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Beijing’s rabbit god returns

Kuang Linhua
Updated: Sep 19,2013 5:01 PM     China Daily

Carrying their rabbit god clay sculptures, the Lucky Rabbit Workshop staff arrive at Dongyue Temple in Beijing’s Dongcheng district on Sept 8, 2013 to prepare for this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival temple fair. Kuang Linhua / China Daily

Though it was on the brink of dying out just a few decades ago, the tradition of sculpting icons for Mid-Autumn Festival is coming back, Kuang Linhua reports.

In a small courtyard in eastern Beijing’s Tongzhou district, Hu Pengfei guides several craftsmen in his workshop as they paint colors onto clay sculptures of the rabbit god, a traditional Beijing folk icon. This is a typical scene at the Lucky Rabbit Workshop every year before Mid-Autumn Festival. With a rabbit’s head and a human’s body, the rabbit god is local to the Chinese capital. It was a traditional folk custom logo of the festival in old Beijing.

Legend has it that there was an epidemic in the city long ago. The Moon Goddess sent her white rabbit to earth to treat the disease. People began to worship him after that, and the white rabbit is revered as the patron god of Beijing.

Hu Pengfei is the founder and head of the workshop. He said the process of making a clay rabbit figurine involves more than a dozen procedures and takes a whole week.

Hu Pengfei (right), founder and boss of the workshop, introduces rabbit god clay sculptures to New Zealand tourists Basil Afreddy and his wife at Hu’s shop in Beijing’s Dongcheng district on Sept 8, 2013.

The craft is very complicated. The craftsmen must have a good sense of control as well as master sophisticated painting skills.

In the old days of Beijing, all the households would put rabbit god sculptures on their altars along with some fruit sacrifices offered to the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival. After that, the clay sculptures would be given to children as toys, Hu said.

The tradition started to decline in the 1950s, and the craft nearly became extinct in the city.

But, in the 1980s, some of the older craftsmen began to revive the custom.

“Today, the rabbit god has become an art form that carries on a culture and tradition,” Hu said.

Hu is from Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, and his family has a tradition of making clay figures.

Although only 31 years old, Hu has been making clay rabbit gods as part of the famous temple fair at the Dongyue Temple during the Mid-Autumn Festival for six years.

He tells the story of the rabbit god to tourists and teaches primary and middle school students how to make the sculpture.

“I am not a Beijing native, but I hope my craftsmanship and enthusiasm could allow more people to experience the charm of the rabbit god and ensure that this traditional culture is passed down to future generations,” he said.

At present, the Lucky Rabbit Workshop produces more than 10,000 sculptures every year. Most of these handicrafts are sold to gift shops.

Wang Juhong, a 30-year-old female craftsman, paints the dress for a rabbit god sculpture at the workshop. Although she has repeated the same procedure numerous times, she said the work is not boring because she could “see such various bright colors every day”.

In addition to making the statues in the traditional style, the workshop also innovates and develops new sculptures such as rabbit goddesses and rabbit babies, which combine fashion with tradition.