By Zhao Ruixue
One is a veteran stage performer, and the other a ceramics artist. And, when they finally meet, they create enough kinetics to spark the creation of a brand-new art genre.
To capture humor in cold clay is hard. To embody the living stagecraft of performance art in a series of static sculptures takes even greater talent and dedication. But this is what happens when comedy veteran Zhao Benshan chances upon the art of Shandong potter Han Fang. The fruit of their
combined talents is now manifested in a permanent exhibition paying homage to the northeastern Chinese art of erren zhuan, the popular multi-disciplinary stage skits performed in a male-female duet. It is an act that combines singing, dancing, comedy, cross-talk and acrobatics, usually involving much twirling of silk handkerchiefs and fans.
Zhao, acknowledged as erren zhuan's most well-known practitioner, has also been its most fervent guardian. He has a school coaching young couples in the art, and his media empire encompassing stage, television and films provide his students with platforms to practice their craft.
He has also built a museum at Beijing's Qianmen East Road dedicated to the history of his native art of erren zhuan. It is here that ceramic artist Han Fang helps showcase the art's finest forms in a series of clay sculptures.
In 2009, Zhao met Han through a friend and became fascinated by his work.
"He thought the characters in my work showed a strong sense of humor and richly reflected the style and flavor of farming life. These were exactly the same characteristics essential to erren zhuan." Han describes their first encounters. As Han recalls, Zhao was also captivated by the "clay fragrance".
One of Zhao's most famous stage characters was an old farmer named Black Earth, who partnered White Cloud, his gap-toothed wife played by another stage veteran Song Dandan. The names were typical of erren zhuan's grassroots base, and it may also explain Zhao's attraction to Han's earthy art.
Han appreciated Zhao's interest in his art and accepted the commission to create a series of ceramic sculptures that would document 300 years of erren zhuan. For Han, it was a project that took him back to his own roots.
Born to a farmer's family in East China's Shandong province, Han later moved to a village in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and grew up there. He is therefore no stranger to the rural lifestyle that had inspired erren zhuan. In fact, his signature works already encompassed much of the grassroots characteristics.
In the summer of 2010, Han handed over his first batch of erren zhuan ceramics to Zhao. This group consisted 50 pieces, each a ceramic vignette of the erren zhuan skits on stage — either singing, striking comic poses or adopting funny gestures to earn laughs from the audience gathered.
Han also captured the response from the audience, laughing and enjoying the performance.
When Zhao saw the first lot of ceramics, he was delighted.
"He was also born to a farmer's family, and had deep empathy with rural hardship and characteristics. He praised my work, saying it was three-dimensional art that truly captured the spirit of the art," Han remembers.
But Zhao also pointed out areas that Han could fine-tune.
"He told me to put more effort into the eyes, because they were the most important part of the performers' expressions."
It was no easy task trying to capture 300 years of traditional performances in clay. To grasp the essence of erren zhuan, Han and his team needed to plow through reams of research materials, listen to experts and communicate with the erren zhuan performers themselves.
It took him another year before he finished the commission in July 2011.
The whole complex is divided into nine parts, which roughly reflected the four development stages of the art: The late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the period of the early revolution from 1912 to 1949, the founding years of the People's Republic of China after 1949 and the latest developments as the art entered the 21st century.
Han created a total of 800 pieces of ceramics, the work capturing the spirit of the northeast region, with its straight-talking, straight thinking folks, all with a passionate enthusiasm for life and its challenges.
"To show the different characters, we used various techniques including choices of raw material, texture and glaze," Han says.
But even with such attention to details, there were tough hurdles.
For example, Han found it difficult to portray Xiao Shenyang, one of Zhao's most famous disciples.
"Neither the exaggerated style nor the realistic style fitted his caricature. I did no less than 10 attempts to capture him in clay and it took about half a month to get it right." The other characters, Han says, often only took one day.
Han's works at Zhao Benshan's Liu Laogen Museum in Qianmen stretch out along about 100 meters of display space, all with the appropriate murals as background.
For Han, it was a satisfying commission and learning experience. "I was much influenced by Zhao Benshan during the creation process. We both grew up in farmers' families, but he understands the farmers so much better. That's why he is able to create such realistic caricatures of farming life."
But while Zhao's stage characters become fleeting memories on stage and screen, Han's works are tangible works that pay permanent homage to northeastern China's hardworking farmers.
It is a happy marriage of talents.