China's artists have a hard time making ends meet, but if there was an award for "selling refrigerators to Eskimos," Ye Shuguang would be a top contender.

Past the sprawling Capital Iron and Steel Works and just before the Fragrant Hills rise out of the flatlands of Beijing, Ye is building a castlelike residence where he is modeling himself after a Renaissance art master.Inside, trucks deliver boulders from which this 34-year-old reclusive eccentric and his 50 apprentices hope to build fame and fortune - by selling European statues to Europe.

Ye is a sculptor. His figures in white and black marble stand, lie and crouch around the grounds of the "castle" - abstract shapes, imperial lions, traditional Chinese deities and, looking over them all, Venus de Milo.

"Yes, European companies are very keen. They've ordered quite a few," said Ye, stroking the head of his copy of the classical Greek beauty, her arms shorn off.

A Belgian firm, Galerie Saint Antoine, has ordered 100 statues - both Western classical and traditional Oriental - and he hopes a Spanish firm will sign a contract soon.

Ye has been in business for only six months and, as his experience in the art world taught him, creativity in China can be just as much a problem as an asset.

Unhappy with his treatment at the Tianjin Art Institute, where he was a teacher, Ye left to be independent. Elderly superiors had hindered his promotion for fear their pupil was outshining them.

"You know how it is in China," he said.

Ye borrowed $135,000 from banks, using farmland on the western outskirts of the capital leased by a rural collective as security. He has hired 50 young men and women and is teaching them the art of sculpture - from sketches in studios to outdoors where they chip and chisel statues for export.

Their workmanship is cheap and their quality almost as good as abroad, Ye said. For a four-foot Venus de Milo, taking 50 days to make, he earns $950.

Business is not straightforward in China. The Foreign Trade Ministry introduced the Belgian and Spanish companies to Ye. It also sets the price for his statues and pockets the takings.

Instead of francs and pesetas, which could be used to buy scarce goods, Ye is given Chinese yuan, which cannot.

"They limit your profits to 20 per ent. They calculate everything. They know everything - our wages and investment, everything," Ye said with a smile.

"All we get is yuan," he said laughing. "Their profits are a secret."

To escape this state-controlled network, Ye and his partners are looking for a foreign firm to set up a joint venture that would allow them to trade directly with the outside world.

Unlike many Chinese artists who have left their homeland to develop their talents, Ye decided to stay. His first love is not copying Chinese or Western classics but creating his own abstract work which, for the moment, he is reluctant to sell.

"We want to introduce Eastern art to the West and at the same time promote our creative work. Selling Western-style sculpture is just a way to make money," Ye explained on a tour of his grounds sandwiched between smokestacks and hills.

"We're feeling our way along. You know how it is in China."