ago, Chinese artisans of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), were
creating miniature landscapes in a tray, the practice was
known as Pen'Jing, or Chinese Landscape bonsai.
effort to capture the realism of a favourite scenic view,
such as a countryside or mountain region, rocks and small
trees were planted in a large ceramic tray to simulate the
panorama on a smaller scale. If one were to view the scene,
a harmonious feeling of having visited the area could be bought
to mind and the viewers thoughts refreshed.
part of that illusion would involve the use of figurines which
were of people, animals, huts and temples, which helped to
give an appearance of great age and size to the miniature
forests. The reason for including this record in this article
is to establish the fact that figurines have always had a
place in Bonsai as an aesthetic contribution. The Japanese
dropped the use of figurines from their version of Bonsai
about 400 years ago in order to conform the Oriental Art to
their idealistic idiom. Pen'Jing is apparently experiencing
a revival in modern day China, it is a nearly lost art form
that is once again becoming popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.
or Manchurian dynasty (1644-1912), one of the most prosperous
during the age of the dynasties, began it's decline at the
end of the 18th century. Having established an
export market for fine china in the previous years would now
be unable to sustain the type of quality and production that
had defined the era. Some experts blame the reason on internal
strife, in-house fighting and excess competition for the wares
as the primary cause.
pottery and figurines would dominate the Chinese export trade
well into the next century. Now enters the 'mudman'. Mudmen
were brightly glazed figurines of women, wise men and old
sages, sometimes fishing, seated or standing, holding flutes,
scrolls, pots, fish and other objects of mystical importance.
that separates these figurines from the ordinary, is that
they were made individually by hand. It has been suggested
this was a 'cottage industry' involving nearly every member
of the village in the production of these oriental curios.
As the story goes, when the harvesting of rice was complete
and the dry season had set in, the villagers turned to figurine
production as a means of establishing a vigorous economy.
This accounts for the varying degrees of quality apparent
in each of the pieces.
or clay for the figures was pressed into a mould by hand,
at this point each part would be individually moulded to be
assembled by the various crafters at the appropriate time.
Fingerprints can often still be seen, immortalised in the
fired clay. After the torso was released from the mould, the
head, hands and legs or feet would be added. Then hair, hats,
beards and other items would complete the ensemble. As a finishing
touch, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced to add further
detail. Then the entire collection of the works would be fired
in a kiln to cure the clay.
were hand painted with a low temperature lead glass glaze
in the traditional 'yellow mustard' and 'cerulean blue', 'celadon'
a green glaze, has been suggested as being used to represent
'jade'. Finally, the occasional use of white or brown was
used to break the monotony of the tri-colours. The head, hands
and face were left unglazed to expose the natural colour of
the mud that was often enough, a flesh tone. The rocks upon
which some mudmen were seated, shoes or sandals, were painted
with a dark brown, almost black under-glaze, that was often
used to paint hair and facial features as well. I have seen
some examples of the rocks painted a red oxide or yellow ochre
in other pieces.
been proposed that the darker the clay, the older, hence more
valuable, the mudman is. This is considered a myth by most
knowledgeable collectors who know that the differences in
the mud colour account more for the region than for the age
of the piece. The darker mud's were dug from the lower valleys
where soil impurities and water runoff have tinted the clay.
The mud colour can range from a dark grey or brown to a buff
or peach and even creamy white, used more often than not for
the mud women.
age of an antique mudman can be verified by observing the
mark incised on the bottom of the figure. As all imports into
the US had to have the point of origin plainly stamped within
view, the pottery stamps can actually date the piece. 1890-1919
'China', 1920-1944 'made in China' or 'made in Hong Kong'
and occasionally 'made in China', stamped in red ink during
the late 1940's. If you have a figurine which has no mark
stamped on it, the probable reason is it was not intended
for export and was more likely purchased at a village market
by missionaries or world travellers.
of the original mudman figure from Chinese export markets
after World War 2, have some collectors believing that the
earliest moulds were destroyed along with the kilns by bombing
raids. Others have suggested that the kilns used for pottery
were converted to weapons manufacture to help counter the
Japanese invasion prior to the war and were destroyed by enemy
soldiers, and subsequently, the moulds were lost as well,
never to be recovered.
the antique mudman is a highly collectible item, surviving
examples were showcased in a large exhibition at the Hong
Kong Fung Ping Shan Museum in 1979 and at the Chinese Culture
Centre in San Francisco in 1994.
grail' of mudman collecting, if such a term can be applied,
would be the ever elusive 'mud woman', She is a rare item
indeed, adding one of these to my collection is paramount
to winning the Grand Prize in a lottery! I have yet to find
one in an antique shop or win an online auction for one of
figurines can range in size from 2" to 18" and sometimes
larger, the 4" to 7" model was the most popular
export, mainly due to the available retail shelving space.
Surviving mud figures, for the most part, have knicks to the
hair and outer extremities, broken and repaired heads, hands,
beards etc. It's not uncommon to find them in good condition
with very little damage or no repairs, and sometimes in mint
condition, I have several in that category and many in the
latter. Though it has been estimated that 5% of the remaining
mud figures are lost annually due accident or natural disaster,
the chances of acquiring one are still good, but numbers will
continue to decline.
early 1950's, the Chinese export companies began a new era
of mudman production that continues until the present. However,
the newer figurines lack the expression and individuality
that only a handmade item can convey, all of the experience
and talent that went into the original, is lost in the mechanized
world of capitalism, and for that matter, pales into comparison
to the character and aesthetic beauty of the turn of the century