Recreating a bygone China

Source: NYT (8/19/23)
Recreating a Bygone China, One Miniature Home at a Time
China’s rapid economic growth has meant the demolition of countless rural homes, and a burgeoning nostalgia. That’s where the miniaturists come in.
By  (Reporting from the studios of several miniaturists in Hebei and Shandong Provinces)

A wheelbarrow and icebox sit in front of a one-story house with peeling paint on the windows.

Shen Peng painstakingly crafted a miniature replica of his childhood home near Baoding, China. A hairstylist by trade, Mr. Shen taught himself to make the models as a surprise for his grandmother.

Not long after Shen Peng’s grandfather died, his grandmother visited the site of the house where she and her husband once lived. The government had demolished the house, in northern China, nearly 15 years before as part of a redevelopment project. The site still hadn’t been developed, and she could barely walk around the family’s old plot because the grass was so overgrown.

Mr. Shen wondered: Could he help her relive her memories another way?

For more than six months, he labored in secret after his day job as a hairdresser. Finally, Mr. Shen, now 31, presented his grandmother with a surprise — a handcrafted 1:20 scale replica of her old home.

There was the wire clothesline in the courtyard, draped with a blue blanket cut into the size of a postage stamp. There was the rickety bicycle, outside a shed constructed with foam boards and plaster. Mr. Shen had even traveled to the site of the old house to better recreate the fragment of brick wall that still remained.

The project led him into a small but growing community of artists in China filling an increasingly urgent demand: miniature replicas of homes that have been demolished, remodeled or otherwise swept away by China’s modernization.

Shen Peng working at a craft table, surrounded by a tidy array of tools and small jars.

Mr. Shen in his studio in Baoding, China. “If we don’t leave a record, those born after the 2000s won’t have any impression of this,” he said.

Designing and collecting miniatures has long been a hobby in the West. In northern Europe during the 17th century, dollhouses were a way for the wealthy to show off their properties; nowadays aficionados cite reasons ranging from escapism to aspirational interior design. But in China, where artists say the form is relatively new, miniatures have become a way to reckon with a society that has changed at a dizzying pace.

Over the past 40 years, China has transformed from one of the world’s poorest countries into its second-largest economy. The share of city residents has tripled, and vast numbers of Chinese have seen the structures of their childhoods disappear, often through government redevelopment campaigns.

“Nobody would actually want to live in these houses again. Once people have gotten used to nice things, they can’t handle these shabby ones,” Mr. Shen said. But “the pace of life now is too fast. Just because you live in a high-rise doesn’t mean you’re happy.”

The miniatures “offer a kind of spiritual enjoyment,” he said, “when all your material needs are satisfied.”

A hand reaches into a miniature’s courtyard, arranging two small human figurines who sit beneath an orange tree.

A miniature home is prepared in the studio of Li Yizhong, a Chinese artist who once created large-scale sculptures for office buildings and is now one of China’s most popular miniaturists.

Five miniature houses sit on a shelf

Finished houses sit on a shelf at Li Yizhong’s studio in Jinan, China.

The craft remains relatively niche: On Chinese social media, artists with sizable followings number only about a dozen. But the artists’ posts about their creations can amass hundreds of thousands of likes. Mr. Shen has 400,000 followers on Douyin, China’s TikTok.

Their pieces vary by budget and geography. Homes in northern China were often one-story, built from stone or mud, while those in the south were taller and wooden. Some miniatures recreate only a home’s exterior, sparsely accented with details like a tiny chicken in the yard. Others have intricate interiors with working light bulbs and family portraits on the walls.

If the artists are lucky, their clients provide photographs. But often they must work from memories. (Cameras, artists point out, were a luxury until relatively recently.)

That was the case for Mr. Shen as he crafted his grandparents’ house, and then his own childhood home. Both were near Baoding, now a city of nine million in Hebei Province. His grandparents’ house was razed around 2005. Mr. Shen’s father then rebuilt their family home, in a village on the city’s outskirts. Mr. Shen now lives there with his wife and young son.

The idea for a miniature came from another artist he’d seen online, who had recreated his own grandmother’s home. Mr. Shen had little formal art training, but he bought about $3,000 worth of equipment — acrylic sheets, spray paint, various tools for poking, etching and sculpting — and followed online tutorials.

The bricks he ordered, from a vendor of children’s model-house kits, were too big, so he made his own plaster mold, scratching out individual blocks with a pen. To recreate shrubbery, he foraged the mountains nearby for dried flowers. He researched the average height of gates in countryside homes in the 1970s, then scaled down.

Five men sit in front of a patch of empty land, with high-rise apartment buildings in the background.

The site of the now-demolished house where Li Shanshan, a businesswoman in the city of Yantai, used to gather with relatives. The village was cleared in part for a new highway. Ms. Li commissioned a miniature of the old house.

A notebook shows a hand-drawn sketch of a three-story house, while a digital rendering appears on a laptop screen.

One of Mr. Li’s assistants mocked up a miniature on her computer before beginning the construction process.

His recollections determined the level of detail. He left his grandparents’ roof unadorned, having never paid attention to it as a child. But the inside of his childhood home is elaborate. He pasted a tiny portrait of Mao Zedong above the single bed that he had shared with his sister and parents. On an exterior wall, he glued a propaganda banner exhorting villagers to “Have fewer children, plant more trees” — a once-ubiquitous slogan promoting China’s now-loosened one-child policy. (He also took the artistic liberty of hanging up academic awards he hadn’t won.)

“When I was a teenager, I never thought about nostalgia,” Mr. Shen said. “But once you’re at a certain age, with generations above and below you and all kinds of pressure, the past feels more precious.”

Mr. Shen had spent virtually his entire life in his village, but he knew that eventually he would need to move to a city, to give his son better opportunities. “If we don’t leave a record, those born after the 2000s won’t have any impression of this,” he said.

Mr. Shen has turned down commission requests, opting to work only on pieces with which he has a personal connection. But others have made this a full-time career.

Li Yizhong, 40, used to make large-scale sculptures for office buildings and museums around Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, in eastern China. But after a friend requested a miniature of his demolished childhood home as a favor, Mr. Li posted the finished product on social media and found himself flooded with inquiries. He now has more than 1.5 million followers on Douyin.

Li Yizhong sits behind a model house with a thatched roof and a courtyard.

Li Yizhong in his studio. “We’re always afraid to hear the phrase, ‘It just doesn’t feel right,’” he said.

The inside of a miniature model, with rows of school desks and a chalkboard

One of Mr. Li’s models reveals a classroom setting beneath its roof, complete with tiny books and pencils on the desks, and a chalkboard on the wall.

“This is more meaningful” than his previous work, said Mr. Li, who works with several assistants. “There’s more feeling, more warmth.

Each project is an exercise in intimacy and collaboration. At the beginning of the roughly one-month process, Mr. Li sends the client digital renderings of the miniature. Throughout, he confirms details such as the pattern of bricks in the courtyard, and sends photos of his progress.

Some clients adjust their instructions as faded memories come into focus. Mr. Li recalled one prospective client who spent most of an hourlong phone call crying as she reminisced about her old home. Projects for customers without photos are the most challenging, but those are the customers most desperate to regain a vision of their old home.

“Maybe your wall had some cracks, or a mouse burrowed through it, but you don’t remember exactly how damaged it was,” Mr. Li said. “We’re always afraid to hear the phrase, ‘It just doesn’t feel right.’”

About half of Mr. Li’s clients are in their 30s; the rest are older. Most, like himself, were carried by China’s economic boom from the countryside to the cities, finding education and jobs that allowed them to afford nostalgia. Mr. Li’s miniatures cost between $1,400 and $7,000, in a city where the average disposable income for urban residents is about $8,000 per year. He has made about 80 in all.

Younger viewers on social media can find the urge to document these old houses confusing. Some comment disbelievingly on how run-down the houses look. Even some of Mr. Li’s assistants, many of whom are recent art school graduates, said they had little familiarity with the countryside.

A man stands in front of two studio lights and a big screen, while surrounded by miniature houses.

Mr. Li’s assistants help him livestream his miniatures on Chinese social media, for fans eager to see old houses.

A cellphone screen shows a livestream of one of Mr. Li’s miniatures.

Hundreds of people watch the livestreams from Mr. Li’s studio, for a glimpse of the past.

But there are still young people who have experienced, and long for, the older way of life.

Last summer, Lu Qinghuan, now 21, spent one month with Mr. Li as an apprentice, learning to make the Shandong village home where his grandparents raised him.

Mr. Lu had mixed feelings about his own journey away from the countryside, first to a small city for middle school, then to the bigger coastal city of Yantai for a degree in materials science. He was put off by the competitiveness of cities, and he missed his grandfather, an elementary schoolteacher, who had instilled in him the importance of education.

“Today very few young people stay in their hometowns,” Mr. Lu said. This is a natural progression. There’s no way to decisively say whether some things are good or bad.”

He settled on a compromise: After graduating from college, rather than compete for an office job, he would make miniatures full-time.

A woman shows off a miniature house with a red roof and gray courtyard walls.

Li Shanshan with the miniature model of her mother’s childhood home, which she presented as a gift for her mother’s 70th birthday last month.

A close-up of a miniature house, with red roof tiles, green doors and a tiny kettle in the courtyard.

Ms. Li said that relatives debated what kind of flowers had grown in the yard, and discussed whether to add a figurine of her grandfather.

Mr. Lu recently finished one for Li Shanshan, a restaurateur in Yantai, who had ordered a replica of her mother’s childhood home for her mother’s 70th birthday. Her original plan was to build a display case for the $950 miniature, but after she unveiled the miniature to her extended family over a video call, the group erupted with stories. They debated what kind of flowers had grown around the house and discussed whether to order additions, such as a figurine of her grandfather.

Ms. Li, 43, is now considering taking the miniature on a tour to show relatives who live elsewhere in China. “It’s not just something that you look at twice and then leave there,” she said. “Are you kidding? This is my old house. It’s just that I can’t go in.”

A miniature house in the dark, with tiny light bulbs illuminating a dog figurine and a wheelbarrow.

Mr. Shen’s recreation of his childhood home includes working lights.

Li You contributed research.

Vivian Wang is a China correspondent based in Beijing, where she writes about how the country’s global rise and ambitions are shaping the daily lives of its people. More about Vivian Wang

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