Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

President Xi Jinping´s “China Dream” comes along with a slick propaganda campaign. But the center piece of the campaign, a clay figurine of a chubby peasant girl in a red smock, has split the artisan Tianjin family who made the image, discovered journalist Ian Johnson for the New York Times.

Ian Johnson:

But behind this slick campaign is one family’s tale of persecution, division and conflicting views on government control of art. The story offers a darker counterpoint to the party’s upbeat message, underscoring longstanding efforts to control art and bend it to political aims.

“Our family wants to have nothing to do with politics,” said Zhang Yu, 37, a sculptor and a member of the sixth generation of the figurines’ creators, who objects to his family name being associated with the campaign. “We don’t do those sorts of things.”

The peasant girl and other statuettes used in the government campaign are products of a studio founded nearly 200 years ago by a craftsman named Zhang Mingshan. Working with the thick yellow clay found in the wetlands that surround this port city east of Beijing, he fashioned figurines of local notables, lovable street vendors and opera characters, as well as historical figures and philosophers. Mr. Zhang soon became a national celebrity, earning the nickname Clay Man Zhang.

His descendants carried on the work, building one of the most well-known folk art traditions in China. Their miniature sculptures resemble the porcelain Hummel figurines collected in the West, and for many Chinese, they evoke a sentimental vision of their country in much the way of Norman Rockwell’s depictions of America.

The dowager empress Cixi received Clay Man Zhang statues on her 60th and 70th birthdays, in 1895 and 1905. The Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek owned pieces. Mao Zedong kept one modeled on a famous literary beauty in his study.

But the family is divided. Much more at the New York Times.

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Ian Johnson discusses the Chinese search for spiritual values.

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