Sweet Art Shining on Smooth Slab

Authors: Feng Lanqin


Every sugar painter is a sweet art creator: the spoon his brush pen, the sugar his ink and the marble slab his paper.
The old man, slightly leaning forward, fixes his eyes on the pattern on the marble slab. A thread of melt sugar trickles down from the bronze spoon in his hand and drops down on the marble slab, gradually takes shape of a dragon.
With an experience of sugar painting for over 30 years, Zhang Daocheng is one of the best-known sugar painting artists in Chengdu and one of the city’s accredited inheritors of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). He sells
sugar painting at the in Kuan & Zhai Alleys in downtown Chengdu. He has been to many foreign countries, including Japan, Singapore and the US, in various art exchange activities.
The typical sight of Zhang at work will present the old man sitting in a bamboo chair before a table, on which there is a wooden board painted with various patterns, such as dragon, bird, dog, rooster, butterfly, flower basket and so on. A pot with boiling sugar by his side, Zhang holds up a spoon of melted sugar and without perceivable movement of his hand. He is intent on the creation of the “sweet art”: the spoon his brush pen, the sugar his ink and the marble slab his paper.
An iron stick stands up at the center of the board and supports a pointed bamboo slip. A quick flick of a finger will set the slip into rotation before it stops with the pointed tip rests above the section of the pattern it indicates. The customer (often a kid) pays and pushes the slip, and takes away a sugar painting work as indicated by the section the slip points to.
Sugar painting stands can be found in most of the parks, ancient towns and scenic spots around the city.
Unique for its producing materials, sugar painting is very different from other art forms. First, since the liquid sugar will soon solidify when it cools down, the painter must work very quickly; second, the pattern must be completed without any stop and the painter must follow the continuous lines of the pattern and concentrate on his creation.
The vivid image of a completed sugar painting, arranged on the bamboo skewer that is placed on the board beforehand, is separated from the marble with a shovel wrapped up in the transparent plastic bag.
Most kids would receive with delight the sugar painting, a sweet, shining art work of golden brown.
Being an item of the national intangible cultural heritage, sugar painting (Tang-hua), also known as Inverse Sugar Figure, Inverse Sugar Cake or Sugar Light Figure, is a traditional Chinese folk art using hot, liquid brown sugar, malt sugar or white sugar to create 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional figures, which can not only be eaten but also be taken as an art work.
Sugar painting has a history of 400 years and is said to originate in Sichuan. Academic studies indicate that the art originated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when sugar animals and figures were molded to be presented as sacrifice in religious rituals. It was in the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) that sugar painting gained popularity. The production techniques were improved and more patterns appeared, most of which were auspicious symbols, such as fish, monkey and dragon.
Folk artists in Sichuan have greatly contributed to the development of the art by incorporating techniques of Chinese shadow puppet and Chinese paper cutting, by using the bronze spoon instead of the mold and so on.

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