Guardian of an ancient craft

Updated 2018-02-07 15:44:02 Xinhua

Cui Xin, 61, has no offspring, but her "children" are her silk figurines.

For four decades she has made figurines, or "juanren", mainly from silk and cotton cloth.

This craft goes back more than a thousand years in China. Archaeologists have found a female dancer figurine in a Tang Dynasty (618-907) tomb, uncovered in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Cui's works are all based on figures from Chinese history or legend, such as the Monkey King, Terra-Cotta Warriors, and characters from folk tales and Peking Opera.

She keeps them in a closet covered with a thick curtain to block light and damp. "I don't feel lonely," she says. "They are my children."

Most figures are 30 centimeters high, but they take weeks to make. A craftsperson usually starts by making the frame of wire, then a body of cotton, skin of yarn, and hair of silk, before sculpting and painting the clothes and props.

The detail is demanding. Nail polish, rings and gloves can take hours, and a centimeter-long hand can take several days to make.

She began to learn the craft at 17 and it became the love of her life. UNESCO awarded her a civil craft artist title in 1995, and Beijing municipal government nominated the craft as an intangible cultural heritage in 2009.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese silk figurines won international acclaim and accolades in competitions and expos abroad, and were frequently presented to foreign guests as national gifts.

Cui began working at the Beijing Silk Figure Factory in the 1970s. When she started crafting soldiers and ethnic minority people, her works were often praised as lifelike. Senior makers found she had a flair for designing and crafting, so they decided to cultivate her skills.

Though silk figures bring in little money, Cui was rewarded with skill, joy and contentment. She refused many profitable work offers.

After the reform and opening up, workers in Cui's factory had to make as many figures as they could to make any money. Few people cared about quality. Soon, the business folded.

Cui retired in 2001, aged 45, with a pension of 701 yuan (111 U.S. dollars) per month, but she still spent hours each day crafting at home, often forgetting to eat.

When Tang Yan, an entrepreneur and silk figurine fan, found the bankrupt factory, she bought all the figures in stock.

Tang wanted to revitalize the business, but she realized the cost of almost 1,000 yuan per figurine was too expensive.

Tang decided to renovate the craft. In the past, the head and hands of a figure were made of gypsum, and then decorated with cotton and silk. After months of research and experimenting, contacting factories and experts, Tang changed to resin, which lowered the cost and shortened the making time.

In 2004, Tang opened a new silk figurine business, making about 300,000 figures by machine each year, with prices from 80 to 3,000 yuan.

She has opened an online shop and made changes to the figures' facial expressions to make them look more amiable.

"The craft was dying. I am trying to modernize it to appeal young customers," says Tang.

She is also creating moveable silk figures, similar to Barbie dolls, so people can dress their own figurines.

However, Cui Xin insists the craft needs time and patience.

"I prefer the silk figures of the 1970s," says Cui, adding that an apprentice must study at least a year before they can make a good figure independently. "There is no shortcut."

Furthermore, the craftsmanship demands makers carefully study history and characters, including their costumes, weapons, facial expressions, and gestures, "or your work would be contrary to the historical facts."

Two years ago, she took on two male apprentices. "As long as they are willing to learn, I will pass on all I know."

Being a teacher is a source of income and pride. She is also happy to be invited to teach at primary and middle schools.

She has seen an emerging revival of interest and passion, with more young people coming to her.

Many people are curious about works that were presented to foreign guests, but Cui has mixed feelings: "It's a bit sad actually. It seems like giving the children I raised to others."

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