Dough Sculpture, the Quintessential Craft

Dough Sculpture, the Quintessential Craft
Sculpture with dough is a folk art known to few countries, and maybe not any outside of China. Molding human figurines and animals from clay or glutinous rice flour is a popular folk art in both urban and rural areas in China. It is interesting to see how a few colored pieces of dough are turned—in a matter of minutes—into expressive and lively figurines by the trained hands of folk artists who are not relying on models. The figurines are generally about eight centimeters (three inches) tall, but recent innovations include figurines as tall as thirty centimeters or tiny enough to display in half of a walnut shell.
Written records of Chinese dough sculptures date back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). After several thousand years of inheritance and development, dough sculptures became a part of Chinese culture and folk art. They’re now also studied in courses such as history, archeology, folk art, sculpture, and aesthetics. In terms of style, dough sculptures in the Yellow River Valley are simple, crude, unconstrained, and profound, while those in the Yangtze River Valley are delicate, exquisite, and polished.
Materials and tools used to make dough sculptures mainly include white flour, scissors, kitchen knives, combs, Chinese dates, and Bunge prickly ash. With well-leavened dough, kneaded according to the set pattern, one can produce a vivid dough sculpture.
There are three tips for making the perfect dough sculpture. First, the honey, lard, powdered sugar, and refined powder are made soluble by adding boiling water. Then all is mixed together with the flour. Edible pigments to form pastes of different colors are added during this stage. Second, the pastes are steamed for two to three minutes. Extra care is taken not to over cook them as this makes them lusterless. Third, some oil is brushed on the dough sculptures to make them gleam and more vivid.
Dough sculptures are popular wedding and birthday gifts. They are also considered appropriate for prayer and memorial ceremonies and sacrificial offerings. Farmers place steamed dough sculptures before spirit tablets. Today, dough sculptures often appear among dishes on high-grade banquets to beautify and decorate the dishes. Shanxi dough sculpture is one of the most famous types of folk art in China. The Shanxi people, famous for their rich wheat dishes—aside from making various food with dough—also mold the dough into various "dough figurines" to admire and for good luck. They send them to friends as gifts or to pay tribute to gods. The dough figurines are therefore also known as edible artistic works.
The typical dough sculpture of northern Shanxi Province is the pudgy baby. The dough is fermented and steamed to depict the crawling, running, and lovely gestures of the baby. The pudgy baby is usually used for ancestral sacrifice on the fifteenth day of the seventh Chinese lunar month (usually in August) to pray for a happy family life.
Sometimes the baby is made with several heads on all sides, so that it looks like a baby from every angle. The heads are linked together since linking together indicates continuity in Chinese philosophy. The multi-faced pudgy baby symbolizes the wish to have many children.