A campaign featuring a traditional clay figure is part of a broad effort to imbue President Xi Jinping’s signature “China Dream” slogan — a call for national rejuvenation led by the Communist Party — with traditional Chinese values.

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TIANJIN, China — For nearly three years, a propaganda campaign closely associated with President Xi Jinping has blanketed roadways, construction sites, bus stops and rail stations across the country. Its most popular image is of a clay figurine of a chubby peasant girl in a red smock, her chin resting on her folded hands, her eyes cast upward.

“My Dream,” says the text on the posters and billboards. “The China Dream.”

The campaign is part of a broad effort to imbue Xi’s signature slogan — a call for national rejuvenation led by the Communist Party — with traditional Chinese values such as family and social harmony. The figurine is crucial to the strategy; it is sculpted and painted in a style recognized across China as traditional folk art and it is the product of a renowned family studio.

But behind this slick campaign is one family’s tale of persecution, division and conflicting views on government control of art. The story offers a darker counterpoint to the party’s upbeat message, underscoring longstanding efforts to control art and bend it to political aims. 

“Our family wants to have nothing to do with politics,” said Zhang Yu, 37, a sculptor and a member of the sixth generation of the figurines’ creators. He objects to his family name being associated with the campaign. “We don’t do those sorts of things.”

Changing fortunes

The peasant girl and other statuettes used in the government campaign are products of a studio founded nearly 200 years ago by a craftsman named Zhang Mingshan. Working with the thick yellow clay found in the wetlands that surround the port city of Tianjin east of Beijing, he fashioned figurines of local notables, lovable street vendors and opera characters, as well as historical figures and philosophers. Zhang soon became a national celebrity, earning the nickname Clay Man Zhang.

His descendants carried on the work, building one of the most well-known folk-art traditions in China. Their miniature sculptures resemble the porcelain Hummel figurines collected in the West, and for many Chinese, they evoke a sentimental vision of their country in much the way of Norman Rockwell’s depictions of America.

The dowager empress Cixi received Clay Man Zhang statues on her 60th and 70th birthdays, in 1895 and 1905. The Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek owned pieces. Mao Zedong kept one modeled on a famous literary beauty in his study.

The Communists early on saw the potential of folk art as a tool of propaganda. After taking power in 1949, they set up state-run collectives, schools and studios to control woodblock printers, calligraphy-brush makers and other traditional artists and artisans, interrupting the passing of skills from father to eldest son that had stretched back centuries.

Because of their fame, the Clay Man Zhang figurines came in for special attention from the Communists. Premier Zhou Enlai asked the Zhang family to send one son to Beijing to teach its craft to art students. The family complied, and the son was showered with titles and granted an audience with Mao. In Tianjin, the government opened a workshop and set up classes taught by the head of the family, Zhang Ming, a great-grandson of Clay Man Zhang.

With the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, though, Mao sought to destroy traditional practices, including folk art, as obstacles to socialist progress. Zhang Ming’s descendants say he was beaten by his students, forced to drink buckets of soy sauce and vinegar, and subjected to mock trials for carrying on the family tradition. Other relatives also were attacked, the descendants say, and one committed suicide by throwing himself into a river.

Near the end of the Cultural Revolution, the government reopened the sculpting studio but stripped it of the Zhang name. Zhang Ming was given an honorary title, but he was physically broken and housebound, barely able to climb the stairs without help, relatives said.

After China embraced capitalist-style reforms in the 1980s, the government studio began selling the figurines to the public — and modified its name again, restoring the “Clay Man Zhang” moniker. The government studio also secured the trademark to sell under that name. But the Zhang family was largely left out.

Some family members tried to carry on the tradition and sell their own figurines, but police stopped them and said only the government studio could use the name “Clay Man Zhang.”

“First they beat us, then they stole our name,” said Zhang Yu, Zhang Ming’s grandson, who continues to make the figurines. “How do you think we felt?”

Zhang Ming’s descendants sued the government studio in 1994 and won back the right to use the Clay Man Zhang brand. The court also prohibited the government studio from engaging in commercial activities, but that order was never enforced, not an uncommon outcome in China when state interests clash with the law.

Statuettes for tourists

The government studio still has stores throughout Tianjin selling Clay Man Zhang figurines, and claims to be as much an heir to the tradition as the branch of the family that sued it. The studio management says one of Clay Man Zhang’s grandsons worked there in the 1950s. His granddaughter then worked in the studio as a sculptor in the 1970s and ’80s.

Her daughter, a member of the sixth generation, still works as a sculptor in the studio. She changed her family name from Fan, which she inherited from her father, to Zhang to emphasize the tie to her famous ancestor, and she is now known as Zhang Fanyun.

“What’s the difference between being surnamed Fan or Zhang?” Zhang, 48, asked. “My mother was the fifth generation. I’m her daughter.”

The studio’s figurines are mostly mass-produced outside Tianjin and sold to tourists under the Clay Man Zhang label for the equivalent of about $15 each. Many are simple statuettes of children and animals, though some are of a higher quality and sell for up to $500.

The branch of the family that sued the studio works differently. Its figurines are handmade in Tianjin by Zhang Yu. They are more intricate, and they sell for about $8,000 apiece in the family’s lone shop. Some portray historical figures while others are allegorical depictions of loneliness or alienation.

Still angry about the government’s use of the family name, Zhang pays for a billboard outside the government’s studio that proclaims his branch of the family to be Clay Man Zhang’s true heirs.

He takes a dim view of his distant cousin who works at the studio. “People like her are more and more common,” he said. “She is a model of someone who can’t do anything, but because she has the name, she makes money.”

Zhang Fanyun declined to comment on the feud.

The figurines became part of the China Dream campaign three years ago, after Xi made it the main theme of his administration. According to a 2013 television broadcast celebrating the campaign, the party set out to find images to support their effort. An official with the Propaganda Department visited the government studio in Tianjin and noticed the figurine of the little girl in a display cabinet.

“I felt it represented longing and hope,” said Lin Gang, its creator.

Experts said the campaign is one of the party’s more effective propaganda efforts. “When you see this little girl on the poster, for most people, it is hard to see the political language and propaganda in it,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor of media studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “It feels more like a campaign on morality and social conscience, which is easier for ordinary people to accept.”