On the grounds of beautifully restored Qing Dynasty mansion near the entrance of Xihui Park, Zhao Jian’gao has serious concerns for the future of his craft. As the director of the Wuxi Clay Figurines Research Institute, he is responsible for keeping alive a folk art that has existed since the Song dynasty(960-1279AD)---the resources for which are now exhausted.
The art had its heyday in Wuxi at the end of the Qing period, when the fields around Xihui Park were covered in rice paddies. The unique reaction of the area’s soil with the rice plants created a soft, sticky clay that proved ideal for sculpture. Unlike Zisha clay, which is fired, Huishan Clay is delicate and dries naturally in the air---local craftspeople used it to create detailed miniature statuettes which were then brightly painted. The art’s representative work is the A-Fu Baby couple ---a pair of chubby male and female infants in traditional costume.
The rice paddies are now gone and the institute’s clay reserves will soon run out. The guild of artists at Huishan now works daily to produce artworks for sale to support the institute, which must also conduct research to develop substitute materials, as well as make headway in the art’s development to keep it from becoming a merely historical craft. The institute is also home to a museum that preserves the best classical works of the region as well as the finest modern creations.
The pressure on the institute is intense, but Zhao remains optimistic---the art has been listed as a national heritage and is now gaining popularity overseas. Hope still exists, it seems, for this charming art form that has emerged from one of the loveliest parts of the Jiangnan region.