When most people come across a patch of mud as they climb up Shandong province’s Mount Tai, all they see is mud. But to Xuan Xudong, that clod of earth represents a kaleidoscope of artistic possibilities.
Xuan has spent his entire life transforming the clay soil of China’s sacred mountain into exquisite sculptures. In his delicate, dirt-stained hands, a lump of earth can become a majestic lion, a soaring dragon or a thousand other lifelike figures.
The Shandong native has clay sculpting in his bones. His father taught him his craft at an early age, and he is the fifth generation in his family to devote himself to the ancient local art form.
Over the years, Xuan has not only become a highly talented sculptor, but also an expert on local soil composition. He is very fastidious about the clay he uses, he says, and he has scoured the countryside around Tai’an, the city bordering Mount Tai, to find the perfect material for his art.
Xuan has studied all kinds of dirt—white mud, red soil, black mud—but the very finest is the earth from a hill in his native village of Xiawa in Tai’an’s Daiyue district, he says. This fine-grained, highly viscous soil is so excellent for sculpting that he has christened the hill “Shenni Mountain”, or “Mountain of Magic Earth”. Xuan usually collects his magic earth just after it has finished raining.
The mud then needs to be ground, dried, hammered and kneaded, and then placed indoors for a period of time, before it obtains the resilience needed to be used for clay sculpting.
Xuan’s talent and dedication to his art is remarkable, and his work has won praise from experts both in China and abroad. But perhaps even more impressive is his determination to keep the art of clay sculpting alive and to pass on his skills to the next generation.
When he is not working on his own sculptures, Xuan teaches clay sculpting in ten primary schools around Tai’an.
“Schools provide a great platform to carry forward our traditional culture. And outstanding crafts should be introduced and taught to our children at an early age,” he says.
In his family’s traditional courtyard home, Xuan also runs a 600-square-meter museum dedicated to Mount Tai clay sculpture. Consisting of a research center, an exhibition area and a practice base for schoolchildren, the museum is designed to better promote and develop the art of clay sculpture.
Xuan’s Herculean efforts are beginning to pay off. Daiyue district government has granted him 80,000 yuan ($11,647) to support the museum’s preservation and education work.
Even more importantly, with the constant efforts from all levels of governments in Tai’an, Mount Tai clay sculpture has been added to Shandong province’s official list of intangible culture heritage, and Xuan has been appointed the provincial inheritor of Mount Tai clay sculpture.
There are many stores selling traditional arts and crafts in scenic spots around Tai’an, and Xuan has also seized the opportunity to promote clay sculpture to tourists during the holidays.
“There are many young people among the tourists visiting Tai’an. And through direct contact and experience, they can generate interest in Mount Tai clay sculpture, which will increase young people’s awareness of the art form,” he says.
Xuan’s next project is trying to create a new way to combine traditional Mount Tai clay sculpture with Tai’an’s emerging creative industry, with the hope of developing it into a well-known cultural brand.