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China sculpture boomtown in hard times

Quyang, capital of China's once-thriving sculpture export industry, has fallen on this 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.

"We're hard 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.

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 prices, we've cut workers, 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. "Now we're trying to open up the domestic market. That's how I'll survive."

"I used to sell to Japan, Italy, Russia, all over the world," said Peng Aiyi, a 41-year-old sculpture trader. He has won no orders from abroad so far this year.

"Tastes differ here and some folks find this style a bit strong," he said.

Their skills, now rare and costly in Italy, and the ease of the Internet brought a torrent of orders from Europe and North America. Masons set themselves to mastering the needs of foreigners, cribbing from sculpture textbooks and photos they still use to recreate the Renaissance.

Exports accounted for over 60 percent of sculpture sales from the county and over 90 percent in Dangcheng, said Wang. Exports tumbled sharply in February, falling 25.7 percent from a year earlier, deepening the trade slowdown that had already thrown many millions out of work.

"Business was slowing before the Olympic Games, and then after that it was like all our foreign customers disappeared," said Wang Zhizhu, a mason in Dangcheng.

"I can't change trades. We don't have anything else to do around here. Just stone," said Meng Shulong, a husky 27-year-old mason lounging on the main street of Dangcheng on another slow afternoon.

With work so slow, Wang was told to try and sell a dozen life-size angels and Roman figures that he said a foreign customer decided not to buy.

Managers said they have sacked or sent home half or more of their workers and switched to making only on-order. Workers said they were getting by on savings and taking what jobs came along.

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