Hairy monkeys (毛猴) are a unique traditional handicraft of the old Beijing made with cicada shell and magnolia bud.
The art of the hairy monkeys combines the ‘monkeys’ with the artist’s vision, creating a bizarre artistic world.
Although they have recently evolved into complicated satirical creations often representing scenes of imperial China (but not only), these small monkeys have a long tradition behind them.
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The Legend of the Hairy Monkeys
According to legend, during the Daoguang period, there was a drug shop called “Nanqing Rentang” on the main street of Xumawumen outside Beijing.
The legend tells of an irascible shopkeeper, as he often shouted at his employees. One day, an apprentice who was still shaken by the harsh words received during the day was rearranging the ingredients used to prepare medicines in the shop. To make time pass more quickly, he modeled a small figure using the fluffy flower bud from a winter magnolia and the limbs and head of a cicada. The apprentice showed his figure to his colleagues, joking that he looked like their boss.
What’s a ‘hairy monkey’?
Hairy Monkeys are made with four Chinese herbal medicines: cicada shell to make the head and limbs, Magnolia to make the body, Bletilla tuber used as adhesive, and wood to make props.
In the early years of the Republic of China, there was an artist making ‘hairy monkeys’ in the Dong’an market. Because of his surname Wang, people called him “Monkey Wang.” His booth was often surrounded by a group of people. A little boy named Cao Yijian (曹仪简) was simply fascinated and spent a lot of time watching the artist creating his work. He secretly learned the skills of the master, and later the boy became the heir of this tradition.
Cao Yi Jian, born in Beijing in 1925, Manchu is the 19th generation grandson of the Cao Xueqin family (He was Chinese writer during the Qing dynasty). He not only inherited the traditional monkey art, but also developed and opened up a new artistic realm, showing new worlds and content. He not only expresses folk customs, and portrays historical figures, but also creates satirical pieces.
His original creations are rich and colorful, overflowing with rich old Beijing folk culture atmosphere.
Guo Futian and Cui Yulan, natives of Beijing, are an another couple of artists, keepers of this tradition with their shop in the heart of Beijing.
Hairy Monkeys images
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.