Huishan clay figurines, a cherished emblem of China’s ancient agricultural civilization, have faced waning interest amongst the younger generation due to the swiftness of urbanization. These figurines are made from the fertile clay found beneath the rice fields of Huishan in Wuxi, East China’s Jiangsu Province. But, as Wang Jie, vice general manager of the Huishan Clay Figurine Factory remarked, this art form is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and heritage, resonating with the theme of sowing seeds and expressing oneself through the medium of earth.
Wang and his team, in their bid to preserve and rejuvenate this art, introduced an innovative approach – presenting these figurines in blind boxes. These boxes, which conceal their contents, cater to the younger generation’s yearning for curiosity and novelty. Their inception in 2012 saw them become one of China’s most prosperous business models, and this resonated with the legacy-rich 70-year-old clay figurine factory, which quickly capitalized on the trend.
Local motifs were reimagined into animated characters for the blind box collection. After their distribution, the sales were staggering. At a recent expo in Wuxi, attendees were especially drawn to iconic characters A Fu and A Xi. Both characters and the art of Huishan clay figurines were recognized as national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.
The factory, adapting to the tastes and preferences of the younger audience, expanded their horizons by integrating various local elements into the clay figures. For instance, iconic Wuxi offerings, from cherry blossoms to culinary delights like Xiaolongbao, found representation in the clay figurines. Embracing modern branding techniques, the factory’s creative department was rebranded as NANIMOMO, drawing from local dialects.
This endeavor led to the creation of various products inspired by traditional clay figures, ranging from stationery to home decor. An interesting narrative emerged around one of the figures, A Fu, highlighting its role in local folklore as a deity protecting villagers from a menacing beast. This creature was later integrated into the factory’s product line, but with a more endearing appearance.
To further popularize these figurines and uphold social responsibilities, the company even set up coffee shops. Notably, one cafe employed baristas with hearing impairments. Most cafes, situated in tourist spots, offer visitors not only a refreshing break but also an opportunity to craft their own clay figurines.
Looking further back, the legacy of Huishan clay figures extends over 400 years to the Ming Dynasty. However, China’s association with clay art dates back to the Neolithic period, as evinced by ancient finds like clay pigs from the Peiligang cultural site in Henan Province.
Today, though urbanization has changed lifestyles, the memory of these figurines still echoes the nation’s traditions. Wang remains optimistic and believes that as they continue to innovate, the revenues will be reinvested into preserving this intangible cultural heritage.