Collecting Chinese Mud MenMany Chinese Mudmen or Mud figures are sold as vintage but buyers should be cautious and closely examine the pictures as well as ask questions to determine the real age of the piece. Many of the pieces listed are in fact recent products from some of the same Chinese centers that created the old-style mudmen from the turn of the century. You may find this guide helpful in determining a vintage mud man from a newer mass produced piece.
Vintage mud figures date for the most part from the 1900's to the mid 1950's. The smallest figures were used as backdrops in fish tanks, bonsai plants, and the larger figures were used in planters, vases, ashtrays or even lamp bases. The older figures take many creative forms including humans in a number of poses, animals, and buildings. Modern figures that are commonly sold today also can be found in these various forms but human figures in the ancient poses are the more common.
Mud figures primarily come from the pottery centers of the Shiwan area in Guangdong Province as well as other regions of China. As mentioned, many of these pottery centers are still operational today and are making the figures in the same poses but with much more concentration on facial expressions and the modern figures are much more refined than the vintage mud figures.
Vintage mud figures are somewhat primitive and are glazed in vibrant blue, gren, purple, yellow, red, and pearly white to name a few. Most of the newer pieces lack these vibrant colors and their clothing and robes are more subtle in color. In addition, many of the older mud figures will have the glaze pooled in heavy globules ar the base, around the feet or in the clothing folds. You will notice almost an oily appearance to the older glazes.
Vintage Mud figures all were handmade from light, dark or reddish clay. Since they were all handmade, no two figures are ever the same. Vintage mud men have holes in the clay for their eyes, ears, nose and thier faces, feet, hands, and any exposed skin is left in the natural clay form. Modern figures extremities are also left unglazed but the clay is quite smooth and uniform in texture --with a more modern figurine appearance.
The usual marking found on the underside or base of these vintage wares is an impressed mark reading "CHINA". However not all of the original figures were marked but as a general rule, look for the CHINA imprint on the bottom in the clay or even up inside the hole in the base. And please be aware that new mud figures also can bear a CHINA mark but it will a more refined mark.
Most older figures have a hole in the bottom of the base that extends up inside the figure. The artists used this hole to form or shape their work around their finger, hand, or stick but as with the CHINA imprint, some figures do not have the potter's hole as it is dependent on the figure's style and base.
There is a legend that these holes were at one time filled with contraband and plugged shut. Once they arrived at their destination, the clay plug was removed or the figure shattered and out came the smuggled goods. In fact, you an sometimes still find a mud figure where the hole has been sealed but who would want to destroy a great vintage piece to find this is only a legend.
It should be noted that many of modern pieces have a solid base or a simple "vent" hole in the base that is smooth and opens into a machine formed cavity rather then the primitive clay finger hole of the vintage pieces.
Many of the newer figures can be seen for sale today in modern department stores or Asian shops and of course on Ebay.