Crafting a world at his fingertips

Dough figurines Lang Jiaziyu made based on the Chinese animated short film series Yao-Chinese Folktales. CHINA DAILY


Inheriting his family's renowned legacy for making dough figurines, Lang Jiaziyu is injecting new creativity and cultural elements into the craft, ensuring its popularity stays forever young, Meng Wenjie reports.


"Can I ask a big favor?" Prince Albert II of Monaco asked a young Chinese craftsman standing behind a booth with various dough figurines on display. The prince invited the young man to make an extra figurine so that he could present a figurine to each of his two children after being amazed by the artistry involved in molding dough figurines.


This was at a demonstration of China's intangible cultural heritage held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing during the 2022 Winter Olympics. And the young man was Lang Jiaziyu, born in 1995, a third-generation inheritor of Beijing "Dough Figurine Lang". The surname "Lang" is attached to the figurine as a traditional way in China to convey gratitude for the family's substantial contributions to the craft.


Dough figurines Lang Jiaziyu made based on the Chinese animated short film series Yao-Chinese Folktales. CHINA DAILY


The dough figurine initially became well-known as a typical folk art found on the streets, which required speedy production. Within three to five minutes, a craftsman could finish a piece of work. The main ingredients used are dough, honey, and salt. "What would normally be considered as food is transformed into a kind of sculpture. It is a crystallization of Chinese wisdom," Lang said.


With their simple and basic materials, quick production, and diminutive size, the dough figurines have been gaining popularity as unique cultural artworks in Beijing for many years. A great number of people have a deep appreciation for these small sculptures, which have a surprisingly long shelf life spanning multiple decades. They can be used as home decorations and as toys for children to play with.


Lang's family has been making dough figurines for three generations. His grandfather, Lang Shao'an, was known as the original creator of Dough Figurine Lang. He transformed dough figurines from a common street toy into a real work of art.


Dough figurines Lang Jiaziyu made based on the Chinese animated short film series Yao-Chinese Folktales. CHINA DAILY


The renowned Chinese writer Xie Wanying, or Bingxin (1900-1999), once wrote in one of her articles about the realism and intricacy of the works created by Lang Shao'an. She vividly described the miniature scale of these creations: "A thumb-sized kite, a soybean-sized Peking Opera mask, a mung bean-sized bell, a small white duck the size of half a grain of rice, and a candy ball the size of a millet… I really don't know how he was able to mold these tiny and adorable figurines."


The artwork of Lang Shao'an has also been displayed at several diplomatic gatherings. "In 1956, my grandfather traveled to the UK to participate in an exhibition as a representative of China. People were astounded by the (dough figurine-making) technique," said Lang Jiaziyu, explaining that his grandfather's era marks the time when the craft of Dough Figurine Lang began to be showcased on a global platform. "It was very well received and attracted a lot of foreign media coverage," he said.


Lang Jiaziyu's father, Lang Zhichun, and his aunt, Lang Zhili, were both accomplished masters of the craft. Through the efforts of the second generation of inheritors, Dough Figurine Lang was inscribed on China's second national list of intangible cultural heritage.


Lang works on a dough figurine in his studio. CHINA DAILY


Growing up in a family renowned for its expertise in the art of dough figurines, Lang Jiaziyu developed a fascination for the process of molding dough from a young age. "I was only 5 years old when I told my father that I wanted to devote myself to making dough figurines," Lang recalled. "I made a small doll in a sitting gesture, which took me two and a half hours."


However, this craft, which has been passed down through generations, is not something that a 5-year-old beginner can master overnight. "It was awful," said Lang, laughing as he reflected on his first creation. "I intended to make an adorable doll, but instead, I made an ugly, middle-aged man."


But with the support and encouragement of his father, Lang made great progress and finally got the chance to showcase his skills in the previously mentioned national demonstration.


Reflecting on this event, Lang described it as a "fantastic experience". "When national leaders bent over to look at my works closely and admired them, offering generous praise about their cultural value, I felt a great sense of pride," he said.


Lang works on a dough figurine in his studio. CHINA DAILY


Nowadays, traditional craftsmanship is somewhat losing its appeal among young people. In order to be more relatable to the younger generation at home and abroad, Lang has sought to incorporate new and fresh elements into his works. For example, he has drawn inspiration from foreign characters in cartoons like The First Slam Dunk, Minions, Doraemon, and Ultraman. However, Lang didn't do that for long. "I realized that foreign stories may not be the best way to promote traditional Chinese crafts," he said.


Later, he started including his own ideas and observations about current social events in his works. For example, in honor of the female healthcare workers who fought against the COVID-19 pandemic, Lang made a piece for International Women's Day that features a figurine incorporating both the classic figure of Chinese heroine Mu Guiying as portrayed in Peking Opera and a healthcare worker in a white coat. And in 2023, Lang created a series of dough-based figurines inspired by the popular Chinese animated short film series Yao-Chinese Folktales, which was popular among many young people.


Recently, Lang has come up with more ideas inspired by traditional Chinese artworks. "My most recent ideas came to me on a visit to the Palace Museum in Beijing. I found that traditional aesthetics do not require much interpretation. Through art forms, one can directly perceive the ancient Chinese wisdom of the 'harmony between nature and humanity'," he said.


As a Gen Zer himself, Lang has also been putting great efforts into promoting and disseminating Dough Figurine Lang craftsmanship and other intangible cultural heritages on social media. Now, he has more than 2.6 million followers across his various platforms.


"We've received a lot of questions, for example, on where to learn the craft, where to buy the materials, and whether I can take apprentices," he said.


Seeing such feedback, Lang is encouraged to continue promoting traditional culture and he believes that young people are still drawn to traditional Chinese handicrafts.


"I always cherish the hope that my compatriots and I can continue to deepen our understanding of the essence of our own culture," he said. "How to present our narrative both at home and overseas and how to create the greatest possible platform for Chinese culture are missions that Chinese Gen Zers need to undertake."

   

Contact the writer at mengwenjie@i21st.cn


Time:2023-09-01      admin:Meng Wenjie      Views:247

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