China sculpture boomtown goes bust from global slowdown

Wed Mar 25, 2009 8:32pm EDT
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By Chris Buckley

QUYANG, China (Reuters) - Greek and Roman gods languish in crates, Caesars and saints line quiet showrooms, angels watch over an idle street, waiting for the buyers who stopped coming to this dusty Chinese county.

Quyang, capital of China's once-thriving sculpture export industry, has fallen on hard times since the global slump snuffed out orders for the European-style statues, busts and carvings that this barren corner of Hebei province has made its specialty.

Ornate statues of Jesus and Mary, ancient deities and Roman Caesars and generals now far outnumber the workers who chisel and grind away without masks despite the thick dust.

This county 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Beijing flourished by cheaply remaking antiquity, and now it faces its own endurance test during a long sales drought.

"We're just trying to survive until the crisis passes," said Cao Jinming, watching as masons in his workshop finished two reliefs of Christ's Last Supper destined for Europe.

Cao and many residents of Dangcheng Township, the center of Quyang's sculpture exports, bore scarred hands and prematurely wrinkled faces coated with talcum-like dust, the price of a life spent handling stone.

"We've cut workers, we've cut prices, we're making pieces that are simpler. But it's still difficult," Cao said, picking around saints, bishops and busts of the late Pope John Paul II on his floor. "The profit margin has disappeared to near zero."

But if Quyang (pronounced Chew-young) is a microcosm of China's trade woes, it also shows the hardiness likely to help many companies here survive a downturn that would probably force their Western counterparts into bankruptcy.   Continued...

<p>A sculptor works on a statue in an outdoor workshop in the town of Quyang, located 250 kilometres southwest of Beijing March 23, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray</p>