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Sichuan Candy Pictures, an "Edible Art"

http://www.chinese.cn 10:58, October 22, 2009 showchina.org

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In many city and town fairs in Sichuan Province you can see "candy pictures" being made and then eaten on the spot.

A street peddler with a load on a pole uses yellow sugar syrup to dexterously "draw" all kinds of birds and animals, flowers and plants as well as human figures. He the sells them to eager customers, most being children. Usually before his stand is a circle of onlookers, who admire the bronze spoon as it swirls in every direction, forming all kinds of images; they shout excitedly as the handle of the turntable swings around-candy pictures of different patterns and sizes having left the spoon just moments ago.

This folk art has been handed down among the people from hundreds of years ago in this southwest China province.

This is an art that closely combines the production and selling of its works; iot cannot be revised or preserved. The artists are the street peddlers who will create their works only when buyers are present at the fairs.

First, look at their "tools" for making candy pictures: a pan to boil syrup, a small spoon, a thin flat spade, a kerosene stove, a marble table and straws used to insert candy pictures. Then there is also a turntable that has been painted with flowers, birds, beasts and insects and a rotary hand in the center.

Now, see how they are made.

First, the thick syrup is spooned from the pan, which has been heated with a kerosene stove. So that the sugar will not stick to the pan and burn, a spoon is used to stir it occasionally; then it is directly poured onto the marble table. Pictures are created by pouring the syrup; at this time the copper spoon becomes the paint brush and the syrup becomes the ink. The artist gazes at his work and uses his wrist to move the spoon flexibly over the smooth marble table in all kinds of movements and at different speeds. With wisps of the syrup flowing down the marble table, the images of birds and animals, flowers and insects, fishes and legendary figures present themselves. Immediately he splices a bamboo slip into the candy picture and uses a flat spade to lift it from the marble and passes it to the customer. The whole process can take from a dozen seconds to two to three minutes.

To make candy pictures the artist must have basic skill sin fine art. Apart from a firm grasp of the designs, it is most important to "drill" the hand in creating the images. Because syrup hardens quickly after cooling, the artist cannot hesitate. The designs of dragons, phoenix and fish are many and complicated, and if the artist is not skillful enough and fails to do it in one stretch, he is lost.

Besides, the artist must accurately command the gradations of heating. It is said that in making a candy picture, heating the sugar accounts for 60 percent and making the picture accounts for 40 percent. This is because the ultimate purpose of this art is to let the customer consume the product. If the sugar is underdone, it becomes like bubble gum; and when it is overdone, it turns black and bitter.

It is said that candy pictures first developed in the Tang dynasty and Chen Zi'ang (661-702), a poet from Sichuan, was the founder. He was very fond of eating brown sugar and, before eating it, would heat and melt the sugar and drip it onto a smooth stone slab to make all kinds of patterns, such as small animals, flowers and plants. He stuck them on spliced bamboo slips to enjoy them. Later, folk artists in Sichuan applied the molding method of leather silhouettes and paper-cuts to the art of making candy pictures and developed today's folk art of candy pictures.

Although this art does not appeal to refined tastes and is difficult to preserve, there still are differences in artistry. People who are artistically accomplished, smart and deft may create thousands of varieties of candy pictures that are complicated and striking, such as Two dragons Playing a Ball, A Peacock Flaunting Its Tail, and characters from journey to the West and The romance of the Three Kingdoms as well as modern airplanes, warships and cartoon figures.

This is also an art that gives people joy. In streets and lanes, fairs and villages, there is usually a big assembly of people, old and young, before the stall of the candy picture artist. With only one or two yuan, they are allowed to turn the handle of the turntable and where the handle stops is always a corresponding animal design. The smallest is a snake and the largest is a big golden dragon. The buyer and the onlookers gaze at the handle to see on what animal it will stop. When they see that the handle points at small animals such as a snake or a butterfly, they sigh, and when it points at a big golden dragon or a large phoenix, they cheer. The winner is overjoyed and the artist also shares in the excitement of the customers without being even slightly dejected for having a "lost" a big phoenix, which costs more in time and material.

Candy at a stall, however beautifully it is presented, is still candy and few people would think of buying it. But it is different with a candy picture creation, which has added the components of play and art, and the handicraft master not only hopes to sell out his candy but, equally important, he can display his considerable skill. The candy buyer seems not just to focus on eating that candy but to admire and appreciate the show and experience the atmosphere and fun.


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