Meet Barbie's much older Chinese sisters

Updated: 2013-01-28 14:17

By Yin Yin (China Daily)

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Craftsmen were asked to make juanren for the fair, and the government began promoting the craft as an important part of China's heritage. This spawned a resurgence in the popularity of silk dolls across China.

Li Yingdong, a Beijing silk figurine artist who has been engaged in the craft for more than 30 years, says: "In terms of materials, Beijing silk figurines are almost entirely made of Chinese silk from head to toe. The clothing, facial expressions and posture all emphasize Chinese characteristics.

"To make the elegant doll requires many careful steps, including carving, painting, sewing, dress-making, making accessories, creating props and designing headgear."

Meet Barbie's much older Chinese sisters

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The head is made of clay and covered in fine silk threads to make a bun. Then iron wire, gauze and cotton are used to create a skeleton, skin and muscles.

Li particularly enjoys making the eyes. He believes they're the most important part of the design because they determine the facial expression and, if well-made, can create a lifelike quality. He is adept at creating various expressions in the eyes, including laughter, sorrow, a distant gaze and bravery.

"It's said that the eyes are the window to the soul," he says. "Through the eyes, people can see the figurine's innermost being. To give a doll real character, the eyes are the most important part."

 After creating the eyes, nose, mouth, ears and body, Li makes the hair using thin silk thread.

"Iron wire is used to make the skeleton, more iron wire covered with antiseptic cotton is used to make the muscles, and gauze is used to shape the body," he says.

Meet Barbie's much older Chinese sisters

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"Similar procedures are used to make the hands, which require profound skill."

The designs are so intricate that making just one finger usually takes two or three days.

The final step, once the body is completed, is to make the clothes using silk and satin. These have to be researched to fit with the historical era the doll is depicting, Li says.

"Beijing silk figurines are a highly skilled art and are still developing," he says.

Today, juanren are recognized as a national Chinese treasure. And, although their global popularity isn't perhaps on the scale of Barbie's, they are once again a fixture in many Chinese homes.

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