Tile cats, known as “wamao” in Mandarin, are traditional clay roof ridge beasts prevailing in northwest Yunnan’s Dali area.
The Bai people who dominate the local ethnic population, for long, believe that the fierce-looking cats are auspicious items which can bring households with enduring safeguard and wealth. Recently, these gargoyle-like statuettes have been made into souvenirs by Su Longxiang, a native-born clay sculptor, and enormous popularity has been gained among tourists ever since.
As a regional variation of many mythical ridge beasts that can be found across China, they – normally crouching on rooftops of those white residential houses typical in Dali – are characterized particularly by their round and staring eyes as well as huge and opening months. Despite of being regarded as a symbol of good luck, tile cats have gradually faded out from the public sight during the dramatic urban renewal and transformation in recent years. This is why Su was determined to turn these seemingly outdated and sometimes even formidable objects into creative cultural products.
Born in Fengyi township of the Dali autonomous prefecture of the Bai minority, Su took over the job of making clay sculptures from his grandpa at a surprising age: 10. And now, he is recognized by the province as an inheritor of intangible cultural heritage.
Tile cat is definitely not a simple artifact to make. To begin with, wet clay has to be blended with some amount of sand to increase its viscosity. This could effectively prevent clay from being cracked in kilns later, and is thus considered an ideal method to make tile cats. Then, Su would take a big lump of clay and press it with palms and fingers until it gets completely flat – as the base for a statuette. Once this is done, the sculptor is able to work carefully on the limbs, eyes, mouth and other details of the cat. A quality and elegant tile cat is marked by the materials being employed, as well as its shape and style created by artist.
Now, Su’s works – all themed elements of tile cat – range from pen containers to tea sets, from incense burners to dolls. These artifacts drew considerable attention on the 2019 Creative Yunnan Culture Industries Expo being held in early August. “My pavilion was always surrounded by crowds during the expo, and I was totally impressed and encouraged by this,” said Su Longxiang. “Tile cats are not simply guardians for the Bai people’s courtyards; they can be accepted and loved by many more.”