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Gold-foil Tradition Carries on
Twenty-two-year-old Yang Xiaoyun cannot forget the first year when she started working as an apprentice at the Nanjing Gold-Foil Group in East China's Jiangsu Province.

"I started my first class by learning how to blow out candles," she said.

Yang still remembers the time she spent practicing blowing out the candles.

Three burning candles were lined in front of her. She was told to blow out only the middle one while making sure that the flames of the two neighboring candles carried on burning.

"We learned to blow in a very straight line," Yang recalled.

When she was able to blow out the middle candle without a hitch, Yang was taught to move the very thin pieces of gold foil from one place to another or change their positions on the board with the blowing technique, among other traditional crafts she has mastered to make gold foil.

She also learned to pick up a piece of gold foil with a goose feather to put it on the board in front of her.

She may repeat such processes several times, gathering differently shaped pieces of gold foil, making them ready for top craftspeople in the workshop to create a complicated gold-foil painting or sculpture.

The blowing technique that Yang learned is only one traditional process in the making of gold-foil arts and crafts products.

From gold cubes to finished paintings, sculptures and other products of different sizes and shapes, there are more than 10 different steps, according to Fang Sige, a staff member of the Nanjing Gold-Foil Group.

Gold cubes are first melted at more than 1,000 C and a tiny amount of metals such as silver and copper is mixed into it.

The workers pour the liquid into made-to-order iron troughs. While it cools, gold bullion is made. The bullion is hammered by hand into 16-square-centimetre pieces of gold paper.

These pieces are still not small enough. They have to be cut into one-square-centimeter pieces of gold leaf.

The craftworkers then put each leaf right in the middle of a specially made 10-square-metre piece of paper. Usually, 2,048 such sheets are piled together in a package.

After several stages of highly difficult hammering, the small gold leaves become pieces of glittering gold foil.

They are cut into different sizes for different decorations, particularly for religious figures.

Fang said: "Each worker in our group is highly adept at the skill." Most of the processes have to be done by hand, said Fang. Machines can help in only some of the jobs.

Long History

According to the online Gold Avenue Gold Encyclopedia, the Sumerians were arguably the first goldsmiths. They worked in the fertile plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers just north of Basra in what is now Iraq.

From the royal tombs located in Ur in modern Iraq and dating from between 2,800 BC and 2,370 BC, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley and his colleagues unearthed, among other treasures, an elegant golden helmet and a bull's head of delicate gold foil attached to a harp's soundbox.

In one tomb where a royal woman was buried, the woman had 10 rings of gold and her female attendants had garlands of willow leaves made of gold foil in their hair.

The ancient Chinese also had a long history of making gold foil. A tiger face made of gold foil, gold masks and other gold objects found in the Sanxingdui ruins and Jinsha tombs in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, date back more than 3,000 years and reveal that the ancient Shu people there possessed an exceptional understanding of how to exploit gold's malleability, ductility and resilience.

Throughout the centuries, the Chinese highly valued the goldsmith's art, developing their own techniques while learning from entrepreneurs and traders from Central and Western Asia, according to the Chinese Encyclopedia, published by the Chinese Encyclopedia Publishing House.

Golden relics have been an important part of archaeological findings since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

The use of gold plating in ancient Chinese buildings began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). Very soon, imperial palaces and important Buddhist temples were adorned with gold.

Goldsmiths flourished during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). By that time, Jiangning -- today's Nanjing -- had become a centre of goldsmiths in the country.

The manufacture of gold foil remained state-of-the-art in Jiangning. In the Huayuan area of the city, almost every family has been engaged in the processing of gold foil from ancient times until now.

With men hammering gold foil and women weaving gold thread, the profession has been passed down from generation to generation and still remains prosperous today.

During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Jiangning people contributed a lot of gold foil and gold thread to decorate the royal palaces and to make robes for the imperial court.

The inscription on the excavated stele of Qing Empress Dowager Cixi's mausoleum shows that gold foil used in the palace was produced in Jiangning.

Nowadays, the area has become the largest base in China for the production of gold foil and one of the top five in the world.

And it is Yang Xiaoyun and many of her young colleagues who are continuing the ancient Chinese goldsmith's art.

(China Daily August 21, 2002)

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