Mianhua - The Art Created with Flour
Mianhua is art created with flour. Fermented flour is kneaded into various shapes such as animals, gourds, fruits and flowers, and then steamed and finally coloured.
In Mizhi County of Shaanxi Province, I was fascinated as an old woman kneaded the flour. She cut a small piece of dough and rubbed it several times. First she made a body of a bird. Then she rubbed a small piece of dough into short noodles, pressed them flat, pasted them on the back of the bird and made the wing of the bird with a comb. Finally she made the beak. She had kneaded a singing skylark.
It was even more interesting to see her knead a monkey. She kneaded the flour into a monkey with a hat very quickly. Finally, she put two black pieces of millet on the head of the monkey for the eyes. I calculated the time she took to make the dough sculptures: four minutes for the skylark and six minutes for the monkey.
When asked the origin of mianhua, she did not know. She said that it was handed down from generation to generation. Research says mianhua was related to the customs of funeral and sacrificial rites. Three thousand years ago in the Shang Dynasty, slaves were buried alive with their dead masters. Wooden and pottery figurines were buried with the dead masters instead. Nowadays, when paying respects during the festival for the dead, the Qingming Festival, people in northern Shaanxi Province still keep the ancient customs of watering the graveyard and offering mianhua as sacrifices to ancestors.
Today mianhua is used as a gift. In the home of a person who just got married, we saw mianhua which were sent by his relatives as a congratulatory gift, each weighing two kilogrammes. The mianhua with a picture of dragons and phoenixes was called long feng cheng xiang (dragons and phoenixes show prosperity.). The mianhua in the shape of a chain of locks expresses the hope that the newly married couple will live to an old age happily. Eighteen pairs of mianhua sent by eighteen relatives were arranged together just like an art display of mianhua.
According to a local custom, when returning to her parents' home, a married woman must bring half a basket of mianhua with her. The ring-shaped mianhua presented to her parents and other elders expresses the wish that the elders should have a long life as the ring goes round without the end. The mianhua are decorated with a bat and a sika deer as a symbol for the hope that the couple can spend their remaining years in happiness because the word for bat and happiness are homophonic in China. The word for sika deer and payment is also homophonic.
Mianhua shaped like a rabbit and tiger are given to children, to show the wish that a boy should be as strong as tiger and a girl as lovely and clever as a white rabbit. Mianhua in the shape of birds is used to show that children will be good at singing and dancing like birds.