Creative young Chinese inject vitality into 1,000-year-old pottery figurines
Published: Jul 20, 2022 09:08 PM
Dancers dressed as Tang Dynasty court ladies perform during Henan TV's Spring Festival Gala in 2021. Photo: VCG

Dancers dressed as Tang Dynasty court ladies perform during Henan TV's Spring Festival Gala in 2021. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

Carrying the genes and spirit of a nation, cultural relics and heritages are irreplaceable resources for a thriving civilization. A huge number of Chinese relics have gotten more popular over the past 10 years and allowed people from around the world to know Chinese culture better. The Global Times will feature a number of "star" artifacts in this series, to make cultural relics stored in museums, heritages displayed throughout the vast land, and texts written in ancient books come alive. 

As Chinese President Xi Jinping has said, Chinese civilization, together with the colorful civilizations of other countries, should provide mankind with proper spiritual guidance and a strong spiritual impetus.  

From unadorned pottery figurines to the well-known tri-color glaze pottery of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), ancient ceramics have provided vivid insights into the daily lives of ancient people. 

Though most ancient ceramics are on display at museums, many young artists in China feel they deserve to be seen by a wider audience than the limited number of people who visit museums. 

In recent years, numerous artists, dancers and TV directors have used creative means to bring these pottery figures to life, thus expanding their audience and setting off a wave of discussion about Tang figurines and the pursuit of traditional Chinese aesthetics.

"In the digital age, such creative productions not only give the public a way to see ancient Chinese culture, but also spark their imagination and thereby help promote the inherence of traditional culture. If we [creative workers] do not give those 'flat' items some extra stories and personality, audiences will be unable to imagine how these old relics are linked to their lives," Zhang Xinghao, a cultural creative researcher and production designer, told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

"When you see these things in the museum, the 'wow' factor is only temporary. But, when you see them moving around and having fun, you want to create your own stories with them."

The power of dance

As chime bells and ancient flutes are played together, a group of painted terracotta figures gradually "walk out" from a museum and transform into Tang Dynasty court ladies with fresh and vivid expressions on their faces.

This scene is the beginning of the hit Chinese dance show Night Banquet in the Tang Dynasty Palace, which was performed during Henan TV's Spring Festival Gala in 2021.

Once buried in ancient tombs and now part of the collection at the Henan Museum, these figurines came to life for the first time in more than 1,000 years because of the show.

Stunning colors, vivid dance moves and captivating story-telling techniques broke from the stereotypical quiet and lyrical atmosphere of traditional Chinese dance to offer an amusing and vivid performance. 

Modern digital technologies such as 3D and augmented reality were used to bring the real and virtual worlds together on stage.

"This dance is a combination of the rich treasures that are China's traditional culture and modern technology, fashion and aesthetics," Chen Lei, the gala's director, told the Global Times.

"The huge success of this work has made us realize that these traditional dances that were once hidden in theaters and halls don't have to hide there forever. As long as you do it well, the audience will also want to see them on TV," Jiang Xiaowei, director of the variety show Dancing Through the Millennium, told the Global Times.

A Tang Dynasty tri-color glaze pottery figurine Photo: VCG

A Tang Dynasty tri-color glaze pottery figurine Photo: VCG

Digital efforts

At another museum thousands of kilometers away from Central China's Henan Province is the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum, where  a diverse array of Tang Dynasty figurines depicting people from various ethnic groups call home. 

The ceramic figures made during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) to the Tang Dynasty tend to depict scene and figures from daily life. This is especially true of the Tang figures, which are considered the model of human beauty and the peak of Chinese sculptures.

To further merge the ancient life depicted in these works of art with modern life, Chinese cultural workers have experimented with many different creative methods to pique the interests of people today. 

"My name is Guo Wenzhi and I am an official clerk who worked in Gaochang county during the Tang Dynasty," says a colorful figurine unearthed from an ancient tomb in Turpan, Xinjiang on the Chinese documentary program Every Treasure Tells a Story. Telling his story, Guo transports viewers hundreds of years into the past to arrive in the ancient county.

Right after the program first aired, sales of cultural products increased on e-commerce platforms as people rushed to buy these products inspired by the cultural relics mentioned on the show.

Other ceramic figurines play different roles on the program as they depict life as it was more than 1,000 years ago. Following in the figurines' footsteps, viewers get to appreciate the lives of people from an ancient age.

"It's not just museums; creative derivation has gradually become a new strategy for many cultural institutions in China to promote cultural relics. People usually think about mugs and scarfs when it comes to souvenirs on sale at museums, but there is so much more to it. There has to be a system that links online and offline promotions with various participants like the museum, designers, marketing companies and more," Peng Xingxing, a museology researcher, told the Global Times. 

"In the future, this will all take place in a virtual reality world. I know many young insiders who are already designing and selling purely digital works that have been inspired by Chinese history," Peng said.