China Travelers Meet Tu’er Ye

Adventures in Ancient China is one of the newest Learning in the World programs at Phillips Academy. During spring break 2019 eighteen students experienced some of China’s most dynamic history and archaeology, along with spicy cuisine, fantastic religious art, and new friends.

After exploring the impressive architecture of Ming and Qing dynasties at the Summer Palace, the Tian Tan, and the Forbidden City we engaged with some of Beijing’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills (including instruments, objects, artifacts, cultural spaces), that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.” This can include oral tradition, performing arts, rituals and festivals, traditional knowledge, and craftsmanship.

Image of Beijing Tu'er Ye artist with figurine.
Beijing Tu’er Ye artist explains how to decorate a figurine.

Students participated in a workshop with a local artist who makes and decorates figurines of Lord Rabbit, also known as Tu’er Ye in Beijing. Tu’er Ye, once worshiped in the pantheon of local deities, was renown as a healer and maker of elixirs.  The moon goddess Chang’e sent Tu’er Ye to use his/her knowledge of medicine to save the people of Beijing from a plaque. Tu’er Ye probably appeared as early as the Ming Dynasty, often as a clay figurine for inclusion in household shrines.

Two students paint ceramic rabbit figurines.
Students paint their own Tu’er Ye figurines.

Tu’er Ye is a rabbit with a human body adorned with the outfit of an ancient general: helmet, scarf, shoulder-draped golden armor, broad belt and big boots, while holding an alchemist’s pestle and mortar. Tu’er Ye figures prominently in the Mid-Autumn festival and the figurines may have become toys to occupy children during festival preparations.

A student shows off her painted rabbit figurine.
The finishing touches–after completing their figurines each student had a nice souvenir of Beijing!

A handful of artists continue the tradition of making and decorating the figurines. Making the Tu’er Ye figurines is one of Beijing’s more than 12,000 intangible cultural heritage items. It was inscribed on the national list in 2014.

Adventures in Ancient China is generously supported by The Schmertzler Fund for Exploration and Experiential Education.

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