The Chinese Mud Man.
The mystical nature and religious culture of China has these figurines surrounded with legend and tales. One legend is that older figures have a hole in the bottom of the base that extends up inside the figure. The Artists used this hole to form or shape their work around their finger, hand, or a stick. These holes were at one time filled with contraband and plugged shut. When they arrived at their destination, the clay plug was removed and the figure shattered to get the smuggled goods. You can sometimes find a mud figure where the hole has been sealed but, who would want to destroy a great vintage piece only to find that this is a legend.
There is also the thought that during the Victorian Era (1837-1901), which included the Opium war and Boxer Rebellion, prisoners were used to produce ceramic items for trade. It is stated that they were required to produce a quota per day and often did not have the water needed to meet that quota. They would pee into the clay to get the desired consistency, thus the brownish-red color of the clay.
This is what I can distinguish interwoven among the legends and thoughts. The mud man is used with religion in the Chinese culture. They are made of Kaolin or white Chinese clay, water, and a paste is added at times to get a whiteness of the body, which was desirable during the late Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty. Porcelain is a name used for all ceramics. Kaolin was used to make “petuntse” which is a pottery stone or brick from which figurines are carved.
Larger mud men, 20 “or taller, and mud women are the more valuable of the mud men items.
Most mud figures were made in Southern China in the Shiwan area in the Guangdong Providence. Most were made during the Qing dynasty also known as the Manchu dynasty which was China’s last dynasty. There were four (4) Emperors during the Qing dynasty and two important events the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion.
If collecting mud men here are some things to know;
Mud men are usually brightly colored, they are slipped and covered with a tinted glaze made of copper or ferrous in yellow, green, brown, white and sometimes blue. The colors were allowed to mix or run naturally. Crazing is good (having flaws or cracks). If the glaze is thin on top of the figurine and heavier in material fold and bottom that shows age. There may be holes poked into the clay to make eyes, nose, and ears. Original figurines were seated deities, generally male, and later figurines were usually holding something. They are hollow because they could have been molded around a stick. You may find finger prints on the inside where they were pressed into the clay molds. The bottom being open all the way around and thinning on the edges are signs of aged figures.
I researched the thoughts about mud men being created by prisoners. The Nei-Ching practice of internal medicine and color diagnosis brought about tales about the making of the color red and perhaps this tale of coloring of the clay. The placement of the figurine in the kiln and the temperature during firing can account for many of the variations in coloring. Many records that reflect badly on China have been removed from the public. I could not find any leads to suggest that prisoners worked with clay or pottery.
Grandma’s Attic has a wonderful example of a Chinese mud man figurine. The following are pictures of him. Notice the running paint. There is the mark “China” which dates him between 1890 and 1919. Most mud men are very detailed and this one is finely detailed with locks of hair, a beard, and comb. There are the desired fingerprints inside the cavity and his ears have holes. He is priced at $76.50. Come and check him out for an up close look at these fun antique figurines!