1000 years 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.
In an 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.
An intricate 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.
The Ching 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.
Cheap 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.
The thing 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.
The 'mud' 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.
The mudmen 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.
It has 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.
The certain 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.
The absence 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.
Today, 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.
The 'holy 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 these
Mudman 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.
In the 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
published in 2005 as Myths, Facts and Fiction. The Legacy of an Antique Collectible at Bonsai4me.com