Jiangsu Province has as many as 4,000 different folk art products that come in 23 categories -- the very best of their kind anywhere in the country. These exquisite products have taken ancient art as their theme and hope to rekindle an industry in decline. The products include embroidery and woodcut work.
New Year pictures from Suzhou; lacquer and jade carvings from Yangzhou; boccaro pottery from Yixing; silk Jacquard and gold foil from Nanjing; thick and fine-tooth comb and bamboo carving from Changzhou; Huishan clay figures and tie-dye products from Nantong all reflect the skill and mastery of an ancient past. The Jiangsu folk art product is known throughout the world for its long history, exquisite skill and many categories. Last May, the first Jiangsu culture exhibition, held in Beijing, brought great applause.
But since the 1990s the folk art industry in Jiangsu has been in decline.
According to the Suzhou Handicrafts Group, in their prosperity they had employed 14,000 people but now only 2,000 people of their 6,000 employees work in production and management.
In 1994, the Jiangsu government put on the list under protection 40 craft products of which 22 were from Suzhou. But now only seven of them including embroidery, erhu (two-stringed Chinese fiddle), drama garments and props with the Huzhou writing brush amongst other current successful products. The woodcut New Year picture is protected and the jade, carved bamboo-folding fans, sandalwood fans have almost stopped production. The silk Jacquard, pit carving, artificial flower and archaize bronze ware have already stopped production; the stopping of others being only a matter of time.
Cao Yongsen, vice president of the Yangzhou Federation of Literary and Art Circles, said traditional folk art skill faces great problems because of a shortage of craftsmen: some handicrafts facing the danger of extinction. Since the death of Zhang Yongshou, the famous paper-cutting Zhang from Yangzhou has no inheritors. His daughter and two apprentices are already in their fifties and because it has no market they can only do receptions and exhibitions and therefore can’t make their living from it.
The artificial flowers in Yangzhou are so vivid that put together with fresh flowers they can be easily mistaken for the real thing. In the 1960s, artificial flowers were once used as special gifts for visiting VIPs. But since Qian Hongcai, the famous craftsman, died, the only known inheritor of the skill is already over sixty. The craft is nearing extinction.
But there is some good news: traditional forms are making a comeback, through innovation and market prosperity.
Suzhou Embroidery and Innovation Skill
Suzhou embroidery, as one of the 4 famous embroideries in China, has two popular motifs in the cat and golden fish.
The Institute of Suzhou Embroidery, a first-class embroidery institute, says of the craft that “innovation is the best protection” through “combination of tradition skill and modern science and technology”. As a result of applying this thinking to its craft, Suzhou embroidery has become the only Chinese embroidery to create successful economic results.
Zhang Meifang, board chairman and advanced arts and crafts specialist of the institute, said that Suzhou embroidery is the representation of the very best traditional culture in Suzhou. In the last 20 years, the institute has persisted in upgrading the embroidery from “handicraft” to “artwork”. For example, they cooperated with a famous Chinese artist Wu Guanzhong to turn his painting works which often get high prices at auction into embroidery products. Now they have more than 20 embroidery works based on this collaboration.
According to Zhang Meifang, traditional Suzhou embroidery pays more attention to skill than art, and more on detail than on overall impression. To make the embroiders think about traditional skill and make the art more innovative, they have invited first-class artists such as Wu Guanzhong to give lectures which can inspire the embroiders. The new generation of Suzhou embroidery is art work that maybe be seen from the distance and close-up detailed work. In the embroidery exhibition that went on a tour of the Institute’s work at the Fowler Museum of Culture History in the United States, American artists said in evaluation that the traditional skill in China has developed.
Now 95 percent of the market for the artwork from the Institute of Suzhou Embroidery is abroad. However, for Zhenhu in Wuzhong District of Wuxi, embroidery has become a pillar industry with their market being mainly national.
Yangzhou Jade Carving: Flexibility Is Key
Among the eight craft-carving types from Yangzhou (wood, bamboo, stone, brick, ivory, porcelain, paper and lacquer work) only the jade ware and lacquer work still exist as an industry with trends continuing to show popularity. But in the five biggest jade ware factories in China, only Yangzhou is still in complete production and now Yangzhou is a national base for jade ware production.
Cao Yongsen, also the vice president of Jiangsu Provincial Folk Artists Association, said that jade carving is a craft and there are differences among the craftsmen in selecting material and carving skills, so it’s better if one craftsperson purchases, processes and carves the material, even sells it. Yangzhou jade ware factory adopts a relatively flexible system of collective ownership and traditional master-apprentice systems, which suit the character of jade carving production. So this 1950s-founded factory still remains competitive.
According to Cao, improving people’s living standards and the success of the domestic market has allowed 50 more jade carving workshops, 30 in Wantou Town, to be set up in Yangzhou. There are seven to eight craftsmen on average in each workshop, and they enjoy the favorable policy of individual business. These workshops mainly process small jade ware, whereas the Yangzhou jade ware factory has founded a research institute where masters are collected to do artwork that values at more than 100,000 yuan (US$12,100). They divide the market mutually and all this makes a promising industry in Yangzhou.
Huishan Clay Figure Art and Technology
The Huishan clay figure has a history of more than 500 years, but it is just a sideline in local production and does not have a formed industry yet. The Huishan clay figure factory was founded in 1954, but it already faced bankruptcy in the 1980s. The local press reported these difficulties in an article entitled, “How long will it last?”
After Shen Dashou, director of the factory, took the post, the company has enlarged its export and produced more travel souvenirs. They pay designers of travel souvenirs at a rate of 5 to 23 percent of the sum of the total amount sold.
Now 80 to 90 percent of the products are sold to developed countries in the west. Shen Dashou said, “Our export products are all designed by foreign countries. They give the examples to us, and we produce them. The products are not the real Huishan clay figures. They are just produced by technology of the Huishan clay figure. But this way we can make money to support the traditional art form of Huishan clay figures.
The real Huishan clay figures are travel products. Shen Dashou said in the past, at its height, there were 50 craftsmen in the factory and the income was only around 100,000 yuan per year. The incentive rule implemented in 1992 aroused the enthusiasm of designers, and now a dozen designers can make a total income of 1 million yuan for the factory per year.
(China.org.cn by Chen Lin, March 29, 2003)