The progeny of China’s handicrafts: Huaiyang bulaohu

By By Ma Zhiyao / 08-02-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Huaiyang bulaohu
The bulaohu (or Cloth Tiger) has been a popular handicraft in China since ancient times. There are many variations on the colorful animal figurine, and it has spread through a wide geography. Its manifold forms are deeply embedded with the ethos of rural China.  

Originating from the worship of tiger totems, the bulaohu and related customs can still be found in rural areas in northern China. In old times, bulaohu were sewed mainly as gifts for children. They were placed either on the top of a wardrobe or kang (a raised platform for sleeping, often constructed with a hollow inside for a fire and built with earth in northern rural China) to ward off evil spirits.
Unfortunately though, because there is little profit to be made from handicrafts versus mechanical production, only a few elderly masters of bulaohu sewing remain in the native place of their craft. Chief among the causes of the bulaohu’s disappearance is the acceleration of urbanization. Greater urbanization has disrupted the patterns of traditional village life, shifting the layout of villages and living spaces.  As traditional culture and folk life is less and less nourished by youthful inheritors, the culture surrounding thebulaohu is confronted with the threat of extinction.
Fortunately, while in a state of endangerment elsewhere, cloth tiger sewing has been thriving for the past century in Huaiyang County, Henan Province. Along with clay-puppy toys, they have become a signature souvenir in the local tourism industry. In Huaiyang County, many stories about the bulaohu have been passed down. Most are related to the ancestors Fuxi and Nüwa. Locals deeply believe that tigers are incarnations of Fuxi and Nüwa; they believe that the ancestor Fuxi will protect children and bring their family peace and harmony. Through the generations, the people of Huaiyang County have always boughtbulaohu at the ancestral temple fair on the second day of the second lunar month—the day that it is believed their acquisition is most effective. The custom has been handed down without interruption, relying mainly on the ancestral temple fair which has been continually held for one hundred years.  The fair lasts for about one month every year, and is attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the country.
Compared with its counterparts in other areas of the country, the bulaohu at Huaiyang Temple Fair are some of the simplest in style and most roughly constructed in terms of handicraft. Price-wise they are comparatively cheap, selling for five, eight, ten, 20 and 30 yuan depending on size. However, their simplicity—their rustic style and unadorned craftsmanship—has survived heartedly, unaffected by the impact of mechanical reproduction and the market. The firm contiguity of the local temple fair culture has been one of the central vehicles for promoting the Huaiyang bulaohu. In addition, the local soil that nurtures bulaohuhasn’t changed. Locals worship Fuxi, hence the emblems of his incarnation are also sought after. 
Another critical factor in the Huaiyang bulaohu’s hearty survival is the local government’s support. If the ancestral temple fair only relied on the local population, it would be very vulnerable to external shocks. Aware of Fuxi culture’s value to the umbrella of overall Chinese culture, the Huaiyang County government has helped to sustain this humble ancestral temple fair. The lively temple fair sparked the public enthusiasm for a return to tradition. Craftsmen have also joined in the ranks, making bulaohu.
Ma Zhiyao is from Feng Jicai Culture and Art Research Institute, Tianjin University
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 434, April 1, 2013.
Translated by Feng Daimei
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