History of Mud figures or ‘Ni-Ren’ Accent Figures.

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History of Mud figures or ‘Ni-Ren’ Accent Figures.

Post  giangus on Thu Dec 01, 2011 11:26 pm

History of Mud figures or ‘Ni-Ren’ Accent Figures.

The ancient art of earthenware figures is always linked to that of pottery. At first, the figures of gods and animals were used to decorate the roofs of temples and palaces. They were also used as funerary objects, which later were found during archaeological excavations of the tombs of the Han period (China, 206 BC to 220 AD).

With their ancestral know-how the ceramic artists of Shiwan, a small town in southern China, have been making expressive and realistic figurines since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) to the present day by combining the techniques of sculpture and pottery.
The Bonsai Penjing clay figures, known as “mud men” or “mud figures” in the Western world, are from the literal translation of the Chinese “ni- ren, 泥-人” (mud-man). These are between 1 and 20 cm high. They are generally divided into three categories: popular characters (historical, mythical, religious, etc.), daily life (houses, bridges, boats, etc.) or animals (cranes, buffaloes, goats, etc.) They can be of glazed or unglazed earthenware.

Meaning and use of Bonsai-Penjing Accent Figures

These mud figures have been always present in the old Chinese Penjing tradition. Just like the arts of calligraphy, poetry and painting, the composition of Penjing allows the artist to send a message, to express an idea or a thought...

In general, the origin of any form of art is related to a historical event or a particular trend of the time. The Art of Penjing was born in a context of political persecution under the Chin dynasty (China, 220-206 BC.). During that repressive time many scholars abandoned the life of society and retreated to isolated places, where the army of the Emperor could not find them. As part of country life, these formerly urban scholars started to express their thoughts through art, poetry, literature, music and the cultivation of potted plants.

To express their admiration for the free and simple life these hermits enjoyed in nature’s vast expanse, some artists expressed their sensitivity through painting or poetry. The Penjing enthusiasts, also inspired by this meditative life, expressed their creations through small potted landscapes of high mountains or landscapes of lakes.

Moreover, in order to capture the 'realism' of the composition of a landscape in a pot, these Penjing artists used mud figures, such as the popular characters of ancient China (scholars, monks, etc.) to mark the scale of the scene and especially to highlight the main content of their work. The figures of hermit huts, temples, bridges, fishing boats, animals (buffaloes, cranes, etc.) could also be used to accompany the scene.

The figurines of characters such as the "old man" are often placed under old trees with some rocks to emphasize the wisdom and self-development. The figure of a "drinking or meat-eating monk" under a tree evokes individual freedom. This idea is opposed to the rigid thought of Confucianism. Small figurines of thatched cottages or distant pagodas symbolized the habitat of the hermits; they withdrew from their former world of fame and power. Meanwhile, the figure of the solitary fisherman of Chang Tai Kong, a "saint-strategist" of the Shang period (China, 1766-1122 BC) represents expectation and hope.

Display of Accent Figures

There are no specific rules in the presentation of Bonsai-Penjing figures, each of which can be interpreted in different ways. But generally, in keeping with the tradition of Ch'an Buddhism (in Japanese, Zen) and Taoism, the staging of Penjing (please do not confuse the simple translation of ‘Penjing’, which is a landscape of rocks and plants. In fact, the art is divided into three main themes. The Art of bonsai practiced in Japan and the rest of Asia belongs to one of these three forms), should be simple and harmonious with the entire composition. The desired effect is not the usual goal of miniature model-making with many objects carefully staged, including an overload of figurines, bridges, houses, temples, animals and characters.

We should remember that the Art of Penjing is comparable to that of Ch'an painting. By only a few brush strokes, the artist comes to suggest the essence of an entire landscape on a paper roll. It is necessary to display the figures in a harmonious and simple way in terms of contrast, proportion and color.

Like the Chinese art of presentation of small herbs and flowers, 'cao-wu' (草 - 物) or ‘kusa-mono’ in Japanese, these ‘Ni-Ren' figures have been associated with the tradition of Bonsai-Penjing for over 1400 years. Their full meaning and interpretation remains to be discovered !

Giang L.S. Nguyen, Canary Islands 02/12/11


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