Dough figurine making remains popular

Today, while fondant remains a favorite cake icing in many Western countries, the dough figurine has evolved into a unique and popular folk art in China.

It is said that European bakers and pastry chefs began to use fondant or sugarpaste, a mixture of sugar, water, gelatin and glycerol, to sculpt and decorate cakes and pastries as early as the Renaissance times. However, more than 1,000 years earlier, their Chinese counterparts had already created a similar culinary art, using not fondant, but dough made from wheat and glutinous rice flour, to beautify their dough-based foods.

Today, while fondant remains a favorite cake icing in many Western countries, the dough figurine has evolved into a unique and popular folk art in China.

According to historical records, the dough figurine tradition in the country dates back more than 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220). People first made dough food, shaped like flowers or domestic and mythical animals like sheep, pigs, dogs, as well as dragons as gifts or offerings for special occasions, such as weddings, festivals and other traditional ceremonies and celebrations. 

But folk legends point to a different origin of dough figurine. They say the unique kneading art was invented by Zhuge Liang (AD 181-234), a great strategist, statesman, scholar and inventor, who once served as the prime minister of the Kingdom of Shu (AD 221-263).


A dough figurine of the legendary Monkey King, made by folk artist Ai Min from Hubei Province. Over the past decades, the dough figurine has evolved into a unique and popular folk art in China.

One day, Zhuge Liang was leading his army to cross a big river, but strong winds and high waves made it almost a mission impossible. His advisors suggested that 49 human heads should be offered as a sacrifice to appease the river spirits, but Zhuge was reluctant to see the loss of so many lives.

Therefore, he ordered his chefs to sculpt 49 human heads made of dough and stuffed with beef and horse meat. Then he threw the substitutes into the river. Fortunately, the trick worked as the river spirits happily accepted the sacrifice and the waves were subsequently subdued. Zhuge’s army then successfully crossed the river.

Since then, Zhuge has been revered by all dough figurine makers in the country as the Father of Dough Figurine.

No matter what is the true origin, the discoveries from an ancient tomb in northwest China, which include the head of a female dough figurine, the bust of a male dough figurine and a dough pig, indicate that dough figurine making was already quite popular across the country in the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

During the early years of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), dough figurine making had already evolved into a rather sophisticated art form and its quality of edibility had gradually become secondary. 

Apart from the traditional themes such as flowers and domestic and mythical animals, the dough figurines also began to focus on characters appeared in folk stories, dramas and classic Chinese novels, such as: Journey to West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and A Dream of Red Mansions. 

Even today, dough figurines of the images of Li Kui, a legendary “ghostbuster” and Guan Yu, a hero in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, are still extremely popular among common people.

From the 14th to early 20th centuries, dough modeling entered its golden age in China. During this period of time, a group of masters of dough figurine making had emerged and they had created two distinct styles, namely the northern style and the southern style. The former was known for its primitive simplicity and boldness, and the latter was reputed for its delicacy and elegance.

But during the Japanese invasion of China from 1931 to 1945, the nearly 2,000-year-old dough figurine tradition almost died out. It was not until the founding of new China in 1949 that it began to reinvigorate.

The whole process of making a traditional dough figurine is rather elaborate.

The first step, of course, is the seemingly easy job of making dough. Usually, about 70 percent of wheat flour and 30 percent of glutinous rice flour are mixed with water and then repeatedly rolled and kneaded until the dough is well done.

Then, the dough is put into a steamer to steam and later mixed with honey, paraffin and other plant-based ingredients in order to enable the dough to last longer and become mould and cracking-proof.

Next, the dough is put into a sealed container or wrapped up in plastic film to let it ferment for hours or even days. After that, the dough is taken out to allow it to dry naturally for a certain period of time. This part could be repeated a couple of times until the dough achieves ideal plasticity and its surface becomes smooth and shiny.

The second step is coloring. In earlier days, colors were simply painted on the surface of dough figurines. But as the kneading art becoming more sophisticated, doughs of different colors were created by kneading mineral or plant pigments into them.

The third and essential step is sculpting. Dough figurine makers use simple tools, such as bamboo or wooden sticks, needles, knives, and small combs and scissors, to roll, knead and pinch the dough into different shapes.


A dough figurine maker (unseen) works on a figurine. Makers have to create detailed facial features to capture the personality of the character.

The most difficult part usually is the head of a figurine. Makers have to create detailed and distinct facial features and expressions to aptly capture the characteristics and personality of an individual character and breathe life into the figurines.

In light of the complexity of the figurines, this step could take hours, days or even weeks to complete.

Today, the traditional dough figurines have already won a niche market of Chinese folk arts and crafts among tourists and collectors.

In order to support the reinvigoration as well as the future development of the fascinating and time-honored kneading art, the Chinese government added dough figurine making to the country’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2008.

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