Chinese folklore has it that humans were originally created out of clay by the Goddess Nüwa. Still using her simple materials, Chinese folk artists revive this legend daily by molding delicate clay figurines.
Numbers of clay animal sculptures are unearthed in China regularly and they reveal that the history of making of clay figurines probably dates back to the Neolithic Period. However, it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that clay figurines came into their heyday and became one of the most popular art forms.
To make a fine clay figurine, craftsmen first need to select proper clay – neither too sticky nor too stiff. Then they mix the clay with water, and hammer the mixture repeatedly until it is malleable enough to be molded. After that, craftsmen will knead the clay into different shapes and dip the figurine in rosin or Chinese ink (this depends on the need for a base color). The next step is to apply pigments or gouache colors on the molded base and refine the image with a flax pen.
Figurine making requires the skills of stone carvers, painters, papercut makers and, sometimes, embroiderers as well. When the basic figurine is detailed, it needs to be coated with varnish to preserve the color. Clay figurines are not fired to dry like pottery. Instead, the final step consists of leaving the figure to dry in the shade. The entire process lasts at least one week.
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