Made of thin silk, gauze, and damask silk, the silk figurines produced in Beijing are a traditional handicraft. Folk cloth-pinpricked and color-pricked toys and other handicrafts are closely connected with handcrafting silk figurines.
Beijing silk figurines originated in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and have a history of more than 1,000 years. In ancient times, the Chinese used bamboo and paper as materials for various kinds of craftworks.
As early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), color-pricked handicrafts were prevalent in the southern countryside of Southeast China's Fujian Province. In the beginning, people used paper to make different kinds of birds, beasts, flowers and fish. Later, they borrowed themes from popular drama stories and legends and turned them into flower lanterns for display. Gradually, the handicraft underwent improvements. Written records show that folk artists of the Northern Song Dynasty could shape damask silk to form human figures, and made clothes from brocade.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), thin silk, gauze and damask were made into such images as the God of Longevity and Ma Gu, the Goddess of Longevity, to give as birthday presents for their elders. This craftwork often appeared in the homes of high officials. However, the craft perished for many years, only to be revived in 1954.
In the mid 1950s, after new China was founded, the country participated in an international toy fair held in India. Via the All-China Women's Federation, the Ministry of Culture assigned the task of designing exhibits for the fair to artists Ge Jing'an, Li Peifen, and Du Chongpu. They collected documentary materials from different sources and conducted much research to produce five works depicting women from ethnic minorities. The works received praise. Later, the group set up a research team on artistic figurines in Beijing, and produced new works. Silk figurines took on the new China climate and ethnic groups’ characteristics.
The heads of foreign figurines are made of gesso, clay and wood, while Beijing silk figurines are made of Chinese silk from head to toe -- their facial expressions, clothing and postures all tinged with a Chinese flavor.
Beijing silk figurines usually represent young men and women in Chinese folktales, traditional dramas and ethnic dancers. Subjects are mainly characters from folk stories loved by China's common people, including ancient beauties, dramatic figurines and modern dancers.
The making of the figurines involves a dozen steps, including sculpting, painting, designing clothing and props, and arranging the hair and headgears. Each step requires sophisticated techniques and ingenious craftsmanship. Usually, faces and hands of silk figurine are made of natural silk, while other parts are made from fine silk cloth.
From head to toe, inside and out, only top quality Chinese silk and spun gauzes are used to make these craftworks.
The graceful and colorful Beijing silk figurines are exquisitely made, each with a different expression, bright colors and an elegant style. They are rare specimens for indoor ornamentation, and a stereoscopic piece for understanding Chinese history, local conditions and customs. Beijing silk figurines have been appreciated as collector's items.