Unveiling the ‘Dolliverse’

These seemingly inanimate figures serve as more than mere playthings. They have become a pathway for young people to delve into an exploration of their identities and expressions.


One of the scenes that Lenz (pseudonym) created for her doll. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY

November 24, 2023

BEIJING – In the universe of doll collecting, young enthusiasts craft unconventional hobbies through creating their own unique and intricate artistry, Meng Wenjie reports.

In the realm of subcultures that captivate the imaginations of young enthusiasts, such as JK uniforms, Lolita fashion, mystery boxes, and hanfu, or traditional Chinese clothing, dolls have emerged as a compelling pastime choice for today’s youth.

These seemingly inanimate figures serve as more than mere playthings. They have become a pathway for young people to delve into an exploration of their identities and expressions.

Cao Yuan, 39, has immersed himself in the doll industry for nearly a decade, specializing in remodeling Blythe dolls. He goes by the nickname “Mr Yuan”, and the dolls he revamps have garnered a substantial following.

He began his career as a doll designer in 2012, at a time when many found it challenging to comprehend an adult man’s daily interaction with dolls. “I’ve observed that in recent years, people have become more receptive toward toys, gaining a better understanding of the doll industry,” he said.

Cao explained that the world of doll enthusiasts revolves around two key pastimes. One is dressing up dolls, including matching their outfits and alternating their hairstyles. “It’s just like choosing clothes for yourself in another world,” he said.

The other is taking pictures of dolls, which can be done either outside when traveling or indoors, where enthusiasts would create different scenes for their toy figures.

At 29, Li Zunyi is a passionate doll photographer. His journey began over a decade ago when he was still a middle school student. Li discovered the exquisite and highly adaptable ball-jointed dolls, or BJD, through a book. To purchase his first doll, Li diligently saved up for over six months.

“I believe it’s worth spending money on my hobby,” Li said, referring to the widespread belief that dolls are costly. “Like those young people who like to go to concerts and travel, we are all in pursuit of happiness.”

Li often crafts minor props and arranges various scenes for his dolls. For instance, while shooting a fitness theme, he once cut out a tiny piece of an adult-sized yoga mat, perfectly suited for the doll.

He also finds joy in attending doll enthusiasts’ gatherings, where discussions on themes like vintage or antique styles lead to collaborative doll photoshoots. In fact, he met many of his friends at these gatherings. “Playing with dolls is a way of socializing for young people with similar hobbies,” he said.

Chen Si, 36, exemplifies the enduring friendships fostered through a shared passion for dolls. Recently, she bought her friend a doll wedding dress and a suit as a wedding gift. “We share a deep passion for dolls. It was through this common interest that we first connected, and we have been friends for years.”

Chen fell in love with dolls in 2012, and three years later, she launched her own doll clothing line called “Little Dream Girl” under the nickname “Xiao Meng”.

When she was pregnant, Chen took a picture with a doll sporting a matching pregnant belly and the same outfit as her own. She also took pictures of dolls next to her newborn baby. “The baby and the dolls were the same size at the time. That image was quite endearing,” she said.

Aesthetic exploration

Lenz (pseudonym), 26, bought her first doll in 2009. She recalled that during high school, she would turn to her dolls and take pictures of them every now and then to relieve academic stress. Additionally, she would create life stories for them, assigning characters and personalities.

“I was able to relax in the process,” she said. “My dolls have always been there for me, accompanying me from elementary school to middle school, through college, and now into my professional life.”

According to Lenz, there are two different kinds of doll lovers: those who see their dolls simply as toys and those who view playing with dolls as a form of interaction akin to engaging with real people.

“The latter group often faces misconceptions and stereotypes, with people perceiving doll enthusiasts as mysterious,” she said. “But in reality, for many enthusiasts, their connection with dolls is no different from engaging in any other hobby.”

For Lenz, her interaction with dolls is a search for her own “aesthetic expression”.Like many enthusiasts, she would alter the makeup and attire of her dolls to give them distinct looks. “Doll lovers are searching for an aesthetic identity in the dolls community,” Lenz said.

Likewise, Li enjoys using dolls as models for his photography since it helps to translate his visions into tangible representations.

“At times, when I can’t get a suitable human model for a photo, dolls become a convenient alternative,” he said. “Moreover, some intricate actions, like simulating flight, can be achieved by the dolls at a lower cost and more easily.”

For doll designers like Cao, his dolls, too, transcend their conventional status as mere toys, becoming carriers of his artistic expression.

Blythe dolls are the type that Cao remodels most frequently. The doll’s head is composed of several main parts, and the front part can be disassembled, allowing for minor adjustments.

“Every slight change will drastically alter the doll’s appearance,” Cao said. “Blythe dolls may seem plastic when they’re fresh out of the factory, but with careful modification, they can attain heightened artistic and aesthetic value.”

According to him, the skills of craftsmen in the doll industry are constantly evolving. In the early days, many designers only focused on polishing and carving the doll’s mouth or nose, but now they are more interested in creating vivid expressions and textures.

In his own creative process, Cao would cover the doll’s face with clay, changing its shape to give it a more textured appearance. His attention to detail extends to the facial mechanics, where he crafts elaborate features, including delicately sketched capillaries on the doll’s eyelids.

These nuanced depictions of emotions in doll expressions are other focal points for Cao.

“I would study candid photos of children that I found online, trying to capture the genuine expressions of real people’s faces in a moment, and then apply them to the dolls,” he explained.

This commitment to authenticity has allowed Cao to establish his well-known brand series in the doll industry, titled “Baopiqi”, or grumpy dolls. This collection features dolls portraying angry expressions with subtle variations.

“I may create 10 angry faces, but each one will be different — whether it conveys anger, blends anger with a hint of grievance, or exudes an aggressive vibe,” Cao said.

Getting started

The community of doll enthusiasts is long-standing, but it remains smaller than other contemporary subcultural hobbies.

Lenz explained that many people still tend to associate dolls with childishness, thinking that “adults should not be playing with toys”.

She also mentioned the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon, where items appearing “almost human” are often perceived as strange or deformed. “Some people find dolls a bit weird,” Lenz said.

However, as the younger generation becomes more accepting of subcultures, an increasing number of new enthusiasts are joining the group.

A commonly held sentiment among enthusiasts is the significance of finding the dolls you really like. “Products in the doll industry undergo continuous updates, urging both consumers and designers to refrain from blindly following trends,” Chen said. “I hope everyone can find joy in their favorite dolls and experience pure happiness.”

Li also emphasized the importance for new enthusiasts to be mindful of copyright issues. He warned of potential pirated dolls flooding the market as it expands, cautioning against sellers replicating molds and selling imitations at lower prices. “Overall, doll enthusiasts are highly resistant to piracy,” he said.

From a designer’s perspective, Cao pointed out the unique challenges faced by the doll industry: many designer products are handmade, distinct from mass-produced toys, so they need a longer production process that demands patience from new fans.

“This may be one of the reasons for the slow expansion of the doll fandom community,” he said.

Cao hopes to see more talented designers entering the industry. “This will lead to more diverse aesthetic designs and contribute to the overall positive development of the industry.”

New prospects

In recent years, there has been a gradual increase in the acceptance and enthusiasm surrounding dolls. “It’s rewarding for designers to witness their creations reach a broader audience,” said Chen, who has observed a notable shift in the doll market.

In addition to curating her own line of doll clothing, she has expanded her horizons by forging collaborations with trendy toy brands.

Many toy brands, such as Pop Mart, have also ventured into the production of BJD or vinyl dolls. These companies boast well-established production lines capable of mass production at a more affordable price, which, according to Chen, is good for the development of the market.

“For people who are not familiar with dolls, there aren’t many doll products visible in the market,” Chen explained.

“But when big toy companies — with their numerous physical stores and wide consumer base — start to integrate into the doll culture to elevate their products, they are able to introduce more people to dolls and the rich experiences associated with them.”

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