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Shanxi And Its Decorative Art

by Zheng Siyang

Food in History

Summer Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(2) pages: 16 to 17

Shanxi is on the Loess Plateau between the Liang and Taihang Mountains. Theirs is a temperate climate, the main crop is wheat; and it is used as flour. This very usual ingredient is used daily and they make splendid noodles and gorgeous dough figures with it. The figures they call dough figurines and they decorate them and they call them their decorated buns.

They use as a fermented dough and make it into all sorts of designs using simple tools and their hands. They dye the dough different bright colors and they they punch, cut, twist, squeeze, press, fold, and inlay more dough into or onto it. Theirs is a traditional craft with a very long history.

They make these items, also called dough figurines, for celebrations and for expressions of good wishes and good will; and they use them during traditional festivals and at rites of passage in their personal lives. This activity produces food and art which they respect and adore throughout the province.

These art items are made of ground wheat flour usually processed simply by steaming. There are four steps in making them. The first is to make the dough. The second is to shape it into a pattern. Third is to steam it. And last or fourth is to add color decorations. These figurines have vivid shapes and patterns, and they often have bright colors. Actually, they look plain but are glamorous, and are distinctive with folk and local features. They are unique in China.

In rural Shanxi, females always make these dough items. They know how to do them as they inherited the technique and ways to design them from their elders. These items use very common family tools such as sticks, knives, scissors, tweezers, chopsticks, combs, and so on. When making them, they rub, knead, cut, and press the dough, and when those steps are done, they finally add coloring to it.

Their recipe is to grind newly harvested-wheat into flour, then mix the flour with water to ferment and form the dough. Then they knead the dough until its surface is bright and shiny, and then mold it and cut it into the different shapes they want. Next, they steam the dough; that helps it expand. They can pinch the dough to make it look like animals, they can make four legs, knead a head shape and decorate that with beans or dates for eyes, nose and mouth. If wanting an elephant, they can make a trunk, etc. According to various sports, they can adjust the limbs and decorate patterns on the bodies so these figurines look like they are participating in these activities. Various postures can be made and these items now display these physical activities, their beauty, too. After shaping them, they put them into a cage-like item and steam them. This makes the flour increase its natural appeal. Next, they paint them and can be soft or hard or whatever texture they think is appropriate.

After painting them and they dry, they are ready for ceremonial use such as celebrating a birth, a first month ceremony, the day to celebrate the first hundred days, a first birthday, wedding, or funeral. The culture of using these dough figurines has slowly evolved over the years. Generally speaking, use of a dough figurine from the Shanxi Province can be divided into two categories depending upon purpose or occasion. One is for seasonal festivals such as Spring Festival where the main function is to sacrifice and pray to heaven, earth and/or the Gods. These are for reflection of the pursuit of affluence, good luck, and an ideal life. These sacrifices are to heaven and earth and called zaoshan meaning mountain. The shape and size for them are relatively large. For instance, dough sheep made of flour usually will be set before ancestral spirits.

This custom sacrifices domestic animals as they did in ancient societies. Elders sent younger children and grandchildren to qianlong or the money dragon intending to acquire money for the house so they might become rich. There are various dough shapes of colorful flowers to show hospitality and gifts when visiting family and friends, such as those seen on this page.

For Tomb-sweeping day, many people make or give items in the shape of child’s head. This is commonly known as hanshigongxian, and for these, they use oil, salt, and millet, the latter showing pockmarks. For mouths they use red-violet beans, eyes can be made with black beans, nose, ears and eyebrows made out of the dough itself. After steaming, then they add color and watch a cute image emerge. Some make a hanyan which is similar to a swallow to hang on a jujube tree. This indicates the coming of spring. On July 15, families might make sheep with their dough. Almost every family will have a wall with strings of small figurines that are exquisite and attractive. Chinese folk have a custom for Ghost Festival Day and use these figurines to make sacrifices to their ancestral spirits. In addition, they often give relatives and friends cattle, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, a peacock. lion, and other symbolic dough animals called songheyannian, mashangfenghou or yutiaolongmen. These convey wishes for their longevity and auspiciousness.

There are historical stories and folklore such as the Journey to the West that express wishes for the noble pursuit of good, truth and beauty.

Phoenix buns, lion buns, and/or deer and tiger buns are popular. These can be dough beauties for rites of passage. One such can be a gift at the Baby Full Month day. This is the first solemn ceremony for that is of an infant who lived until this auspicious day. On this day, in Linfen City, for example, grandmother makes a dough figurine called hulun which is a flour torus. It can have a diameter or length of about thirteen inches. It can also have one or more Chinese Zodiac images on it. There will be a red point on this baby’s zodiac; and it can have a phoenix or a tiger in the middle of this hulun. On this ceremonial day, the host family will share this figurine with their invited relatives and friends.

In the north of Shanxi Province, people often make their steamed buns with a flower. These are called tao and they have the same pronunciation as the Mandarin character ‘escape.’ This has symbolic meaning and is a homophone that wishes the baby be prevented from disease and disaster. A longevity peach bun can be given for an auspicious birthday.

At a wedding ceremony, both the bridegroom’s and bride’s families will steam many ximo and huagao, literally meaning ‘buns for a joyful event.’ These are big buns and can be with a round base and many jujubes on them. Above them can be a ‘fish and a lotus.’ These beautiful and exquisite items are to offer good wishes and reflect the symbols of the harvest, of reproduction, and of life. To celebrate and offer congratulations, people send ‘peaches’ made of dough decorated with auspicious ornaments. These are made in a variety of colors and reflect respect and affection, particularly for the elderly.

Shanxi dough art is modelling with strong vitality. It represents and is rooted in people's lives. It contains modeling and shows primitive religious consciousness and evolution, human thoughts, and development. It has profound meaning and a long history. It reflects their ancient and modern lives, and their cultural tastes, and is a feature of local culture.

It is a way to express the people's spiritual and cultural life, and has become a bridge and link to strengthen friendship, maintain relationships, care for the young, develop neighborhood harmony, and family unity. It conveys many deep thoughts including friendship, love, and other deep thoughts and feelings. These Shanxi dough figurines are one outstanding representation of their folk culture. Remarkably, it is still practiced, appreciated, and it is the sharing of their ancient folk culture.

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