts Circles" is a good example, which features five monkeys: a seated master, two that are practicing and two other that are standing by and watching. By their side stands a weapons shelf, on which are displayed eighteen weapons. The combination presents a grand Kung fu scene.

Works of the third group are mostly about modern topics, such as "Playing Table Tennis," "Playing Volleyball" and "Weightlifting," that are all all vivid and lifelike.

Reflective works with a touch of humor and sarcasm fall under the fourth category. A case in point is the interesting and thought-provoking "Puffing the Cow," which features two monkeys, each with a pipe in the mouth, puffing toward the cow's ass to see who can puff it bigger.

The last category includes works on historical and theatrical stories, all of which contain vivid images with deep and profound meanings.

Hairy monkeys actually disappeared during the period between 1940s and 1980s, so when Cao's works showed up at an exhibition of folk artworks in 1983, many old Beijingers got extremely excited.

The rebirth of hairy monkeys also attracted a number of new lovers, both old and young, who asked about the making method via writing or telephoning. Some even visited Mr. Cao in person, exchanging what they have learnt from their working with the hairy monkeys. The styles of their works vary a lot: the young people have created the discoing toys while the farmers have come out with a series of rustic ones.

Due to his old age, Cao is now incapable of making hairy monkeys. As a way of promoting the art, he is sharing his experience with his followers without preservation. Today, a number of artists are working with him to carry on and develop the folk art, a treasure unique to Beijing.

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