1990 / 3月
Chang Chung-fang /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Andrew Morton
On January 7 a little girl was "born" in the Council for Cultural Planning Development's Culture Gallery in Taipei. Among those present to witness the event were the president of the Women's Garden Art Club of the ROC, Madame Yu Tung Mei-chen, along with the wives of government ministers such as Chen Li-an and Kuo Nan-hung, plus reporters from the mass media.
Just who was this girl whose birth occurred not in a hospital but in an art gallery and who attracted such attention from prominent society ladies and the media?
"Mei-lan" is not a real girl, but she is not a doll of the kind children normally play with either. She looks about 16 or 17, has long curving eyebrows, lovely eyes, a cherry mouth and an oval face with two adorable dimples. Her sweet looks show a love of mischief. . . . At a glance anyone would say she was a wholly Chinese girl.
For Mei-lan is a Chinese doll.
Madame Yu Tung Mei-chen, president of the Women's Garden Art Club of the ROC and Mei-lan's godmother, explains that every Chinese child always plays with blond-haired, blue-eyed Western dolls.
Once on a visit to Guatemala and Dominica with her husband, former Premier Yu Kuo-hwa, she was intrigued to see little black dolls which looked more like the local people. It occurred to her, "Why don't our children have toys with their own ethnic features?" After returning to Taiwan she discussed the idea with the members of her Garden & Art Club and they decided to design a specifically Chinese doll.
Madame Yu Tung Mei-lan comments, "Designing a Chinese doll wasn't like picking a Miss ROC, because we weren't going for beautiful looks. We wanted her to be lovable, fresh-natured and typically Chinese."
If her looks were to be typically Chinese, so was her name. "Mei" means plum-blossom, which blooms in bitterly cold weather and is the ROC's national flower. "Lan" means an orchid, which displays its beauty and perfume in isolated valleys. The name "Mei-lan" has a familiar ring and aptly symbolizes the virtues of Chinese womanhood.
Who was to design this typically Chinese doll? Madame Yu Tung Mei-chen remembered meeting the sculptress Ch'en Hui-yen at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1988. "Her exhibition of dough children at play made a deep impression on me."
Ch'en Hui-yen has been making dough figurines for eight years. In 1988 her work was approved for exhibition at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, marking the first time that the humble dough figurine, more commonly offered for sale by peddlers at temples, had gained access to the palace of fine art.
Ch'en Hui-yen had been tempted to abandon this declining and little respected form of folk art, but after being sent by the Tourism Bureau to demonstrate her skills in Europe and America in 1985 she decided to enhance the standing of dough sculpture in the minds of her countrymen.
With warmth Ch'en Hui-yen says, "Dough sculpture has long been looked down on by the Chinese, but to foreigners it is a valuable art form. Queues of people waited all day in front of my stall to watch me demonstrate the process."
For many years Ch'en Hui-yen has put her whole being into creative dough sculpture, resulting in a host of fresh innovations in terms of form, materials and coloring.
Dough sculpture involves molding and carving dough into shape. Ch'en Hui-yen broke new ground by staining her dough figures with pigments used in traditional Chinese painting. She also added other materials to the dough to enable her figurines to last for 20 or 30 years without deteriorating, instead of the normal three months. Other innovations have included introducing a truly three-dimensional feel and experimenting with molds.
In the opinion of Hsia Yuan-yu, an expert on Chinese folk artifacts, Ch'en Hui-yen has transformed the ancient art of modelling dough figurines. She pays close attention to facial expression, physical structure, musculature, old clothing and hair styles, and even details such as eyebrows and eyelashes are painstakingly sculpted hair by hair. This is indeed dough sculpture as opposed to the old dough figure modelling.
The Chinese doll took nearly six months from design to completion. For the first two months Ch'en Hui-yen studied the features and clothing of court ladies in paintings at the National Palace Museum to derive a typically Chinese face and attire. After much discussion and sketching a rough draft based on the final decision, she began work in earnest.
The hardest part of the whole process was modelling the doll's expression. Ch'en Hui-yen recalls it was a big personal challenge for her to capture the unspoilt features of a teenage girl.
But six months of hard work later "Mei-lan" at last made her public debut.
At her first public appearance Mei-lan was kitted out with five quite different costumes.
The first costume, based on bridal dress, includes an elaborate headdress and shows Mei-lan in a mood of happy graciousness. The second costume, that of a Ch'ing dynasty court lady, is sumptuously designed in meticulous detail. The third costume is based on the fashion of the early Republican period, smart but elegantly restrained. The fourth costume consists of a plain blue dress of the early Republican period reflecting ordinary family life of the time. The fifth costume is a cheongsam, originally worn in the Ch'ing dynasty but still popular today, a typically Chinese style of women's dress.
Some people were disappointed that Mei-lan could not move or her clothes be changed. "But we are only at the beginning," says Ch'en Hui-yen. Soon the Chinese doll will be available in porcelain, clay and plastic. Then everyone will be satisfied.
Madame Yu Tung Mei-chen has unveiled plans by the Women's Garden
Art Club of the ROC to promote another Chinese doll called "Lan-lan."she will be a 5-or 6-year-old sister to Mei-lan, ensuring that the doll family will continue to develop.
The main thing is to encourage Chinese children to drop their blond, blue-eyed Barbie dolls in favor of Mei-lan, whom they can dress in costumes of different periods and who can truly become a part of their lives.
Chinese doll "Mei-lan" makes her debut in five different guises.
Madame Yu Tung Mei-chen, president of the Women's Garden Art Club of the ROC, together with Prof. Ch'en Tan-cheng, who picked the name "Mei-lan."
(Left) Ch'en Hui-yen demonstrates her dough modelling art at a spring tea-tasting party organized by the Women's Garden Art Club of the ROC.
(Right) "Mei-lan" won fulsome praise at her debut. (photo by Chung Yung-ho)
Taking an average of 40 hours per doll, Ch'en Hui-yen fashioned "Mei-lan" with just her skillfull fingers and simple tools.
Each of these 18 Lohans has an air of refinement and individuality, exhibiting a charm quite different from that of "Mei-lan." (photo courtesy of Ch'en Hui-yen)