Chen Songyan is intimately familiar with jade. An apprentice in his father's workshop at the age of 11, the 67-year-old retired craftsman spent the better part of his life working with the magical mineral. So when the opportunity to replicate a Qing emperor's jade-inlaid throne arose, Chen was only too willing to lend a skilled hand.
The Palace Museum in Beijing houses many of China's most-prized royal relics. Among the museum's collection are some of the ornate furnishings commissioned by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Now, these and other objects from China's imperial past are turning up in Shanghai.
To be more precise, exact replicas of the richly decorated and finely crafted furnishings and decorative fixtures are being fashioned by a local company - Hong Yun Zhai, or Hong Yun Studio.
In 2002, when Hong Yun Zhai won the rights to replicate the royal furniture, the studio sent a team of experts to the Palace Museum to begin the arduous task of gathering detailed information in order to produce high-quality copies of the irreplaceable artifacts.
The team assigned to duplicate the Qing emperor's jade-inlaid throne - a complex task that would involve countless hours of taking measurements and doing research - was faced with a quandary. None of the experts on the team had hands-on experience with the craftsmanship the job would entail.
Fortunately, they found Chen Songyan, a 67-year-old craftsman who comes from a long line of jade artisans. As an 11-year-old, Chen apprenticed with his father, a skilled jade worker and master craftsman.
Chen recalls that when he first saw a picture of the rosewood throne, he couldn't help crying out: "This is exactly what I spent my life learning and longing to make!"
Chen, together with other technicians and craftsmen, went about the project methodically.
Details of the throne, like a single sliver of a jade dragon's moustache, might take the senior carver an hour and a half to duplicate.
The technique, according to Chen, lies in deconstructing the whole design pattern part by part, until it becomes like a puzzle. The new pieces are fashioned independently, then fitted together like a jigsaw.
"Working as a team, we were able to complete the project within 100 days," notes Chen, adding, "it would've taken a lone craftsman four and a half years."
The rosewood and jade-inlaid throne was the centerpiece for what would become a replica of the royal study, complete with a gilt dragon folding screen, rosewood table and book cabinet.
The furniture is valued at 1.8 million yuan (US$216,000) and will, according to antique experts, appreciate in value over time.
"Making the throne presented a rare opportunity," says Chen at his modest workshop. "My interest in the project was not monetary, though, as you can see, my livelihood depends on steady work."
In 1993, Chen's monthly salary at Shanghai Lacquer Jade Factory was 78 yuan, with which he supported his wife and three children. He worked at the factory for 37 years, and when he retired, his pension was still 78 yuan.
Though lacking a formal education, Chen speaks eloquently of jade. "When I am sitting at the carving machine, a smooth piece of jade in my hand, all my pains and worries vanish," he says.
When he returns to work, the din made by the carving machine is deafening.
"That's why I have a loud voice," he jokes.
"See my little finger," Chen says, waving an abbreviated digit in the air, "it was cut by the machine."
It may sound cliche, but Chen - and perhaps a few other local craftsmen - represent a dying breed. Most young people are too impatient to spend years in low-paying apprenticeships.
"This is a problem which we have been faced with for a long time," says Qin Yongfu, chief director of the Shanghai Museum of Arts & Crafts, home to some of China's best crafts.
"Chen is the only person in Shanghai who has mastered the skills required to make such an extraordinary set of replicas. If not for him, the techniques might be lost for good," says the director.
Qin bemoans the lack of a policy aimed at passing on traditional craft skills.
"Utilizing the skills like Chen's is a good thing, but passing those skills along to the next generation is critical to the perpetuation of culture," says Qin.
Chen agrees. "When I retired a decade ago, I was disturbed by the thought that nobody needed my skills anymore," he recalls. "But being a part of this project gave me some hope for the future."
Hong Yun Zhai will produce a limited edition of 20 sets of the Qing furniture. With the able hands of Chen, of course.
(Shanghai Daily News May 6, 2003)