The Fascinating Origin of Chinese Dough Figurines

The creation of Chinese dough figurines, a popular Chinese traditional art, started three centuries ago. (Image:  wikimedia  /  CC0 1.0)
The creation of Chinese dough figurines, a popular Chinese traditional art, started three centuries ago. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

On the birthday of Emperor Qianlong, there was drumming and music in the royal palace, and the atmosphere was lively. The emperor met with other royalty and officials, and accepted their blessings and salutations. The palace was filled with a large number of stunning gifts.

Liu Yong went to Emperor Qianlong, saluted him, and offered his congratulations. He then presented the dough figurines. Everyone was thrilled to see the nine dazzling and colorful deities. These figurines took the spotlight. The guests began to wonder where Liu got the money to buy such priceless gifts.

The Emperor could not help but ask: “How much silver did you spend on these?” Liu smiled and said: “Nine ounces of silver.”

Everyone was shocked and shook their heads in disbelief, as did Emperor Qianlong: “Really? You must not lie to me. The birthday gift you brought, are they made of jade or ivory?” Liu explained: “They are made of dough.” But no one believed him.

On the birthday of Emperor Qianlong, there was drumming and music in the royal palace, and the atmosphere was lively. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

On the birthday of Emperor Qianlong, there was drumming and music in the royal palace, and the atmosphere was lively. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The emperor looked closely at the figurines and picked one of them up. It was light and soft. The emperor asked: “Who made them? The technique is so exquisite!” Liu told the emperor they were made by his chef from Shandong. The emperor laughed and said: “There certainly are capable people in Shandong!”

After the emperor left, all of the royalty and officials surrounded the figurines, and praised them. A prince offered to buy a set of eight deities from Liu as a gift for his mother.

After Liu returned home, he told chef Wang: “You are famous. A prince offered me a great deal of money if you could make another set of the eight deities for him. I will give you 18 ounces of silver so you can rent your own house to do your work.”

Wang was exhilarated. From then on, there was a long line of officials and wealthy people asking to buy dough figurines from him.

chinese dough figurines

The creation of Chinese dough figurines, a popular Chinese traditional art, started three centuries ago. Liu Yong, a legendary figure from the Qing Dynasty, is linked to the invention of the art form. (Image: NTDTV/Screenshot)

Besides the eight deities, Wang constructed many other figurines based on characters from Chinese legends and stories. Over time, his skills grew more refined. By the time Wang got old, he had passed his skills down to his son and several disciples, who were poor children from his hometown.

To this day, the art of making dough figurines is passed down from generation to generation in China.

The creation of Chinese dough figurines, a popular Chinese traditional art, started three centuries ago. Liu Yong, a legendary figure from the Qing Dynasty, is linked to the invention of the art form.

Liu Yong (1719-1804) was a politician and calligrapher during the Qing Dynasty. He served in a number of high-level positions. He had a reputation for being incorruptible, and was regarded by some as the most prominent calligrapher of the time. A man from Shandong Province named Wang was a chef in his house.

One day, as Wang kneaded dough to make steamed buns, he had an idea. He kneaded the dough in various shapes, such as flowers, fish, and butterflies in the Shandong custom. The buns were so beautiful that once they were placed on the dining table, Liu’s family was reluctant to eat them. Liu praised Wang for his creations.

Encouraged by Liu’s praise, Wang bought dyes to color the buns. He gave the buns to Liu’s female family members, winning him even more commendations. Liu asked Wang where he learned the craft. Wang replied: “My hometown is an impoverished place. People can’t afford to buy New Year gifts, so they knead dough into various objects, steam them, and use the buns as gifts. I use glutinous rice flour, since it does not mold as fast.”

Liu pointed at his paintings of the Eight Immortals and asked: “Can you knead dough to look like them?” Wang looked at them closely and said: “I can give it a try!”

Liu told Wang the buns would last even longer if honey was blended into the dough. He also instructed Wang to mix the dyes with the flour while kneading the dough, as the colors would be even more beautiful if the dough were to carry the colors.

The Eight Immortals crossing the sea, from Myths and Legends of China. Clockwise in the boat starting from the stern: He Xian'gu, Han Xiang Zi, Lan Caihe, Li Tieguai, Lü Dongbin, Zhongli Quan, Cao Guojiu and outside the boat is Zhang Guo Lao. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The Eight Immortals crossing the sea, from ‘Myths and Legends of China.’ (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Wang rejoiced over Liu’s suggestions and did what he said. He dedicated a lot of time trying to make the shapes as close to the real objects as possible. He devised several tools, such as round and flat plectrums made of bamboo, and small scissors. Within a month, Wang created a colored set of the Eight Immortals, each with distinct facial expressions and body gestures.

The colors made the figurines look lifelike. The glutinous rice flour developed a shiny surface after it was  steamed. Blended with honey, the figurines became semi-transparent. The Eight Immortals looked as good as an ivory carving or jade sculpture. Liu Yong examined the figurines for quite a while. He kept acclaiming: “Great! Excellent!”

All of a sudden, Liu had an idea. The emperor’s birthday was approaching. In the past, the ministers would spend a great deal of money to purchase gifts for the emperor. Liu thought he could save a lot of money if he gave the emperor dough figurines.

He ordered Wang to make a larger version of the Eight Immortals. Wang got them done in three days. In addition to the Eight Immortals, Wang also kneaded a figurine of the God of Longevity. Liu was very pleased. He told Wang to wait for the good news. Liu was very sure that Wang would become very famous in the near future.

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