Beijing's Monkey Business

A Simian Craft to Capture Disappearing Traditions

A folk artist holds up a display of maohou, a Chinese folk art using cicada shells and other Chinese medicinal ingredients to create a monkey figurine, October 28, 2006. Reuters

Over a century ago, during the Qing Dynasty, a young store clerk working at a pharmacy in Beijing decided to play a joke on his boss. One evening, he took items from around the shop—cicada shells, magnolia buds, and other Chinese medicinal ingredients—and glued them together to form a monkey, only one-inch tall. And the art of maohou, which literally means “hairy monkey,” was born. At least that’s the story told by longtime maohou artists Guo Futian and Cui Yulan, and the handful of others who engage in this craft.

Guo and his wife Cui, both in their 50s, have created more than a hundred dioramas using an array of these magnolia and cicada monkeys. They work in a 100-square-foot studio in Shichahai, a historic neighborhood northwest of the Forbidden City. Both Guo and Cui are retired and run their studio full-time, giving lectures and teaching others how to make their own furry monkeys.

As Guo explains, making the monkey is the easiest part. “You dissemble the cicada shell very carefully, using the cicada mouth to make the monkey’s head, two cicada legs to make the arms, and the pair of big claws that cicadas use to cling to tree trunks to make the legs,” he says. “The difficult part is creating the scenes.”

Maohou arrangements cannot depict just anything, at least for traditionalists like Guo and Cui. For them, they must capture Beijing as it was decades ago, before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s and 1980s stripped the city of its hutongs—neighborhoods filled with rustic grey-tile roofed houses. Over the decades, thousands of these hutongs (roughly two-thirds of the total) have been demolished to build bridges, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and shopping malls. Guo and Cui have lived in Beijing all their lives and have barely travelled outside of the second ring road, a rectangular beltway built in the 1980s around central Beijing, with an area roughly equivalent to the size of the

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