Reviving the ancient clay cats of Gaoting

A centuries-old craft of making clay cat figurines in honor of a heroic woman warrior is slowly making a modern comeback.

More than 1,000 years ago, farmers in present-day Gaoting Hill in Yuhang District all lived on growing mulberry trees, breeding silkworms and weaving silk.

On the south slope of the hill, there was the  village of Nijiamen, or “Ni’s family.” It was one of the production centers and origins of Hangzhou’s silk culture.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a lady born in the village sacrificed herself fighting against the Jin enemies. To commemorate the brave woman, the then royal court built a temple on the hill, which attracted  streams of people in the Jiangnan (region of  the lower reaches of the Yangtze River) to worship.

One day, many mysterious, colorful cats appeared in front of the woman’s statue. Nijiamen villagers believed they were manifestations of the woman’s magic power and made clay figurines imitating their shape.

Since then, every worshipper took a figurine home, because they believe this artifact could help save silkworms from mice and bring a good silk harvest.

Over time, this became a strong  tradition. An annual ritual is held in the fifth month of the lunar calendar to celebrate it, and attracted silk farmers from neighboring places.

Nijiamen villagers carried on the craftsmanship for hundreds of years. But the techniques were lost in the 1950s due to social changes.

For years, the local government has worked to rebuild the cultural heritage. Luckily, an antique clay cat was discovered in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province.

Reviving the ancient clay cats of Gaoting
Wu Huixin

Ni Airen makes a clay cat figure.

Seventy-one-year-old Ni Airen is a descendant of the village. In 2000, he began researching  the discovered figurine and historical archives in order to revive the ancient craft.

Two years later, a new clay cat was successfully produced, using the traditional techniques. In 2007, the craftsmanship was listed as a Zhejiang Province intangible cultural heritage.

Since then, Ni has dedicated himself to reviving the craft.

Now, he and two apprentices are displaying their works in the Hangzhou Workmanship Pavilion through August 31. Parents are encouraged to take kids there to experience making cat figurines on the site.

“The area developed and Gaoting Hill locals no longer produce silk. Modern residential communities have replaced the mulberry tree fields,” Ni told Shanghai Daily. “I hope to spread the craftsmanship among the younger generation and arouse their interest in this tradition.

“Also, I plan to select talented kids to inherit the cultural heritage.”

Reviving the ancient clay cats of Gaoting
Wu Huixin

Children learn to paint clay figures.

Making the cat figurines requires soft mud without any impurity. Formerly, Gaoting Hill produced ideal material. However, the resources declined along with urbanization. Now, Ni has to transport quality clay from Wuxi.

In order to boost stickiness, he adds natural peach gum to the clay and continuously rolls it. The clay must be dried in a cool, ventilated place for two days in summer and seven days in winter, otherwise it easily cracks.

In former times, the figurine was always coated with a layer of lacquer to give it a glazed finish. Nowadays, that procedure is no longer used to make the product more environmentally friendly.

The authentic figurines typically have a double-faced design. In ancient times, people believed two faces could observe a room from all angles, which prevented mice eating the silkworms.

Usually, it takes Ni one day to complete a figurine, which is  priced from 120-150 yuan (US$18-22.50), depending on size.

“This craftsmanship cannot bring in much of an income. That’s why it cannot attract young people,” Ni said. “I can persist in doing this thanks to government support.”

Every year, the Gongshu District government subsidizes the craftsmen to develop new products. So far, six varieties have been created in different designs. Ni also plans to cooperate with companies to develop souvenirs.

Now, the figurines are usually bought as knickknacks for shelves and tables. In the future, Ni expects to make smaller ones that could be hung around the neck.

Reviving the ancient clay cats of Gaoting
Wu Huixin

A colored clay cat


Hangzhou Workmanship Pavilion displays traditional crafts and knick-knacks. Most of the craftsmen are inheritors of intangible cultural heritage. Visitors can watch them produce handmade artifacts on the site. Also, they can make their own gifts by following tips from the craftsmen.

Date: Through August 31?Venue: Hangzhou Workmanship Pavilion

Address: 10 Qiaonong St

Admission: Free

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