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Sugar Figures: Drawn or Blown

by Lu Ying

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(2) pages: 13 to 15

It seems unimaginable but many people can draw with sugar syrup or they can blow figures with it. Yes, there is a group of craftsmen in China who can do one, the other, or both. They can make a variety of figures such as characters in the literature or those in fairy tales, or they can create things such as the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.

Sugar figures, the name they are best known by, are made using sugar syrup. They are made most often made by Han Chinese. They are items that may have started with the ‘sugar prime minister’ of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), if not before.

In ancient China, people believed in sacrificial ceremonies as important events, particularly if they worshiped the creation of the universe, or ancestors, or immortals. At that time, they provided them the best offerings, some of which were made of sugar.

In 1980’s, it was not rare to find men or women drawing or blowing syrup and using bamboo sticks balanced on their shoulders to show off this craft. They carried a box on their shoulders, often on a pole, and they would show off this craft. On one end of the pole there was usually a wooden box with a drawer that often had a charcoal brazier. When setting it up, they would put a copper pan or big iron scoop on it and in this they melted sugar and kept it at a fairly constant temperature. On the other end of the pole was a table, on whose surface might be several seductive figures, one or more lovely animals, some flowers, foods, or fruits, or characters in commonly-known literary works. In order to attract children, these folk would be in the streets and beat a gong to draw attention, then hawk their wares. After paying, a youngster or an adult could spin something on the rotary table, and then make the figure it pointed to. Sugar figures were not too expensive; and people could afford one as it cost but only for a few cents.

Making these sugar figures probably began in the early Ba-Shu culture, so they probably have been around since four hundred or more years ago. At first, when people worshiped the immortals, they melted sugar or pulled it and made different shapes such as animals or characters. Later, folk artisans combined the sugar figure, paper cuts, and shadow puppets, and drew the figures much the same as shadow puppet figures, on a marble slab with a copper spoon. That is, no doubt, how sugar figure drawing came into being.

To draw an actual sugar figure, what was needed was a copper pan, a copper spoon, a mini wooden trowel, a marble slab, and a bamboo stick. The rest of the ingredients were quite simple as they were white or brown sugar syrup, mostly the latter, made with malt or brown sugar, sometimes with coloring added. Nowadays, with the awareness of food safety, fewer people like the use of colors in their food. The drawing skills can be complicated but are not impossible.

These craftsmen take sugar chunks, and after brushing the marble slab with oil to avoid sugar sticking to it, they put the copper pan on the fire, add some water, some white sugar or brown sugar, and they pay attention to the proportion of water and sugar, most often it is two to one. Sometimes they add coloring but do so now less now because many are concerned with its bad influences on health.

Then, they gently stir the mixture to help make the sugar soluble. As the temperature rises, the water boils and evaporates, and the sugar concentration increases. One can see bubbles on the surface of the syrup but that is not enough. They need to see the color of the syrup turn darker. Next, they let the sugar syrup cool down and solidify. Then they cut the solidified sugar into chunks. Good chunks can be kept for a few weeks and can stay crisp and dry.

Now they melt the sugar into syrup putting a chunk of sugar into the copper pan and melt it slowly using gentle heat. When the sugar is completely melted, it turns dark yellow and the sugar figure is ready to be made.

What comes next is the most difficult part, and a unique job. One has to draw a figure over the marble slab and in the air by dragging the spoon of sugar syrup; ones hands and fingers not touching the marble slab. The painter must control the angle of the spoon and the distance between spoon and slab as this impacts the thickness and length of the lines being made. In a short time, the sugar will harden, probably in a few minutes. Then a bamboo stick needs to be placed in the center of the figure to support it.

Experienced drawers use the spoon as a pen, the sugar as ink, and they control their breathing and move their wrist in a relaxed way. To some extent, this art form combines traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. One needs to concentrate on the syrup, feel and control the lines made and the speed of the spoon shaking, pausing, lifting, and rotating the syrup up or down.

The bamboo stick must be put on the figure before the sugar solidifies. One needs to leave a bit of the stick on one end to be able to hold this sugar figure. After it is solidified, one slowly separates the figure from the marble slab and enjoys this art.

Blowing sugar syrup is different. To make this type of sugar art, one needs one’s mouth, pinching while blowing. These sugar figures can be more colorful; and this folk art prevails especially in Beijing, Hebei, and northeastern China.

The needed ingredients are still malt sugar plus brown or white syrup. The difference is one must pay more attention to the temperature of the sugar. One needs to blow this figure, but on still needs a copper pan or a big iron scoop to constantly heat the syrup. One needs to spend time melting the sugar and keeping it boiling while the water evaporates.

Here one needs to drag out a sugar tail. If you remember how to blow a balloon, that will help. First, one needs a hollow piece of sugar. In ancient China some used a sugar pipe that they blew into.

One does need a little starch on ones fingers to avoid being burned by the syrup or having it stick to ones fingers. When malt sugar is warmed to the proper temperature, one takes some syrup from the copper pan, not too much, just a small ball, and stretches and kneads it several times to increase its flexibility. Then one puts it flat on your palm, bends and slowly closes it in at the same time making a hollow ellipse. Next, one gently holds the hollow air ball in one hand, and quickly drags the closed or tail end in the other. When stretched, break it off; and if the pipe clogs, cut the clogged part off and use the remaining part to blow another sugar ball.

It is not easy to control both the speed of breathing and the shape of the sugar. Air-blowing figures depend on constant speed of air and some exquisite artistry using the tension of sugar syrup. The sugar should stretch, and one can depress and pinch it while blowing it before it is totally dried.

One needs to make the body of the figure first, adjusting the shape of the ball at the same time until the body appears. Next pinch the details and the junctures which are thinner than other parts of the animal. If there is too much air, the figure can leak air and break. Then, insert a small bamboo stick into the figure for holding on to. But before doing so, insert one end of the stick into the sugar syrup and keep the stick wet.

Blowing sugar figures is not an easy job. One has to watch and control hands, eyes, heart, and breathing. One also needs to be precise; and breathe evenly and carefully, and remember to keep the temperature constant and remain calm.

For a more colorful visual, ingenious craftsmen use mostly edible food coloring, mainly red, black, white, and green. They mix them with the sugar syrup in advance and keep them in different containers. While blowing, they separately finish different parts of the figure and combine these in the end. After finishing the main body of the figure, they pick a bamboo stick, dip one end into the colored syrup and point it at the figure. They can use black syrup to draw the eyes, etc.

Chinese people nowadays attach more importance to the inheritance of traditional culture and craft skills, so one does notice a few handicraft people blowing or drawing sugar figures in the streets or at fairs. To meet people’s requirement of hygiene and food safety, they have several new approaches when doing their work. Some wear rubber gloves while making these figures, others use inflating devises instead of directly blowing using their mouths. Some use a dryer to change the temperature and the air velocity when needing to blow into the sugar.

A noteworthy phenomenon is that many of these handicraft people are no longer itinerant vendors. Several have fixed booth locations and business licenses making theirs a trustworthy business.
The writer is a talented Ph.D. candidate at the School of Humanities at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. She carefully watches many craftspeople, befriends them, and talks to them to learn a lot about their trade; she also takes photographs of their art, and learns from it. _____

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