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What's a 'hairy monkey'? Chinese artists share their secret

A small number of Chinese artists practice this traditional art that combines magnolia buds – and sloughed cicada shells. The result is a hairy monkey.

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    Folk artist Yu Guangjun places 'Maohou' figures onto a miniature display at his house in Beijing, Sept. 2, 2014. 'Maohou,' which means hairy monkey in Chinese, is a traditional art form in Beijing that dates back to the Qing Dynasty and requires only the use of cicada sloughs and Magnolia buds to form miniature sculptures. Yu has been using Maohou figures in his miniatures to depict scenes from Beijing during the 1960-70s period.
    Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
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Of all the curiosities one can find in China, few are more bizarre than “hairy monkeys.”

These are not real monkeys. They are tiny humanoid figures made from furry magnolia buds and sloughed off cicada shells, and if that sounds unlikely, you should see what their creators have them do.

Not that many such creators still exist. There are probably fewer than a dozen folk artists in Beijing practicing this abstruse traditional skill, constructing exquisitely modeled tableau that illustrate scenes from old Beijing life.

They do it by taking magnolia buds gathered in early spring, when they are covered with a fluffy down, and attaching the heads and legs of cicada carapaces – resembling minuscule lobster claws – which the insects shed in high summer and leave on the trunks of the trees in which they live.

Bending these claws into arms and legs, the artists then set the miniature monkey-like figures in old-fashioned Beijing street scenes, selling toffee apples, playing Chinese checkers, sharpening knives, or grilling lamb kebabs, and place the decorative tableau under glass domes for protection.

“The things I make show life when I was a kid in the 1960s,” says Yu Guangjun, who learned the art from his father. “They are imbued with the spirit of Beijing.”

Just how it occurred to somebody to put magnolia buds and cicada shells together is not certain, but they are both ingredients used in Chinese traditional medicine: an infusion of magnolia buds is said to cure nasal inflammation and soaking your feet in water enriched with cicada slough relieves swelling.

Legend has it that at the beginning of the 19th century a bored clerk in a Beijing pharmacy was playing around with stuff he found in the shop’s cabinets and came up with the idea of creating the miniature figures. Today the most ambitious modelers, such as Mr. Yu, spend months building extravagantly detailed tableaus that can use dozens of tiny “hairy monkeys” to re-create traditional scenes such as wedding processions, public baths, or fishermen by a pond.

In a few Beijing families the art has been passed from generation to generation over more than a century. Cui Yulan, who runs a small museum and shop in a quiet “hutong” alley with her husband, learned from her grandfather when she was five, she says.

Later a young man at her workplace who was good with his hands and knew how to draw caught her eye. She took him home to meet her family, Ms. Cui recalls, and he won their approval. “I wouldn’t have married him if he hadn’t been able to make hairy monkeys,” she laughs. “My father would not have allowed it.”

Cui has taught her son the craft, and Mr. Yu says his daughter, a producer at Chinese state run TV, is also good at it. Both teach classes in schools and community activity centers in hopes the tradition will live on. 

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