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Across China: Clay figurine master carries spirit of craftsmanship

Xinhua,November 29, 2017 Adjust font size:

by Xinhua Writers Li Kun and Yin Siyuan

TIANJIN, Nov. 29 (Xinhua) -- All his life, Zhang Yu has insisted on having only one store, despite the fact that a single work with his signature on it can fetch over 10,000 U.S. dollars.

"I must guarantee the quality of my work," says Zhang, the sixth generation clay figurine maker in his family.

"Clay Figure Zhang" is a household name of traditional folk art in China, and such artwork has a history of over 180 years.

Located in a traditional street in north China's Tianjin Municipality, Zhang's workshop only creates a dozen figurines a year, each with a limited production of exactly 59.

Due to the extremely delicate craft, it usually takes three months to complete a fine figurine, hence the high prices.

Tianjin has witnessed the fierce collision of Chinese and western culture in modern times, providing much inspiration for Zhang's clay figurines.

"Without the unique culture of Tianjin, the creations would lose their vitality," Zhang says.

With that in mind, Zhang says he will never expand his business beyond Tianjin.

"What I want is to devote my limited energy to the only store here in Tianjin, and focus on the art," he says.

Back in the 1840s, craftsman Zhang Mingshan rose to fame for his vivid clay figurines that combined traditional Chinese sculpture with western techniques, and were coined "Clay Figure Zhang," a brand his offspring have continued for six generations.

"Being proficient in traditional clay sculpture skills, Zhang Mingshan also absorbed other art forms such as painting and wood carving," says Li Dan, deputy director of the Clay Figurine Zhang Art Gallery.

In the 1930s, an average of 10 clay figurines were sold each day, and two days of sales could buy a square courtyard in Beijing.

A century passed, and it was time for Zhang Yu to carry on the family craft. He took charge of the family business in 1996, when he was just 18 years old.

As time changed, so the craft and brand has evolved.

"An art or skill can by no means prosper without artists," he says. This year, he launched a campaign to promote himself and his artists, using advertising posters around the city.

Instead of making figurines and selling them like a street vendor, he has hired art managers to exploit and market the artistic value of his work.

Besides kneading clay figurines, Zhang also teaches in several universities, even taking on apprentices from other countries.

"As long as the spirit of craftsmanship is passed down, the young generation should be given the opportunity to learn whatever traditional Chinese culture they are interested in, and promote it with their own ideas," Zhang says. Enditem