WHEN THE CHATTELS of an old China hand went under the hammer at a local auction in 1992, the 2,000-year-old Han dynasty sculptures and Tang horses fetched a few hundred dollars each. However, a lot comprising seven figurines from the Cultural Revolution - a mere 20 years old - went for what was then a staggering $2,700. Interest in Chinese icons from the 1960s to the mid-70s has continued to grow beyond being mere collectors' items. Today, each figurine would cost as much, if not more, as all seven did then. One major recent change has been the inclusion of Cultural Revolution memorabilia - once dismissed as kitsch collectables - in the world of museum-quality fine art, as demonstrated by the figurines included in a recent exhibition at the Chinese University Art Museum of 20th century porcelain from the kilns at Jingdezhen. Ending today, it's one of the first museum shows in Hong Kong to showcase these kinds of works. The target of the Cultural Revolution was to destroy the so-called Four Olds: old customs, old habits, old culture and old ways of thinking. Traditional, world-renowned styles of Chinese porcelain were replaced by figurines of Mao Zedong and popular folk heroes of the time. Cao Ganyuan of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Museum describes these political figurines as 'bringing a new stimulus to the old tradition'. Many people associate Cultural Revolution memorabilia with Mao, although there were many others subjects. A favourite was Lei Feng, a soldier who died when a telegraph pole fell on his head. Another was Zhao Xiahe, a soldier from the village of Dazhai, who held back a fully laden horse from the brink of a cliff. Women idols included Mao's first wife, Yang Kai Hui, who was executed by the Kuomintang in 1930, and intellectual Lau Wuhan. A common theme was educated youth learning from so-called rural re-education. The occasional foreigner makes an appearance, too. Some were supporters of Mao, from other communist countries, especially Africa, or minority groups within China. There were even figurines of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who arrived in China in 1938. Although his stay was short, before he succumbed to a wound received during surgery, he became a revolutionary hero for saving the lives of many Chinese party members and soldiers. Traditional Chinese operas were banned during the Cultural Revolution, and only a small number of revolutionary operas and ballets could be performed, as approved by Mao's fourth wife, Jiang Qing. These focused on the struggle between oppressors, often an evil landlord, and the people. Included in the Jingdezhen exhibition at Chinese University are two characters from The White Haired Girl, the heroine being rescued by a communist soldier. Another grouping are characters from the opera Shajiabang, where two men cower as Madame Sha accuses them of treason. 'Production of the figurines was quite low,' says antique dealer Peter Tang, of Wing Tai Curios in Macau. 'And groups of large figurines, which showed supporters of Mao from other communist countries, were made for government organisations.' Genuine figurines aren't easy to find. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, everybody was angry. People hated Mao, and when the Gang of Four was convicted later that year, most were smashed. Not much exists except for those in private collections. Prices are rising since there are many collectors in Hong Kong, Macau and even the mainland.' In Hong Kong, dealer Szeto Yun has seen prices rise as more local Chinese customers come to his Fine Arts Studio shop in Hollywood Road. He also sells to collectors in the US and Taiwan who've been known to pay up to $40,000 for a special piece. The figurines were mass-produced from a prototype mould, and all are unsigned since potters weren't allowed to personalise their work. With growing demand, fakes flood the market today. It's possible to spot the original ones by the colour of the enamel, which has become dull over time. But Tang says the expression on the faces is an easier way to detect fakes. 'After the communist takeover in 1949, and during the 1950s and 60s, everyone was in a happy mood, smiling and optimistic. Then in the Cultural Revolution, the soldiers and folk heroes wore fervent expressions to show loyalty to the party. This is a good way to tell a genuine one, since the fakes have a softer appearance.' 'Those on display are a very interesting group,' says Peter Y.K. Lam, director of the Art Museum at Chinese University. 'Unlike the pieces from Jingdezhen, they're not as refined. However, these were the only ones to survive since other better quality figurines would have been given away to high officials or sold.' Lam says the trend of collecting Cultural Revolution figurines will continue to drive prices up. Their curiosity value is high because they represent a short but momentous period of China's history. Together with the Han sculptures and Tang horses, their place in history seems assured. Innovations and Creations: A Retrospect of 20th-Century Porcelain from Jingdezhen, Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, today, 12.30pm-5.30pm. Inquiries: 2609 7416. Ends today.