The Miniature Opera Dolls of Pingyao 平遥: Qingxu Guan /情绪观and its amazing collection of Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人)
The miniature opera dolls (Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人)are unique not only in Pingyao but also all of China. On our last stop of an exhausting day of sightseeing around Pingyao, we stopped at the Qingxu Temple, an ancient Taoist Temple, now doubling up as a museum with a fascinating collection of plaster and wooden statues.
The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty.
The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.
Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)
However, no matter how stunning and remarkable the Song dynasty statues were, nothing had prepared us for the icing on the cake that the Qingxu Temple holds: the Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人), or miniature opera dolls.
This is a series of display cases with ‘Shage Xiren’ dolls, showing scenes from popular Jin operas 晋剧, created by the famous artist Xu Liting (许立廷) between 1905 and 1906.
The details in the faces, headdresses and costumes –made of delicate materials such as paper, clay, silk or wood pulp- are astonishing! You’ll fall in love with them like us! However … all is not well with the dolls!
Restoring the Unrestorable?
We were sad to see such authentic and valuable pieces of history and culture left rather forlorn and abandoned in their flimsy and rustic casings and somewhat exposed to the elements.
And here is the contradiction: for the visitor, it’s a pleasure to be able to get so close to such jewels, and in such a laid- back and hassle-free ambience as well, but it doesn’t bode all that well for the future conservation of the dolls.
And therein lays the conundrum. Many of the dolls are falling apart. Limbs and robes are falling off at an alarming rate, leaving researchers scrambling to figure out what to do about it. And they are trying!
Help for the miniature dolls maybe on its way
A number of articles have highlighted the case of the Shage Xiren (Miniature Opera Dolls). Here are the links to two of them.
The first article highlights the problem and emphasizes the importance of restoring the miniature opera dolls, as well as suggesting possible solutions. https://www.forbes.com/sites/evaamsen/2020/02/28/saving-the-historic-opera-dolls-of-pingyao/#1aa773032faa
The second one contains a detailed analysis of the various materials the dolls are made of and looks for scientific solutions to restoring them. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s40494-020-0358-7
If you are a restoration buff you’ll love this article, which reads a bit like a forensics report. Even for a layman like me, it was a fascinating piece.
The biggest problem seems to be that the creator of the dolls, Xu Liting (许立廷), only made them for a short period of time during the tumultuous twilight years of the Qing Dynasty, 1905 – 1906.
Furthermore, Xu never left any written record of the materials he used to create the dolls, nor did he pass on his skill to any apprentice. Restorers are now scratching their heads about how best to save these incredible dolls.
Given the recent interest and new developents in restoration technologies, we can only hope that a solution will be found soon. Meanwhile, if you are visiting Pingyao anytime soon, try to see the dolls in the Qingxu temple.
I know that the through ticket (tongpiao) has a rather daunting list of sights, not all of which are equally worthwhile, but the Qingxu Temple with its delightful miniature opera dolls is a must!
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