Xu Mingsheng and Zhu Yue, a young couple, gave up their high-paying jobs, and good living conditions in a big city, after they graduated from the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, capital of eastern China's Zhejiang Province, in 2016. They returned to Shatan, a village in Wuxing, a district in Huzhou, Zhejiang, where they have since been making clay sculptures. Now, they are well-known in the region for making clay sculptures.
Clay figurines, which have a history of more than 4,000 years, are common (as a craft) in China. Making a clay sculpture involves more than 80 procedural steps. It generally takes a craftsperson several months to make a clay sculpture; for example, a craftsperson needs to master the skills of painting, carving and writing calligraphy.
Xu Mingsheng and his wife, Zhu Yue, are famous, in rural Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, for making clay figurines. Many people have invited the couple to make and/or repair clay figurines for temples and museums.
Xu Guoliang, Xu Mingsheng's father, has exerted considerable influence on his son. Xu Guoliang learned how to mold small clay figurines when he was young. He could make lifelike clay figurines when he was a teenager. Even though he became a stage designer after he grew up, he still made clay figurines in his spare time. He once helped repair the ancient painted statues in a temple. He reinvigorated the incomplete Buddha statues that were nearly 1,000 years old. He was soon known by the locals for his exquisite craftsmanship. Then, he gave up his job, and he became a clay-figurine-making craftsman.
Following in his father's footsteps, Xu Mingsheng loved to play with clay when he was young. He grew up with the clay figurines made by his father. Xu Guoliang asked Xu Mingsheng to mold a clay figurine when he was 7. Xu Guoliang asked his son to use his imagination and make a complete clay figurine, with facial features and an expression. Xu Mingsheng made a woman clay figurine, based on his mother. He revealed his talent in making clay figurines through the "test." Xu Guoliang was excited that his son had a talent for making clay figurines. He began to teach his son figurine-making skills.
Xu Mingsheng enrolled in the secondary art school affiliated with China Academy of Art (CAA) after he graduated from middle school. Xu Mingsheng and Zhu Yue were classmates at the secondary art school. They were both enrolled by CAA after they graduated from the secondary school. They began dating while attending CAA, and they got married after they graduated from the university (in 2016). "After we decide to do something, we tend to do it immediately. Many classmates were surprised about our 'early marriage.' However, we only want to follow our hearts, do what we want to do and live the lives that we want," says Zhu.
The young couple had a bright future in Hangzhou after they graduated from the university. A company invited Xu Mingsheng to create oil paintings, and he was offered a high yearly income. But Xu Mingsheng turned down the offer, as he wanted his career to be closely connected with his favorite clay figurines. So, he decided to return to his hometown to make clay figurines.
At that time, Zhu was employed as a user-interface designer by an Internet company. She earned a high income. However, she gave up the job, in the big city, to move to the village with her husband. "I made the decision after some hesitation. Gold will glitter forever. I gave up a high-income job and good living conditions in the big city, but I could start the business with my lover. It gave me a chance to challenge myself," says Zhu.
The young couple learned how to make clay figurines from Xu Guoliang. They have helped improve the materials and traditional skills of making clay figurines. In the past, craftspeople used oil paint to paint the clay figurines. As time passed, the clay figurines cracked. As Zhu is sensitive to colors, she mixes vibrant colors with high-quality paints. Over time, she realized certain paints did a better job protecting the figurines. Now, the couple only uses homemade paints to color the clay figurines, to ensure the quality of the clay figurines.
Zhu and Xu Mingsheng once helped make a clay figurine of Zhang Bo, a person who was skilled in preventing floods by controlling water in ancient times, for Liyang Museum (in Jiangsu). According to ancient books, Zhang led ancient Chinese in controlling water in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces. Sculptures of Zhang are prevalent in many places in the provinces. Many of those sculptures depict Zhang standing on the back of a pig as he controls water.
Xu Mingsheng felt there should be a new depiction of Zhang; he thought Zhang should be siting on the pig while pondering how to prevent floods. Experts at the museum finally accepted his suggestion. The clay sculpture of Zhang made by Xu Mingsheng is now being displayed in the museum.
Making clay figurines is hard work. Xu Mingsheng and his father must often eat and live in the temples. They need to endure the loneliness. However, Xu Mingsheng enjoys the work. "I concentrate on the work of making clay figurines. I do not feel lonely in the villages, as my wife accompanies me. I am satisfied with my current life," says Xu Mingsheng.
The couple continues to study traditional Chinese culture, read historical books and learn clay-figurine-making skills, by studying ancient frescos and Buddha statues, to make better clay figurines. Xu Mingsheng wanted to help his father protect and pass on his clay-figurine-making skills to future generations, so he recorded his father's the clay-figurine-making skills in a file. The file, used as an introduction to the skills, was submitted with the application to have the clay-figurine-making skills listed as an intangible cultural heritage of Zhejiang.
"A good artistic work should be passed on to future generations. My clay figurines are vivid, and the patterns are exquisite. I am a little famous among residents in my hometown and nearby villages. In the past, the villagers might say I was the son of Xu Guoliang. Now, they often introduce me as a gifted craftsperson who graduated from a famous art school," says Xu Mingsheng.
"A real craftsperson will do one thing with heart and soul for all of his/her life. I hope to do what I love intently, and to finally become a real craftsperson," says Xu Mingsheng.
(Source: Women of China English Monthly November 2018 issue)