BEIJING, Dec. 4, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- Just like many of his peers, Lang Jiaziyu, who was born into a cultural heritage family in 1995, loves basketball, manga and most importantly China's traditional culture. As a third-generation inheritor of the Chinese intangible cultural heritage (ICH) known as Beijing dough sculpture, Lang has his own magic weapon - "old techniques, new themes" - to upgrade the century-old art with his strategic mind and creative hands.
For the latest issue of China Chic, the young man sat down with the Global Times to talk about why he chose to revive the dough art and how he tries to promote it among young people and even engage international fans into China's folk culture.
Flour is favored by Chinese people as it can be made into yummy food from noodles and dumplings to bread. However, under the hands of a skilled artisan, this necessity of people's daily life is molded and made into lovely figurines or animals to be enjoyed and played with, which brings unique pleasure as a folk art.
The story of the Lang family's Beijing dough figurine art started with Lang Shao'an (1909-92), who learned the skill from Zhao Kuoming, known as the "king of dough figurines."
Lang Shao'an covered broad subjects and aimed to depict the real traditional life of old Beijingers. These dough figurines, mostly animals and characters from legends, historical stories, and local operas, 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.
"They were my grandfather's favorites, as traditional culture like operas and historical stories were an important part of mainstream culture then," Lang Jiaziyu told the Global Times.
In the early years, Lang Shao'an mostly dwelled on the "need to sustain his everyday life" by making the dough figurines, yet when the skill was passed down to his son Lang Zhichun, the second-generation dough figure artisan, he truly got a "taste" of the art by experimenting with multiple types of materials. Lang Zhichun preferred to combine dough with everyday objects such as walnut shells, wood, crystals and even incense ash.
Mixing the grayish incense ash into the white dough, Lang Zhichun created a Buddha statue that looks solemn and gracious, revealing the beauty of classic Chinese religious philosophy.
Transiting from mythical beasts to religious statues, the folklore of dough transcended beyond just a skill, becoming an artistic tool able to depict various aspects of Chinese cultural beliefs.
"No matter what we make, a human figure or an object, their inner cultural spirit is of the upmost importance," Lang Zhichun told the Global Times.
The folk art continued keeping up with the times when it was passed down to his son, third-generation creator Lang Jiaziyu.
In the young artist's mind, three key ideas helped him decide to make dough figurine making a career. "The first is 'I like it,' the second is 'I am good at it,' and the final one is that it is a career that is 'meaningful and challenging,'" he told the Global Times.
"For our generation, we may not focus too much on how delicate and vivid the image is, but we do pay more attention to self-expression and treat art as an extension of our self-awareness."
From 'dough' to 'art'
From beasts in China's myth-orientated The Classic of Mountains and Seas to heroes in Marvel's Avengers, various dough figurines are on display at Lang's studio in Beijing's Chaoyang district as the art form seems easy to make but needs focused attention and nimble fingers.
Figurines are usually made of wheat flour or glutinous rice flour. Before being shaped into figures, the flour is steamed and then kneaded into dough. Taking a panda sculpture as an example, ecru color dough will have to be dyed white and black using paint pigment.
In the process of making dough figurines, the most commonly used tools are "pokers." They are either flat and pointed, which is good for cutting and carving, or round and smooth so the artist can roll the dough or make soft lines. In addition, there are also tweezers, small scissors, small combs and other tools. Sometimes wool, feathers, thread, cotton, and other materials are used to make whiskers, hair, crowns, and so on to increase the expressiveness of a figure.
According to Lang, artisans often first make a general shape and then deal with details such as hands, feet and even facial expressions later on. Last, hair ornaments, dresses, and other minor parts will be added to complete the work.
As dough figurines are generally small, attention and dexterity are high requirements when making them. Whether it be 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 afterward. Lang still remembers that as a child he would hold his breath, watching with full attention as his father pasted the small parts of an ancient general's armor together.
"Finally, we would let out a long sigh of relief after the work was completed," he said.
The now 28-year-old Lang Jiaziyu has practiced dough art for more than 20 years. He told the Global Times that his journey began at age 3 with his father's everyday training. Lang Zhichun told the Global Times that he would use several tricks such as asking his friends to complement the 5-year-old Lang's works in order to cultivate the little artist's passion and confidence.
"He was able to sit there for hours. It was not easy for a little boy who is at his most bubbly and naughty age," said Lang Zhichun, adding that he would have found other apprentices if Lang Jiaziyu did not have "potential."
With his father's trust, Lang Jiaziyu soon revealed his potential in not only having great skills, but also a "good mind" when it came to coming up with strategies to put this old tradition into a modern context. People of the young generation, especially Generation Z fans, are Lang's target audiences.
In order to promote this rather niche handicraft, Lang cleverly assembles the dough art in different interesting videos posted on major Chinese social media platforms like Bilibili and Douyin. He has around 2.5 million fans on the internet.
On these platforms, the dough figurines have become a carrier for Lang to share his observations about hot cultural trends. He released one video in June to show his dough versions of characters from the manga Slam Dunk after the film adaption The First Slam Dunk swept cinemas.
The dough sculptor is also a keen observer of the subtle sentiments shared by society. For instance, in one piece he gave a figure three heads to show an individual's different emotions - joy, sorrow and calm. The artist tried to explore how one can co-exist with their own emotions when dealing with today's fast paced social life.
"We need to feed audiences' curiosity about dough art as well as the person behind this art. Only the public's participation can bring my art creation full circle," Lang said, noting that his team has been making videos for seven to eight years now.
Due to such cultural agility, Lang's fan base online has been growing. Yet he told the Global Times that neither fame nor trending overseas was his goal for making such videos. Connecting young audiences with traditional Chinese culture is his ultimate goal.
In Lang's studio, there is an eye-catching sculpture inspired by the character Zhu Rong, the "God of Fire" in The Classic of Mountains and Seas, the primary source of Chinese mythology from around the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. Depicting two dragons perched on the mountain that surrounds Zhu Rong, the dough sculpture is an epitome of ancient Chinese people's imagination.
"No matter if it is literary value or imaginative power, I think they all represent the charm of traditional Chinese culture," said Lang.
Other than going online, Lang has tried to introduce dough art's practical everyday value by launching creative products with crossover brands in the fashion industry. To him, "maximizing its presence in people's everyday lives can help spread Chinese culture."
In September, an exhibition titled A Centennial Stroll was held in Beijing, the first show dedicated to this treasure. Lang told the Global Times that A Centennial Stroll represents the entire family's dedication to the art with patience and love.
"It is a centennial art, and my grandpa, my father and me have been taking a walk in it, not too fast nor too slow," Lang told the Global Times.
No matter how "trendy" Lang becomes, there is always something he keeps in mind that keeps him alert about Beijing dough sculpture's intangible nature.
"It is a pity that my hands have to go with me" were the last words his grandpa left to his family before leaving the world. Lang said that it was at that moment he suddenly realized dough tradition would soon be forgotten if he failed to find a stage for it.
Once hidden in a small Beijing hutong during his grandpa's time, the art is now being displayed across the internet. Lang said he was "lucky" to be supported by China's constant efforts to conserve a wide range of its traditions.
Back in 2011, China enacted a law dedicated exclusively to the ICH sector. Including terms such as enhancing the conservation of ICH treasures in impoverished areas, the law was a "milestone" that "allows ICH conservation to be carried out with major instructions," Xiang Xinshuang, an ICH expert, told the Global Times.
Following the policy guidance, new means were used. For example, an online ICH digital museum was established as a comprehensive database for inheritors in the country. Ten years after the law was passed, the General Office of the State Council issued a guidance to further enhance ICH protection by including it as part of the country's cultural development strategy.
Xiang told the Global Times that as part of the "national cultural plan," China's ICH legacy has been seen as a window to promote "cross-cultural humanity exchanges and allow the world to see the vitality of Chinese civilization."
Lang has indeed been fortunate as national-level support has opened a window for him to present his dough art on the international arena.
During the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Lang's dough sculpture of mascot Bing Dwen Dwen was presented to Albert II, the Prince of Monaco. The Langs' dough art decorated the table of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
Lang said he did feel nervous but proud when showing his art in front of international guests.
Like many artists, Lang is a young man who is able to experience subtle sentiments and transform them into sources of inspiration.