One Mud Man Collector's Journey
As a small child, I became fascinated with these uniquely handmade mud figurines. In the 1940s, my father gifted four mud men to my mother, when she was a new bride. She treasured them for years and kept them on a display with other orientalia.
Nearly 25 years ago, my mom gave them on to me, much to my delight! So began my journey into the wonderful world of mud men! Throughout my travels, I scoured antique shops and flea markets from New York to Los Angeles, Key West to Seattle, Dallas to Chicago and all points in between. My passion grew as I discovered that few knew or understood what these finely crafted mud figurines were or their history. Little could be learned. There was virtually nothing written about them. Folks were thrilled to tell me the stories of how they came into possession of these treasured figures - most often they were passed on in the family or discovered in an old, dusty antique shop, a flea market or estate sale. Everyone always asked if I knew anything more about their origin. I always shared what I knew and this only fueled my desire to learn more.
Not one to be discouraged and being a persistent soul, I never gave up seeking more details and information about the history of mud men figures. As luck would have it, I discovered eBay in its infancy and also found other mud collectors in these bid wars. One of my bidding competitors, a gentlemen from North Carolina, was kind enough to share his knowledge with me. His father, who also had a personal interest in mud men and women, had owned an antique shop, which is unfortunately now closed, and he collected numerous mud figures over the years to sell in his shop.
Now, I'm sure you're thinking, "eBay?! I'll go to eBay and buy mud figures!" You could do that, but you won't find many, if any, vintage mud men and most of what is for sale have major chips or broken off hats, feet or hands. The opportunity has long since passed to find quality mudware on eBay. The majority you'll find on eBay are the newer Shiwan manufactured figures of little value being passed off as old mud men and aren't vintage mud figures at all. They have virtually no detail in their features, are generally expressionless and have very little color. These are manufactured from mass molds. Fair warning! Don't be fooled.
So, if you don't already know, I'll bet you're thinking, "How can I tell the 'real thing' from the fake?" Well, in reality none of them are "fake". The newer ones just have no value for the serious collector. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let's learn a bit of history.
The Shekwan ceramics are commonly known as mudware, mud figures or figurines, mud people, mud men, mudd men, or mudmen.
Over 1000 years ago, Chinese artisans during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), were creating landscape bonsai, miniature landscapes in a tray, a practice known as Pen'Jing. To capture the realism of a favorite countryside or mountain scenic view, the artists added rocks and planted small trees in a large ceramic tray to simulate the panorama on a smaller scale. These were intended to invoke a harmonious feeling to the viewers.
In an effort to capture the illusion, the Chinese artisans used figurines of people, animals, huts and temples, which gave an appearance of great age and size to the miniature forests. Figurines have had a place in bonsai as a visual contribution. Penjing, nearly a lost art form, is experiencing a revival in modern day China and is once again popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.
The prosperous Manchurian Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912) began declining at the end of the 18th century. The successful export market for fine china was impaired by excessive competition for the wares. Pottery and figurines dominated the Chinese export trade well into the next century. Mud figures thrived, as they were different from ordinary figurines. They were made individually by hand and involved nearly all members of the village. Mudmen were brightly glazed figurines of men, women, wise men and old sages, seated or standing, holding flutes, scrolls, pots, fish and other objects of mystical importance or sometimes fishing. After completion of the rice harvest and the dry season set in, villagers turned to figurine production to stimulate the economy.
For smaller ones, the artist just picked a small piece of mud and in no time made a figurine out of it by using their two fingers. For the average-sized figure, the 'mud' or clay for the figures was pressed into a mold by hand. Each part was individually molded and assembled by various crafters at the appropriate time -- thus, the varying degrees of quality in the pieces. Once the torso was removed from the mold, the extremities -- head, hands and legs or feet -- were added, along with the hair, hats, beards and other items. To add further detail, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced. Then the entire collection was fired in a kiln to cure the clay. Fingerprints can often still be seen, immortalized in the fired clay.
Each mudman was hand painted with a low temperature lead glass glaze in yellow, blue or green glaze with the occasional use of white or brown. The face, hands and feet were left unglazed to expose the natural color of the mud. The rocks, shoes or sandals were painted with a dark brown, almost black under-glaze, that was often used to paint hair and facial features as well. Occasionally the rocks were painted a red oxide or yellow ochre.
In the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, mud figures continued to be produced in South China, with the exception of the popular water carrier, which originated in Jiwah, near Hong Kong. The smallest figures were used as backdrops in fish tanks or bonsai, while the larger figures were used in planters. The exceptionally large muds were sometimes made into lamp bases.
The larger figures can be found at Stone Bay of Kwangtung. These figurines can cost thousands of dollars if they are made by the masters. Today, the antique mud man is a highly collectible item. Surviving examples were showcased in a large exhibition at the Hong Kong Fung Ping Shan Museum in 1979 and at the Chinese Culture Centre in San Francisco in 1994. Mud women are much rarer to find. I have been fortunate enough to collect several.
The following is a brief summation about the mud man mystery from a Mr. Ping:
"Most mud figures are manufactured in South China, in Kwangtung Province, in the town of Shekwan, which lies in one of the many waterways within the delta of the Pearl River, an area which long has been a centre of numerous Chinese crafts, ranging from paper-cutting to the manufacture of New Year lanterns.
The manufacture of ceramics is an ancient industry in Kwangtung Province of China; indeed, many of its archaeological sites actually contain kilns dating between the Neolithic Age (4200-3500 BC) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1744). Late 7th- and 8th-century ceramists in northern China, working primarily at kilns at T'ung-ch'uan near Ch'ang-an and at Kung-hsien in Honan province, also developed "three-color" (san ts'ai) pottery wares and figurines that were slipped and covered with a low-fired lead glaze tinted with copper or ferrous oxide in green, yellow, brown, and sometimes blue; the bright colors were allowed to mix or run naturally over the robust contour of these vessels, which are among the finest in the history of Chinese pottery.
Some time between the Tang and Sung periods (960-1279), the town of Shekwan began to go commercial, undoubtedly the result of the opening of Canton to foreign traders. As time went on, enormous amounts of utilitarian pottery began to be produced: cooking utensils, dishes, and jars; and soon, to appease local demand, more decorative figures which later became known as Shekwan ware. It comes in a wide variety of glazes with many interesting names: among these are: sour carambola (mottled purple-red), raindrops on the wall (blue with white drippings), and sea mouse (pale blue and shiny green).
Today, the Shiwan Artistic Ceramic Factory (est. in 1952) carries on the figurine production established in the Ming Dynasty. Hundreds of people are employed, of whom two thirds are women. Employees work 8 hours a day, making an average of about $60 a month, although sculptors make more. Production of the factory today is composed largely of figurines of people and animals, with some miniatures and tableware. More than 2 million pieces are made each year, of which 60 percent are exported, mostly to the rest of Asia. Because the clay is so plastic, many of these figures can be modeled in incredible detail; hence, different kinds of figures have different expressions with which we can identify them. A god or a general is usually dignified; the drunken Tang Dynasty poet Li Po is usually depicted lifting a glass to the moon. Arms and legs are usually modeled quite powerfully to give an impression of quiet strength - you will notice these most particularly on the good-looking fishermen.
In the early 1950s, the Chinese export companies began a new era of mud man production that continues today. However, the newer figurines lack the expression and individuality that only a handmade item can convey, all of the experience and talent that went into the original, is lost in the mechanized world of capitalism, and for that matter, pales into comparison to the character and aesthetic beauty of the turn of the century mudman. Most of the newer figures are of the smaller size and are commonly used in bonsai or fish tanks.
There are also other mudware pieces that might interest you that would make a great addition to your collection to complement your mud figures, such as ducks or containers. Please be aware that there are many levels of quality available for these Chinese figurines or mudware.
If you already know what to look for, jut Go Shopping for Mud Men Figures.
Read on below to learn about authenticity . . .
Here's what to look for when examining potential vintage mudware:
details, size, chips, repairs, crazing, color, markings.
On a more obvious note, the greater detailed features, the more likely the mud figure has been made by a master artist, rather than a student. If you're just starting out your collection, take your time looking at the hair, face, limbs and the creasing in the clothing, as well as any object the mud man or woman might be holding. More details indicate a higher value.
As to the size, the larger the mudman figure, the more valuable it is. Simple as that. Occasionally, you may run across a mid-size mud man that is unusual because of what the figure is doing, which will make it more valuable. For example, you won't find as many mud men sitting on the "ground" as you will fisherman sitting on a stump. Even though the mud man sitting on the ground isn't as tall as another, depending on its condition, it may well be more valuable. Mudman figurines range from 2 inches to 18 inches, and sometimes larger. The most popular export sizes were from 4 inches to 7 inches, mainly due to the available retail shelving space.
Any chips or broken edges may not detract much from a mud figure's value, unless it's a large chip, broken off hat, hand or foot. These can be repaired by an expert, who are few and far between. If you have a mud figure that needs repair, it may well be worth the expense; however, if it isn't done properly, it will definitely reduce the value of the mud man. Poor repairs can be seen under a "black light". It's a good idea to carry a small black light with you when shopping for mud men out in the world. It's still not uncommon to find them in good condition with very little damage or no repairs, and sometimes in mint condition.
Crazing is a network of fine cracks. In modern day ceramics, crazing is considered a problem. It may be as a result of firing methods or body material and glaze combinations. If you are purchasing new mud men and find crazing, then poor workmanship is the cause. This is not the case when examining older mud figures. You can expect to find some crazing on the older Chinese Shekwan ware. It is simply due to age. Not all of the older mud figurines have crazing, however, and this should speak to the quality of the master artist's work. Also, the face and limbs should not be glazed, just the clothing and other items.
Common colors of mud figures are yellow, blue green, brown and sometimes white. Some of the browns look reddish. Color "runs" are not uncommon and this would occur if the bright colors were allowed to run over the contours of the figure's robe, for example. The differences in the mud color account more for the region than for the age of the piece. The darker muds were dug from the lower valleys where soil impurities and water runoff have tinted the clay. The mud color can range from a dark gray or brown to a buff or peach and even creamy white, used more often than not for the mud women.
The age of antique mud men can be verified by the markings, or lack of markings, incised on the bottom of the figures. It's unlikely that you will find anything older than from the late 1800s, unless you're dealing with upper-end collectors and museum quality work. That's okay, because the mud figures identified from around 1900 are very collectible and valuable. Always check the underside of a piece, if it is not attached to something. Attached to something? Yes, you will find mud men attached to bonsai settings, bookends or lamp parts.
Imports into the states had to have the point of origin plainly stamped, so the pottery stamps can actually date the piece. If a mud figure has an indentation or a black or red stamp with "CHINA" (sometimes the "N" is backwards) or "HONG KONG", then it is from c. 1890 - 1919. Those figurines stamped with "MADE IN CHINA" or "MADE IN HONG KONG" date from c. 1920 - 1944. Occasionally you'll find "MADE IN CHINA" or "CHINA" stamped in red ink, dating from the late 1940s. I believe those that only show the "CHINA" in red ink from the late 1940s should have been stamped "MADE IN CHINA" and are few in number and may simply be a result of improper stamping (only part of the stamp being placed against the edge). From 1952 on, the mud figures have a stamp and a number.
Occasionally you'll come across a mud man with no markings. Travelers or missionaries to the orient would purchase the mud figures at local markets and carry them home. These were not stamped, because they were not for importation. Also, you may find some pieces signed by the artist.
The absence of the original mud man figure from Chinese export markets after World War II have some collectors believing that the earliest molds, along with the kilns, were destroyed by bombing raids. It has also been suggested that the kilns used for pottery were converted to weapons manufacture to help counter the Japanese invasion prior to the war and were destroyed by enemy soldiers. The molds were lost as well, never to be recovered.
With the original molds lost, you can identify the newer mud figures (1952 forward) by a fairly smooth underside with a round hole. On the other hand, because this is not an "exact science", it is possible that an older piece may have the same appearance, depending on other factors. If the bottom is open all the way around and has a thinner edging, it has been handmade. This means it is a true antique mud man and did not come from the newer molds. Sometimes you'll find older mud figures that have been filled in, when they were used in bonsai arrangements and later removed.
As I said, this is not an exact science, and unless you were a fly on the wall, watching the master or student create the mud figure, you may never know the exact age of a piece without years of experience. If you can't determine the age and you really love the look of a mud man or woman, then it really doesn't matter. Just enjoy the exquisite beauty of the art, knowing that some master artist or student took pride in creating it.
If you, or someone you know, is knowledgeable about Chinese Shekwan mud figures and would like to share additional information here with our other passionate collectors, please feel free to contact me. I have been flooded with requests, so if you are interested in having me view pictures of your mud figures to determine their authenticity and potential value, a fee will be charged for this service. Refer to the Contact page. Only serious inquiries, please.
I have moved out to the country and will soon start sorting through my collection of mud figures. I will be putting some up for sale in the next few months. You might be wondering why I would ever part with my mud men collection. Well, I'm not . . . really, only part of it. I have many more than I can display and do justice to the beautiful mudware. I felt it was time to share some of these wonderful vintage mud man figures with the rest of the world, so that they may be displayed as they should be.