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Chen Yi-jin: Dough-Figurine Folk Artist

Chen Yi-jin: Dough-Figurine Folk Artist

◎Written by Chen Ting-fang

◎English translation by Hou Ya-ting

◎Photos by Zeng Sin-yao

◎Photos courtesy of Ying-Ming Junior High School

 

 

 Dough-figurine vendors who sold colorful figurines inspired by classic novels, mythological creatures, or even cartoon characters, were a common sight on Taiwan's streets as recently as the 1980s. Today, it is almost impossible to find a dough-figurine vendor.

Mr. Chen Yi-jin (center) demonstrates dough-figurine making techniques.

 Mr. Chen Yi-jin is a dough-figurine folk artist who has been teaching students how to make dough figurines for the past 27 years. He has taught at elementary, junior high, and senior high schools in Kaohsiung, including Yingming Junior High School, where he has been leading workshops for the entire 27-year period.

 According to legend, Mr. Chen says, Kongming — a famous politician and military strategist during China's Eastern Han Dynasty — invented dough figurines. When Kongming's soldiers were going to cross a river, demons in the water pushed the tide higher, trapping the army. In response, Kongming ordered his men to sculpt human faces using glutinous rice. These were filled with beef or mutton, then thrown into the river as offerings.

Mr. Chen Yi-jin’s passion for dough-figurine artistry has never dimmed. The day after the sacrifice was made, Kongming led his soldiers to the water's edge. The river was calm and tranquil, flowing gently, and his army was able to cross it safely.

 Mr. Chen began learning dough-figurine skills while attending a temple's summer camp. He stresses the importance of modeling and accurate proportions, while expressing gratitude that — before he ever tried his hand at dough figurines — he had the opportunity to take basic art classes which introduced these skills.

 In addition to applying every dough-figurine technique in existence, Mr. Chen has invented specialist tools to help him with his art.

 Mr. Chen has made figurines of the main characters in Journey to the West, a 16th-century Chinese novel, such as Sun Wu-kong (also known as the Monkey King) and Zhu Bajie (who is part human, part pig). Thanks to his craftmanship, his figurines look animated. Mr. Chen can even create oil-like landscape paintings via the pitching flour technique.

 Mr. Chen's students are fond of creating figurines inspired by cartoon characters, and he praises the way they interpret modern culture in order to come up with new faces for traditional dough figurines.

Lively dough figurines

 When Mr. Chen teaches the art of dough figurines, he insists on conducting demonstrations using traditional materials, which are made of glutinous rice flour. He teaches his students how to make their own dough.

 In the past, traditional dough figurines were edible, because they were made of rice flour. Nowadays, certain additives are mixed into the dough to prevent mildew and cracking. What is more, resin clay in various colors is easy to find in stores. Mr. Chen, who will soon turn 70, did not take any shortcuts when learning and promoting this traditional folk craft, and his passion for dough-figurine artistry has never dimmed.