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Beijing Silk Figurines

Made of thin silk, gauze, damask silk, etc, silk figurines produced in Beijing are a Chinese traditional handicraft. Folk cloth-pinpricked and color-pricked toys and other handicrafts are all closely connected with handcrafting silk figurines. The trade of silk and knit goods, which has existed in China since ancient times, created an optimal environment for the birth of silk figurines.

Beijing silk figurines originated in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and have a history of more than 1,000 years. In ancient times, the Chinese used bamboo and paper as materials for various kinds of craftworks.

As early as in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), color-pricked handicrafts were prevalent in the southern countryside of Southeast China's Fujian Province. In the beginning, people used paper to make different kinds of birds, beasts, flowers and fish. Later, they borrowed themes from popular drama stories and legends and turned them into flower lanterns for display. Gradually, this handicraft underwent many improvements. Written records show that folk artists of the Northern Song Dynasty were able to shape damask silk to form human figures, and made clothes from brocade.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), thin silk, gauze and damask were made into such images as the God of Longevity and Ma Gu, the Goddess of Longevity, to give as birthday presents to an elder. And this kind of craftwork often appeared in the houses of high officials. However, it is a pity that the craft perished for many years, only to be revived in 1954.

In the mid 1950s, after new China was founded, the country was invited to participate in an international toy fair held in India. Via the All-China Women's Federation, the Ministry of Culture assigned the task of designing exhibits for the fair to artists Ge Jing'an, Li Peifen, Du Chongpu, etc. They paid great efforts in collecting documentary materials from different sources and conducting much research to finally produce five works depicting women from ethnic minorities. The works received a warm welcome at the fair. Later, the group set up a research team on artistic figurines in Beijing, and successively produced many new works. The silk figurines designed took on the new China climate and the characteristics of ethnic groups.

In terms of materials, the heads of foreign figurines are made of gesso, clay and wood, while Beijing silk figurines are all made of Chinese silk from head to toe -- their facial expressions, clothing and postures all tinged with the Chinese flavor.

Beijing silk figurines usually represent young men and women in Chinese folktales, traditional dramas and ethnic dancers. The subjects are mainly characters from folk stories loved by China's common people, including ancient beauties, dramatic figurines and modern dancers.

The making of the figurines involves a dozen steps, including sculpting, painting, designing clothing and props, and arranging the hair and headgears. Each step requires sophisticated techniques and ingenious craftsmanship. Usually, the face and hands of a silk figurine are made of natural silk, while the other parts are made from fine silk cloth.

From head to toe, inside and out, only top quality Chinese silk and spun gauzes are used to make these craftworks.

The graceful and colorful Beijing silk figurines are exquisitely made, each with a different expression, bright colors and an elegant style. They are not only a rare specimen for indoor ornamentation, but also a stereoscopic piece for understanding Chinese history, local conditions and customs. For a long time, Beijing silk figurines have been greatly valued and highly appreciated as collector's items.

An Ardent Female Artist

Cui Xin is a Beijing silk figurine artist who has been engaged in the craft for more than 20 years. The subjects of her works are mainly maidens from royal courts, talented scholars and beautiful women (often heroes and heroines from traditional Chinese romances), as well as gods and Buddha. Cui Xin also molds modern figurines, representing people from ethnic minorities and famous foreigners.

Physically disabled due to infantile paralysis at the age of two, Cui was unable to pursue her schooling, but she continued her hobby of making silk figurines. Later, Cui mastered the procedure when she worked in a factory that produced artistic human figurines.

Cui loves the craft of silk figurines very much and spends most of her time making them. Usually, it takes her a long time to complete the head of just one figurine.

The eyes are the most important part of the craft, which give the figurines their lifelike appeal. After more than 20 years of practice and study, Cui categorizes the eyes of silk figurines into several categories: smiling eyes, gazing eyes, pretty eyes, eyes with a "martial spirit," eyes with tears in them, and so on, to vividly portray the different characters of various figures. After drawing the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and body of a figurine, Cui then maps out the hair.

The hair of a silk figurine is made of very thin threads, which should be evenly covered on the mold of its head. The next step is to arrange the hair into a bun.

Upon completing the head, Cui makes the bones, muscles and skin. Iron wire is used to make the prayer bones; iron wire covered with antiseptic cotton is used to make muscles; and gauze is used to shape the female body. Similar procedures are employed to make the hands, which require the most skill. It usually takes two to three days to complete a very thin finger. After all figurine parts are complete, they are joined together to form a rudiment. Then, silk is used to make clothes for the figurine. To obtain the best results, Cui insists on personally selecting the cloth for each silk figurine.

There are dozens of procedures involved in making a silk figurine. Even the procedure of making accessories also calls on a lot of patience and skill. The accessories should be appropriate and correspond to the size of each figurine. What's more, the decorations and arrangement of accessories also demand much expertise. On the one hand, the artist should possess an artistic perception of how to process the accessories; on the other, she or he has to study the historical background of each figure being molded.

Carefully observing Cui's works, one will find that each figurine bears some similarity to the artist in terms of facial features and expressions, which may well be the indissoluble bond forged between the artist and silk figurines. It usually takes Cui one to two months to make a single silk figurine, every detail conveying Cui's love for Beijing silk figurines. 

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