By Jiao Feng
Monkeys wearing uniformed woolly coats are a peculiar group of monkeys who live in Beijing. They live a traditional life with the local people, which includes living in the traditional quadrangle dwellings, drinking tea, taking walks with bird cages in hand, and meandering through the busy thoroughfares of Beijing. Some of them cut hair on street corners or carry wares strung from bamboo poles, and still others sell sugar coated hawthorn berries on sticks.
All of them exhibit the rich traditional culture of Beijing. However, they cannot speak for themselves and neither can they freely move about. This special group of monkeys are known as the “Hairy Monkeys” or maohou in Chinese. The craft of making hairy monkey figurines was added to the list of Beijing’s intangible cultural heritage in 2009.
The exact time hairy monkey figurines made their first appearance is unknown, but according to folklores, the first hairy monkey was created by accident in a herbal medicine shop in Beijing.
Legend has it that there once was a young man who worked at a herbal medicine shop during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Beijing. One day, he was scolded by the bookkeeper. Fearing he might lose his job, the young man took the insults without talking back. That evening feeling bored and annoyed at what had happened earlier in the day, the young man began fiddling with some of the herbal medicine ingredients in the shop. He soon discovered that the periostracum cicada as it is called in Chinese herbal medicine, or cicada slough, resembled the bookkeeper in some way. After using the head and limbs of the cicada slough as the head and limbs and the flower bud of a magnolia as the torso of the little human figurine, followed by gluing them together with bletilla striata—what emerged was a thin-faced monkey figurine with a stuck-out chin.
When the other apprentices saw the little hairy figurine he had made, they all agreed that it looked like the bookkeeper. Later the boss of the herbal shop saw in the cute monkey figurines a chance to make money and began giving away a little bag containing cicada slough, magnolia buds, bletilla striata, and akebia quinata with each purchase. He called it the “monkey ingredients.” Since the process of making herbal medicine concoctions took a long time, making hairy monkeys was something people could do while waiting for the herbal medicine to finish simmering. As a result, these monkey figurines became widely liked by the public, and with time, the making of hairy monkey figurines became the handcraft that was known and liked by everyone in old times.
Traditionally, hairy monkeys are made with four Chinese herbal medicine ingredients— periostracum cicada, magnolia flower buds, bletilla striata and akebia quinata. Because the cicada slough is quite delicate, artists must be careful throughout the process of breaking off the limbs.
The most common positions of hairy monkey figurines are standing and walking. While sitting and kneeling poses are quite a spectacle to look at, the process of making them is quite complicated. After putting together the head and body of the monkey, the position of the limbs can be adjusted. One of the most important links in the process is the props. Artisans always form a picture in their minds of the scene they want to use the monkey to portray, then bring it to life through the model and expressions of the monkey.
Illustrating the Life of Old Beijing
In Qishanzhuang Village of Beijing’s Tongzhou District, Zhang Fengxia, now the fourth-generation inheritor of the hairy monkey handcraft, and her son Song Lei operate a hairy monkey workshop.
After Zhang retired in 2001, she became fascinated with the art of making hairy monkeys and began learning under the tutelage of many different artists of this craft. Finally, she met an inheritor of the art, Jiang Shouyu.
As she studied under him, she tried to create various types and themes of hairy monkeys on her own. Today, she has already been recognized as the fourth-generation inheritor of the Beijing hairy monkey art.
Under her influence, her son, Song Lei, who completed a degree in computer-based designing in Germany, slowly became interested in this handcraft as well. Song, in addition to learning the traditional handcraft from his mother, has also introduced modern designs into the production of hairy monkey figurines. “By combining the traditional handcraft with modern life and using monkey figurines to illustrate people’s modern ways of living, we can interest more young people in this art,” Song said.
Among the artists who make hairy monkey figurines, there is a saying which goes, “Hairy monkeys are easy to assemble, but the props are hard to make,” signifying that props are very important in the making of hairy monkeys. Since hairy monkeys are only a half-inch in size, it is impossible to rely on the facial makeup or clothes to indicate the emotions or occupations of the characters. Consequently, most of the characteristics of the monkeys are illustrated through anthropomorphic expressions, body postures, props, and different themes.
“Through these small hairy monkeys, we can record different eras and lifestyles of people in different environments,” Song said. “Artists of the same age as my mother focus on topics that exhibit the old lifestyles and environment of Beijing: the traditional Beijing style of square tables and long wooden stools, old Beijing teahouses, Beijing acrobatics from the famous Tianqiao area, rickshaw pullers and their customers—scenes of old Beijing which are memories of elderly locals. Through the magical creations of hairy monkey figurines, the memories of scenes of old Beijing can be brought to life in front of the eyes of the younger generations today.”
Song further added, “Young people today are surrounded with the modern culture of Beijing, so as an artist, I try to bring some changes also into the hairy monkey art, including its props and themes.” As he spoke, he pointed to a set of hairy monkey figurines skiing down a slope under the theme “Winter Olympics.” Another scene is called “Peacefully Living Together,” in which children are depicted helping their parents, neighbors are happily talking together, and children are playing carefreely in the street. All of this exhibits the values of Beijing. “Hairy monkey art exhibits a culture by illustrating the happiness, anger, sorrow, and joyfulness of local Beijing people through combining different forms and scenes and recording the vicissitudes of life,” said Song.
Instilling New Life into an Old Art
“The handcraft of Beijing hairy monkeys is a symbol of Beijing culture,” Zhang noted. “We are always looking for ways to expand the market of this handcraft. But this has three main challenges: Firstly, the products are very fragile and inconvenient to carry; secondly, the manufacturing process is tedious, which increases the cost; and thirdly, the themes of our sets are similar and often overlap.”
She continued, “Today, we have found some ways to solve the first two challenges. For example, by using glass cases, this can make the art piece convenient to carry. In addition, by using modern techniques, we can standardize the production process of props and thus reduce labor and cut costs. As to the third point regarding the variety of themes, we are still working on.”
Having lived for many years in Tongzhou District, Zhang has a special interest in the local canal culture. The Grand Canal is an intangible cultural heritage of the world. So, living as I do on the banks of this river, I decided to make a hairy monkey art piece to exhibit the scenes of the Grand Canal,” said Zhang.
Taking up a small area of half a square meter, the art piece exhibits the “Eight Scenic Spots of Tongzhou,” featuring a set of more than a dozen hairy monkeys shorter than a centimeter.
With the vibrant, inspiring, and unique expressions of these little figurines, the scene of the Grand Canal is filled with “human emotion.” The flagstones on the Yongtong Bridge are clearly visible. On the bridge, two hairy monkeys lean on the railing, one watching the water below while the other looking out into the distance with a relaxed pose. On the bank of the canal, four hairy monkey figurines carry a piece of lumber toward the dock while another hairy monkey pushes with difficulty a cart full of thick pieces of lumber. Surrounding them are other hairy monkeys selling popsicles, eating watermelon, drinking tea, and reading books—each detail of the scene is filled with much vitality.
“The art of hairy monkey figurines exhibits the pulse of society, which makes my art different from others,” Zhang asserted “My goal is to make my career in hairy monkey art the best it can be. My son has joined me in this craft now and he has helped me by bringing many innovative ideas to the table of traditional hairy monkey techniques, instilling modernity and fashion into the handcraft. Meanwhile, we go out into the community and conduct cultural and educational activities. This is a practical way of passing on culture, making more people aware of the Beijing hairy monkey art and fall in love with this traditional Beijing handcraft.”