Dough figurines, also known as “glutinous rice figurines,” are a traditional Chinese art form which uses wheat flour and glutinous rice flour as the main ingredients. They are popular all over China and are loved by both old and young.
Among the various art styles of dough figurines all over the country, Beijing’s Dough Figurine Lang is a unique folk art, which is imbued with the rich history and customs of the capital city. The delicate and lovely Dough Figurine Lang handicrafts are storytellers of old and new Beijing. In 2008, Dough Figurine Lang was included in the national intangible cultural heritage List, which helped it attract even more attention.
History of Dough Figurine Lang
Dough Figurine Lang is a kind of folk art unique to Beijing. It was created by Lang Shao’an (1909-1992), who learned it from Zhao Kuoming, known as the “king of dough figurines.” The subject matter of Dough Figurine Lang is broad and focuses on depicting the real traditional life of Beijingers. The handicrafts not only have strong artistic and collection value, but can also provide an important reference for the study of old Beijing folk customs and folk handicrafts.
Most of the dough figurines are animals and characters from legends, historical stories, and local operas. The finished product is either put at the end of a thin stick, or on the table for display. The former are mostly for children to eat or play with, with simple forms and vivid decorations, while the latter are delicate pieces of artwork for display, crafted with exquisite workmanship. For this reason, during the making process, they are often mixed with additives to prevent them from cracking, being eaten by insects or growing moldy.
Dough figurines are mainly crafted by itinerant artists, who have mastered the skills to shape, model, and color the dough to make the figures look like what they want. They can transform the dough into a radiant artistic product in a short amount of time. This art, inherited and developed among the artists and general public, embodies the aesthetic standards and ideals of the public, and provides important subject matter for the study of Chinese folk history, customs, and art.
The dough figurine “Dr. Zhong Nanshan and the Two Temporary Hospitals ‘Fire God Mountain’ and ‘Thunder God Mountain’ Safeguarding Wuhan” by Lang Jiaziyu is a tribute to Wuhan’s fight against COVID-19.
As one of the schools of dough sculpture art in Beijing, Dough Figurine Lang integrates drawing, sculpture, modeling, costume making, and other arts into one.
Over the course of his long career, Lang Shao’an cultivated a set of nimble fingers with a refined artistic sense. His works, with a touch of adornment, are simple in technique yet accurate and vivid in shape, which made him one of a kind in the dough figurine circle in Beijing. His daughter Lang Zhili, now in her late 70s, is the second generation successor of Dough Figurine Lang skills. Today, Lang Jiaziyu, the grandson of Lang Shao’an, is the third generation inheritor of this craft. He is innovative and finds ways to introduce Dough Figurine Lang to the young generation.
Dough Figurine Lang is made of wheat flour and glutinous rice flour. During the making process, first, the flour is steamed, then kneaded into a dough and pigments are added into it. Then it is shaped into figures, animals, plants, or other images as desired.
As the dough is always sticky, artisans normally moisten their hands with wax before they begin to knead it. When making a human figure, the first step, “shaping” the face, is very important. Artisans need to shape a small piece of dough into a vivid and expressive face; every step throughout the process will be fined-tuned several times to make the face round and smooth and resemble human faces.
In the process of making dough figurines, the most commonly used tools are “pokers.” They are either flat and pointed, good for cutting and carving, or round and smooth to roll the dough or make soft lines. In addition, there are also tweezers, small scissors, small combs, and other tools. Sometimes wool, feathers, threads, cotton, and other materials are used to make the whiskers, hair, crowns, and so on to increase the vitality of the face.
From the perspective of techniques, artisans first make a general shape by pinching, rubbing, and kneading the dough, and then deal with details such as hands, feet, and facial expressions with a bamboo knife. At last, hair ornaments, dresses, and other minor parts will be added to complete the work.
Since dough figurines are generally small, attention and quick reflexes are highly required when making them. Whether it be making a nose, a mouth, sleeves, or a bead necklace, the artisan should hold the dough steadily and then work quickly with the small tools. A challenging part of making the figurines is when the time comes to paste the small parts onto the main body, as there is no chance to repair them after pasting them, so an appropriate proportion is needed in this delicate process, otherwise the surface will not be smooth.
Passing on the Art
Dough figurines are not difficult to make. The true challenge lies in making them lifelike. Good handicrafts need the devotion of artisans from one generation to another.
Lang Jiaziyu, born in 1995, is the third generation inheritor of Dough Figurine Lang. Influenced by his family, he cultivated an interest in making dough figurines during his childhood. His grandfather, Lang Shao’an, and aunt Lang Zhili are superb artisans of this craft, and have had a great influence on him.
Lang Shao’an initially learned to make dough figurines just to make a living. Being of the Manchu ethnic group, his family received an income from the imperial court during the late Qing Dynasty, which desisted after the dynasty was overthrown in 1911. After that, he had to find a craft to make a living. Lang Jiaziyu watched his father, uncle, and aunt make dough figurines when he was a child. By the age of five, he had already made his first dough figurines. When he was 15, he created Beijing Olympic Mascots-shaped dough figurines which were highly praised.
Lang Jiaziyu looks a bit more fashionable than other folk artisans. Like many of his peers, he likes movies, cartoons, and memes. He has boldly introduced these elements into dough figurine art and has produced many popular and innovative characters. In the past, artisans mainly chose Monkey King, Guan Yu (an ancient general), and other classic icons to make their dough figurines. Now, in his skilled hands, pop culture icons such as figures based on Marvel comics characters, Slam Dunk figures, sneakers, Chinese mythological figure Nezha with smoky makeup, etc. are resonating with young people.
His innovation has won the admiration of many young people. Lang Jiaziyu has posted video tutorials online and received many comments asking for information about where to learn this craft. He is very motivated by people’s love and recognition. Like most of the other intangible cultural heritage crafts in China, Dough Figurine Lang does not get as much attention from the public as it warrants. Many young people are unwilling to take the time to master a skill that does not make money, which as a result has led to a decline in the number of those who are devoted to the craft.
In order to let more people know this heritage and understand the culture behind it, Lang Jiaziyu teaches the skill of making dough figurines at the invitation of some cultural institutions during which he presents the history and customs of Beijing related to it.
In 2018, Lang Jiaziyu was admitted to the School of Arts of Peking University for a master’s degree. This experience will provide him more opportunities to explore the great artistic values of this craft and also enable him to bring more value to this craft.