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.

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 old city. A seventh one is currently being constructed to make way for the city’s explosive growth. Before modernization, the city’s outskirts were only farms and fields.

A view of Beijing's hutongs.
IvanWalsh.com / Reuters

Most of the scenes that Guo and Cui create are of old but ordinary hutong life: In a public bathhouse tucked away in an alley, tiny monkeys are soaking in white-tiled pools of hot water; one hairy monkey is lying face down on a makeshift bed next to the tub, enjoying a back rub; in the resting area, some maohou are reading, sipping tea or enjoying a pedicure. In another display, a door-to-door barber is offering a shave to the monkey. Guo and Cui have even captured the way sanitary workers collect and dispose of the previous night’s waste.

Other dioramas replicate old customs that Guo and Cui say are now disappearing. One of their most elaborate creations—a traditional Chinese wedding—contains more than 30 “monkeys” and took two months of daily work to finish. It shows a bride stepping out of a sedan parked at the doorstep of her groom’s home in the hutongs. The groom and his family stand outside their house to welcome her arrival. A few servants wait in attendance and four play horns, bells up in the air. The relatives on the bride’s side carry dowries.

With only a handful of artists left in Beijing, maohou is a practice that, like the scenes it depicts, is disappearing. Gao and Cui hope that their son Guo Hongtao, 32, who helps them in his spare time, will be as devoted to it as they are, but Cui says that he’s not that keen. Maybe that’s because, for a craft that originated as a joke, it has a lot of rules.

For starters, maohou is not just about skill. People who try to imitate maohou, says Cui, but have never lived the old Beijing life, can copy only the “shape,” not the “spirit” of the art. To be authentic, maohou techniques should be passed down strictly through the family—and to sons only. Since none of Cui’s brothers had any interest in learning the trade, her grandfather made an exception and taught her instead. Her grandfather had inherited the tradition from his own father, a carpenter who made medicine cabinets for pharmacies (all of the ingredients for maohou are used in traditional Chinese medicine). It was at the pharmacy where Cui’s great grandfather learnt about maohou, the first in his family.

In the old days, Cui’s grandfather would sell maohou in the market as toys for kids and as a way to make some money. And at that time, he only made individual maohous—no scenes—glued to sticks. Gradually, maohou transformed into an art and now, selling it is very much frowned upon.

Guo does not come from a maohou-making family. He is self-taught. He met Cui in his 20s when they were both working at the capital’s government housing bureau. She says the two of them went around the city collecting cicada shells during the summer and magnolia buds in the early spring.

“Back then, we would go to the riverside early in the morning and find cicada shells on the trees,” says Cui. “But now, the river banks are covered by stone and cement, so the cicadas can no longer come out of the ground.” (So they have others collect the shells for them from rural areas outside Beijing.)

To find inspiration as a young maohou-making couple, Gao and Cui would stroll through the streets and later, recreate what they saw. Guo used to frequent the public bathhouse depicted in one of his maohou dioramas, but in its place now is a 50-floor office building. Cui recalls that an ancient wall she used to climb as a child was demolished to make way for the city’s second subway line. Although their old favorite hangouts are long gone, Guo and Cui have not forgotten what life looked like back then.

“Many things have already disappeared, but we make maohou based on our memories,” says Cui. “We hope to pass this tradition to future generations and let others know about this authentic art of old Beijing.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • QIANG XIAOJI is a news researcher for The Christian Science Monitor in Beijing. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor for The China Daily and later spent several years working with foreign journalists in Beijing reporting on China for The Economist and Public Radio International’s The World, among others.
  • More By Qiang Xiaoji