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Art of the Mud Man

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By Myron Redding

"A brief discussion of collectable mud figures in relation to historical Chinese Pen'Jing & modern Bonsai."

Antique mud figures ca. 1900 from left to right is 2, 4 ,7 , 5, 4 inches tall

Antique mud figures ca. 1900
From left to right is 2, 4 ,7 , 5, 4 inches tall.

Mud figure, mud man, san kai, whatever one chooses to call them, one fact will always remains the same, either you like them or you don't!

I began collecting the antique version of these miniature earthenware figurines about 10 years ago, it seems that the mud figure coincided with my interest in bonsai from the first time I became involved with the art.

Little did I know that I would develop a keen interest in these miniature figures and would seek to discover the little known facts that define the heritage of these amazing Chinese export curios.

I think it is safe to say that most bonsai or Penjing enthusiasts have seen modern mud figures at one time or another, perhaps an old sage or philosopher adorning the shelves of a local bonsai nursery, at an online bonsai store, or maybe sitting in the pot of a peculiar shaped mallsai.

A good number of bonsai enthusiasts admit to not being moved by them or even desiring to collect them for that matter, but the plain truth is mud figures are not very well received among the majority of the bonsai community for the simple reason these little gnome like figures are not traditionally Japanese, as are suiseki, hand made pots, scrolls and accent plants . However, does that mean that the mud figure has little to offer as an accent to bonsai? Is its insignificance according to Japanese culture by any means a reason to discard its use altogether by modern practitioners of an original Chinese art? I don't think so in my opinion!

The decision to use mud figures as a display accent is in reality a personal choice, if a particular figure compliments a trees setting, then by all means it should be used, it needs to be used, which is after all an expression of the artists personal vision which should be respected as should any ones opinion apart from traditional bias or prejudices.

A mudman

The notion of excluding accent figures with a traditional bonsai is comparatively recent from a historical viewpoint , early accounts from the 14th century confirm Japanese bonsai artists did indeed include figurines with their potted landscape arrangements from the earliest times, only as recently as the 15th century were such garnishes decidedly excluded by the Japanese artists in order to simplify the Zen of bonsai to its present day form. Chinese Pen jing artisans on the other hand had been creating beautiful miniature tray landscapes using small collected trees and rocks from the countryside for thousands of years before the establishment of the Japanese bonsai traditions we think of today.

A favorite panorama would be recreated using tall rocks to represent mountains and small trees to populate the valleys between, mosses simulated grass and tiny pebbles represented the mountainous streams, and much like in the biblical garden of Eden, figures were created from clay to represent humans and animals to occupy these mini vistas.

It is believed that the first mud figures were little more than images of dried clay, and are said to have originated with the temple monks of China, who began the earliest traditions using such figures nearly 2800 years ago to add scale to their potted landscape compositions.

Travelers to China in the mid 1800's reported seeing wondrous tray landscapes in miniature, complete with mountains, trees, houses, temples and figural images, which included emperors, gods, citizens, and fauna displayed in a single container.

These artistic depictions of human and animal figures were originally referred to as San Xai , which described the colorful glaze traditions of the Tang Dynasty ( 900 AD ), they would become the trademark of the Chinese export industry throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The Chinese art of creating mud figures, long before established since the earliest days of the Dynastic kingdoms, began a rapid decline in the 1930's due primarily to the war years beginning with the invasion of Manchuria and eventually the occupation of China by Japanese forces prior to and during WW2 (1935-1943). During the war many of the centuries old Provincial ceramic factories and village co-op crafts operations were aggressively eradicated not only by advancing superior Japanese forces, but by the retreating Chinese military who destroyed whole cities and commercial enterprises to prevent capture by the enemy , some experts refer to the violent loss of Chinas premier artisans during this time as the most likely reason that caused the near extinction of the time-honored crafts which included experienced practitioners of miniature potted trees and landscapes.

In 1948, the Peoples Republic Chinese government set about to restore the countries traditional heritage by locating artisans who were skilled in the Penjing arts, the very few surviving craftsmen were assembled as volunteers to teach classes to the post war masses and as a result the art form has survived until today.

It is recognized that Penjing from its historical beginnings has evolved over the passing centuries into its present form as we know it today, Artisans in different periods of times past have added their own view, their own technique and even forming infamous schools of thought for styling these traditional potted landscapes, therefore it could be rightfully considered to be a personal art form.

Whether one prefers, Penjing, Pentsai, or bonsai, historically they are intricately related, therefore intertwined with the mud man tradition, however no modern mud figure dares to compare to the old world quality of the original hand made figures of yesteryears.

Scholar (ca. 1869-1919) 4 inches tall.

(ca. 1869-1919) 4" tall.

This mud figure is a scholar represented by his scroll and fan, he is just a little over 4 inches tall and is seated on a textured volcanic rock chair. He was hand made between 1869-1919 and glazed in a traditional color scheme. This figure is stamped with an incised "China".


Scholar (ca. 1920) 3 inches tall.

(ca. 1920) 3" tall.

This mini mud scholar is just a little over 3 inches tall. Stamped with an incised "made in china" , he was hand made about 1920 and displays well on a maple burl stump.


Song Dynasty Figurine (ca. 1900) 4-½ inches tall

Song Dynasty Figurine
(ca. 1900) 4-½ inches tall

This 4 ½ inch tall figure is glazed in the traditional San Xai colors of cerulean blue, mustard yellow and jade green, he is dressed in the conventional Pao Shan robe of the common people popularized during the Song Dynasty. His accessories include a white alms bowl and a green water gourd, traditional emblems of the Buddhist monk. He was hand crafted about 1900 AD and is incised "china".


Scholar (ca. ?) 3 inches tall.

(ca. 2005) 3 inches tall.

This contemporary mud man ca. 2005 represents a scholar as evidenced by his book, scholars cap and fan, notice the oversized books that he is reclining against. This 3 inch figure is partially formed from a mold and assembled by artisans at the Chinese factories. It has a tin colored foil stamp marked "made in china".


Musician (ca. 2004) 2 inches tall.

(ca. 2004) 2 inches tall.

This little mud figure ca. 2004 is just about 2 inches tall, he is posed with a zither, the traditional musical instrument of the Royal court, he represents a musician, one of the attributes of the Chinese immortal Han Hsian Tzui. He is hand made by skilled Chinese artisans.


Modern Mud Men! Slip cast from commercial molds 5 inches tall.

Modern Mud Men!
Slip cast from commercial molds
5 inches tall.

This modern pair of 5 inch mud figures ca. 2000 is often misrepresented as "vintage" by sellers at a popular online auction. They are slip cast from commercial molds and are reproduced by the thousands every month at the modern Chinese ceramic factories.


A Simple Tray Landscape Yaupon Holly and Fukien Tea with Dwarf Mondo Grass

A Simple Tray Landscape
Yaupon Holly and Fukien Tea with Dwarf Mondo Grass

This little tray planting was assembled from spare foliage laying around the garden, the main focus of this composition is obviously the colorful 3 inch tall old antique sage mud figures positioned just off center of the landscape, with a little imagination you can almost hear them discussing the finer points of religious philosophy or the mystical attributes of Taoism, these figures are glazed in the traditional San Xai coloring and are incised with the export stamp "china", they date from the early 1900's.


Detail: 86-year-old Sagemud figures (ca. 1900's)

Detail: 86-year-old Sage mud figures
(ca. 1900's)

I used Yaupon Holly and Fukien Tea for the trees accented with clumps of mondo grass and liverwort, the rocks are fresh water corals found in a local river which have a texture similar to volcanic rock. It was planted in spring 2005 and freshly pruned the following fall.


Juniperus procumbens 'nana' with mudman (ca. 1956)

Juniperus procumbens 'nana' with mudman
(ca. 1956)

The 50 year old tiny 1 inch mud figure was entirely hand made at the Shiwan factory in Guangdong China about 1956, it is accenting a 6 inch tall mame Juniperus procumbens 'nana' the mud figure is glazed in the colorful Chinese tradition and stamped "china" in blue ink.

I chose to display this mud figure on a polished maple burl stump with a complimentary red stone placed in a flattering position with the figure. The juniper shaped in a non traditional mountain pine style, has been in training since 2004, it is planted in a "vintage" 4 inch round Chinese pot and freshly pruned in fall 2005.

This image envisions a sole figure in search of solitude on one the numerous mountains of China.


Juniperus prostrata with mudman (ca. 1956)

Juniperus prostrata with mudman (ca. 1956)

This pair of vintage miniature mud figures was entirely hand made at the Shiwan Ceramic factory in China over 50 years ago, they are just over one inches tall and are displayed on a black granite rock to compliment the mountainous theme. Created from common nursery stock, the 5½ inch tall mame Juniperus prostrata has been in training since the fall of 2004, it was initially hard pruned last season and potted in a 3 inch rectangular pot. The illusion of a stately ancient cedar comes to mind as a couple of old friends enjoy a meaningful conversation sheltered under its long reaching branches.


Ulmus parvifolia with mudman

Ulmus parvifolia with mudman

This nice little imported Ulmus parvifolia was acquired by my wife at an art show and exhibit awhile back, the vendor purchased it from a grower in Hollywood Florida, it was nice to discover it had been professionally planted in a well draining medium of Turface and compost.


Mudman Detail

Mudman Detail

The composition seems to work with the modern mud man planted in the pot with the large stone, however I do not think it is a Pen'Jing but rather, closely related to a Pen'Tsai. Oh well, My wife loves it!


Juniperus parsonii

Juniperus parsonii

This 3½ inch tall mame Juniperus parsonnii is accented with a mud figure that is crafted to look and function like a scholars stone, the overall 2¾ inch tall miniature figure is constructed entirely by hand at one of the numerous modern ceramics factories in China. The figure represents a scholar, which is evident by his courtly head dress and lan shan robe, the details are minute right down to the water gourd bottle and tiny cup in his hand.

The juniper, created from common nursery stock, has been in training since February 2005 and is planted in an unglazed 3 inch oval pot.

This scene conveys the feeling of an ancient tree growing on a wind swept ledge in which the scholar has traversed to ponder the ageless philosophies of the Tao.


Ilex vomitoria

Ilex vomitoria

The mud figure accent, produced about 1910 is glazed in the traditional San Xai coloration of cerulean blue, mustard yellow and jade green , he is incised 'china', and at just over 2½ inches tall, is displayed seated on one of my original hand carved red oak daiza's custom fit to this figure. This 10 inch tall Yaupon Holly has been in training since the winter of 2003, created from nursery stock acquired locally it is planted in a chocolate brown rectangular 4x6 inch Chinese dragon pot.

This scene invokes a serene contemplative atmosphere of gentle afternoon breezes and cool evening shade, the perfect ending to a hard days work.

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