The sweet business of sugar painting

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The Ancient Culture Street entrance, A traditional chinese market in Tianjin (mainland). wikimedia/William M Benson

TIANJIN (Xinhua) – In the ancient Guwenhua Street in north China’s Tianjin Municipality, Zhang Fuhai slowly stirs a box of sugary liquid, scoops some out and paints Peppa Pig on a stone board.

“The waves and the delicate lines of the pig body need to be done by slowly moving the wrist,” Mr Zhang said as he moved the scoop, slowly dripping the liquid to form the outline. “Whenever there is a turning point, you need to stop a little to make sure the lines flow smoothly.”

“I can create almost anything,” Mr Zhang said. “Flowers, birds, fish and bugs, I am familiar with all of them.”

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Using hot liquid sugar to create a variety of figures from famous dramas or operas, or simply animals, sugar painting is a traditional art that is especially popular among young children in China.

The art evoked a sense of nostalgia among the public when a national inheritor was invited to a national Lantern Festival gala last week.

Mr Zhang, 70, is an inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage in Tianjin’s Hongqiao District.

The sweet business was inspired by Mr Zhang’s father, who was also a sugar painter.

“When I was a little boy, the children in the courtyard would beg my father for sugar paintings,” Mr Zhang recalled.

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At age 9, Mr Zhang began to imitate the flowers and bugs his father painted, and would even try to create sugar paintings himself.

“I thought it was fun, but I never expected to become a sugar painter myself.”

In 1966, Mr Zhang graduated from junior school and became a carpenter and part-time tailor, dealing with all kinds of drawings and measurement tools. It wasn’t until an encounter with another sugar painter in 1980 that Mr Zhang made up his mind to join the family business.

“Since 1980, my only focus has been the sugar painting business,” Mr Zhang said. In the years that followed, Mr Zhang would spend days observing crickets, lobsters, crabs and flowers in the rural fields and in the rivers. Years of experience as a carpenter and tailor contributed to his painting skills.

Whenever Mr Zhang tried to create something new, he would go through the process in his mind many times before making his imagination a reality.

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“The liquid sugar is made of honey and crystal sugar and dries very quickly, so it’s necessary to visualise the design first,” he said. Mr Zhang said that while sugar paintings need to be vivid, it is also important to precisely plan the entire structure and the size, as well as the figures’ ability to hold themselves together.

“The paintings need to be good-looking and solid,” he said.

Mr Zhang’s paintings are very innovative. So far, he has created close to 200 sugar painting styles, and he updates all the styles every one or two years.

“In recent years, I’ve added some cartoon characters to my collection,” he said. “If my customers ask me for something I don’t know, I search on the Internet and try to design the styles in my head,” he said.

For now, Mr Zhang is a little worried about passing on the art.

“Few young people are interested in learning sugar painting,” Mr Zhang said. “I hope the younger generation can pay more attention to the intangible heritage; it will sweeten their lives, I promise.”

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