Handicraft enthusiast Tang Ren is unhappy-physically as well as emotionally. The problem? His teeth, or rather, the story behind them.
When told he had to replace two missing upper incisors with artificial teeth, he was happy that they were to be the work of an eminent ivory engraver with the Beijing Handicrafts and Art Factory. However, when he asked his dentist to arrange a visit to the factory, he was told it was bankrupt.
Tang, 44, still remembers the glory days of the factory in the 1970s and 1980s when, as the nation's largest handicraft manufacturing base, it housed 14 Chinese traditional handicrafts. Tang told Beijing Review about the pride and joy that shone from the eyes of Zhang Tonglu, handicraft master and former head of the factory, in a television show as he talked about the reputation the factory once enjoyed. At that time, when visiting foreign heads of state met Chairman Mao Zedong or Premier Zhou Enlai at Zhongnanhai (seat of the State Council), their families' visit to the factory was common.
"Even the princess of Thailand had learned embroidering skills here…" said Zhang proudly.
Beijing handicrafts and art have been in decline for years. Statistics from Beijing Society of Handicrafts and Art show the number of handicraft and art practitioners has decreased from 1,600 in the 1950s to less than 1,000 last year. Many state masters, even in good physical health, are approaching senility. With a number of consummate masters bidding farewell to their craft, some genres of traditional handicrafts are close to extinction. Zhu Hong, Secretary General of the Beijing Society of Handicrafts and Art, cautioned it was time Beijing's traditional handicrafts looked at alternative ways to survive.
Zhang Tonglu of the Beijing Handicrafts and Art Factory has been recognized as the No.1 expert in Jingtailan art ware, or the art of cloisonné enameling. For instance, the Lucky Goat Lamp, the factory's representative work embedded with more than 300 pieces of precious stones, was completed under the instruction of Zhang. The artwork integrates a variety of skills characterizing Jingtailan, jade engraving and woodcarving.
The craft of Jingtailan got its name after Emperor Jingtai (1450-59) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when craftsmen created a beautiful blue ceramic glaze that became very popular.
Beijing's Jingtailan art ware is unique. "Jingtailan craftsmen in Beijing used to serve the royal family exclusively and make all wares for their daily or ritual use," said Zhang. There were two types of Jingtailan art ware then: one for ritual ceremonies-solemn and of primitive simplicity-and the other for daily use, which were exquisite, luxurious and full of enjoyable details.
According to Zhang, the original blue of Jingtailan was different from that seen today. This is not because of any trade secret behind the production of the ceramic glaze, but owing to greater experience in, and good command of, firing methods and duration.
After the factory announced bankruptcy, which led to the exit of some 500 experienced Jingtailan technicians, Zhang started his own company, employing about 20 of his former colleagues.
Carved lacquerware is a popular handicraft and a sought-after tourist souvenir. Currently, there are only five renowned masters in this field in the mainland, including Wen Qiangang. Wen oversaw the work of the Hua Hao Yue Yuan (meaning perfect conjugal bliss) grail which was sent as a gift by the Beijing municipal government to the Macao Special Administration Region upon its return to the motherland in 1999.
The handicraft originated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and became popular in the Ming and Qing (1368-1911) dynasties. Enjoying equal fame as cloisonné enameling, carved lacquerware is reportedly produced only in Beijing. There are two steps to this craft: first is to paint or daub the roughcast with natural lacquer to a certain thickness and then to engrave some design into the lacquer.
Beijing carved lacquerware is divided into two groups based on different roughcasts: metal and non-metal. The roughcast is covered with several dozen to several hundred coats of lacquer, which take anywhere between a month and a year to finish. The base colors are usually yellow, green or black, while vermeil is often used for the cover coat. Landscapes, flowers and figures are all design inspirations for the engraving.
The craft is quite complex and includes a dozen procedures such as the making of the roughcast, enamel firing, painting of the base colors, engraving and polishing.
"A 30-cm-high vase is usually covered with at least 5-mm-thick lacquer, or at least 80 coats," explained Wen. And the engraving for a vase will amount to tens of thousands of cuts. A one-meter-high vase in his studio, for example, has taken him four months to paint and another four months to engrave.
The craft of inlay filagree belongs exclusively to Beijing and refers to the technique of embedding fine, twisted wires of gold and silver with pearl, jade or other precious stones.
Ma Peijian, one of Beijing's grade-three industrial art masters, said, "With excellent filagree skills, one is able to stretch the wire to as thin as a hair and carve in it patterns without breaking it."
One representative work is a 24-cm-high gold crown excavated from Ding Ling, one of the 13 Ming Tombs in Beijing. It is woven from extremely thin gold threads, as thin as voile. The top of the crown is embedded with a pearl surrounded by a vivid dragon.
Most of the filagree craftsmen live in Tongzhou District and have to change professions after the Beijing Filagree Craft Factory and the Beijing Handicrafts and Art Factory went into bankruptcy in succession.
It is reported that Ma is the only craftsman who accepts orders for filagree art ware now in Beijing, as well as the only one conversant with all the procedures involved.
Orders are basically for filagree gold or silver tea trays or cups. But as such work does not call for much skill, Ma longs for times past. He worries that he might not be able to use his skills for exquisite works, especially as he gets on in age and his eyesight becomes weak. He anxiously hopes that the government would take action and reassemble craftsmen to make elaborate filagree works.
"First it will be a good chance to train more practitioners, and second, it will help those skills very difficult to command to survive," said Ma.
Zhu Hong pointed out that it was no exaggeration to say that many handicrafts would be lost to posterity. The Intertwine Golden Carpet now housed in the Imperial Palace, for example, is a representative work of Beijing handmade silk carpets, a tedious craft that only a master can comprehend. Another handicraft on the verge of extinction is glass blowing whereby hot glass is blown into different animal and human shapes with clear and vivid facial features. Currently, less than five craftsmen in China are competent in this craft, with the youngest, Xing Lanxiang, already 60 years old.
"I have retired for years as none of the young generation takes interest in this craft," said the bitter lady.
A Fresh Initiative
Located in Chongwen District close to Longtan Lake, Beijing Baigongfang is a newly established culture industry enterprise. With a staff of over 100 consummate masters and their disciples, Baigongfang has been entrusted with saving 17 handicrafts, to enable the survival of Chinese traditional handicrafts into modern times.
The establishment of Beijing Baigongfang is a move on the part of the Beijing municipal government to implement a proposal for the protection of Beijing traditional handicrafts and art. Besides Baigongfang, the municipal government is also planning to build a garden of stone carving works in Fangshan District, taking advantage of its rich reserves of white marbles.
"Baigong" in Chinese is a collective term referring to handicrafts and comes from a book on handicraft skills of 2,000 years ago. The founding of Beijing Baigongfang is a result of efforts between 53 enterprises and over 100 handicraft masters all over the country. A total of $30 million is to be invested in the enterprise which will occupy a floor area of 42,000 square meters, making it a center of Chinese handicrafts. At present, about half of the project is in operation, accommodating businesses that include a souvenir store, a trade center and a studio for live demonstration of the crafts. The studio allows customers to interact freely with the craftsmen and get a custom-made piece of artwork.
"By gathering these craftsmen again in a workshop, Baigongfang made a great contribution to Beijing handicraft and art industry," said Zhang Xin, Deputy Manager of Baigongfang. Cui Fang, Baigongfang's board chairman, said Baigongfang will be developed as a comprehensive center for skills enhancement, retail shopping and a manufacturing and research base.
"However, the industry is still far from finding its niche in the market. Without a proper market, we can protect nothing," said Zhang who is particularly interested in the market for handicraft gifts. "The souvenir market in Beijing is estimated to be worth at least 4 billion yuan ($483.1million)." Zhang hoped Baigongfang would help expose the skills of the craftsmen to the market.
To cater to collectors of art ware, Baigongfang devotes a whole floor exclusively to exhibit works of modern handicraft masters. However, most collectors in China favor ancient artworks and know little about modern works.
"It is the reality-they would rather risk spending several tens of thousand yuan (several thousand dollars) purchasing some fake works in the second-hand market than buy some authentic work of modern state-level masters," said Wen Qiangang with a sigh.
(Beijing Review February 13, 2005)