Arts and crafts abound in the capital city. Of the 48 different kinds manufactured for the tourist market, some of the most popular are: jade ware, ivory carving, cloisonni, lacquer ware, filigree work, silk flowers, drawn work, rugs, theater props, embroidery, gauze lanterns, glassware, clay sculptures, and dough figurines. Below are descriptions of seven of the major craft forms in Beijing.
The art of jade carving and polishing was already well developed some 3,000 years ago in the Zhou and Shang dynasties. With its bright and pure luster, jade has always been considered by the Chinese to be a treasure of tremendous value. There is a famous story from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) that describes the State of Qin' s offer of 15 cities for a ceremonial jade disk known as the "Bi of the He Clan."
To create an object from a piece of raw material, the craftsperson follows these steps: 1) Select the stone (jadeite, coral, agate, or crystal), taking into consideration size, shape, grain, color and luster. 2) Design a pattern to be sketched onto the surface. 3) Rub away the stone with a special tool and diamond paste until the desired shape emerges. When the design follows the nature of the original piece, the true image will come to life. 4) Polish the product until it shines.
The Beijing Jade ware Factory, founded in 1958 with only 200 workers, now employs over 2,700. In the past four decades it has turned out a wide range of exquisite jade objects for sale around the city.
Historically speaking, the earliest pieces of Chinese cloisonni enamel were produced almost 600 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. The braziers, boxes, dishes and vases of the time were generally glazed Vermilion, pale green and white against a background of peacock blue. By the Jingtai period, the art had reached its peak; enormous wine caldrons and copies of copies of ancient bronze vessels, tripods and kettles were created for the imperial court. Designs of chrysanthemums, grapes, flying cranes, lions and dragons were added to the flowers and foliage of the earlier period. In the Qing Dynasty, larger pieces: screens, tables and chairs, even beds and couches came to be made from the enamel.
The creation of cloisonni enamel involves inlaying copper strips on copper roughcast and packing in the spaces with glazed enamel of various colors. The piece is then baked, polished and gilded. Decorative objects such as vases, boxes, lamp stands, ashtrays and dishes, as well as jewelry and other trinkets are popular today. The Beijing Cloisonne Factory, established in 1958, employs a staff of 2,000 in both the mass production of consumer items and the creation of personalized art forms.
Ivory objects dating back to 3,000 years from the Shang Dynasty have been unearthed in China. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Fujian are today the main centers for this art form. Typical subjects of the Beijing school are flowers and plants, birds and animals, and human figures. Another Beijing specialty, minute "rice grain" carvings (of classical poetry, mythical figures or landscape paintings) are executed on ivory the size of a grain of rice and visible only when magnified 20 times.
Carved Lacquer ware
Chinese carved lacquer ware probably dates back tot eh Tang Dynasty (618-907). As noted in the Treatise on Lacquer Decoration by an artisan of the Ming Dynasty, "Tang lacquer ware was done on smooth boards using a vermilion color"Special lacquer ware workshops were set up in the Ming, producing pieces distinguished for bold, simple lines and rich colors. Qing Dynasty work, on the other hand, is known for its detailed designs and elaborate composition.
The Jingzhai Workshop, established in 1901 in Beijing, worked for many years in the Qing style. Over the past 40 years or so, the craftsmen there have begun to experiment with deep relief carving, hollowing and three-dimensional techniques. More than 20 colors are now used, a great change from the traditional four. A handful of factories in the Beijing area, with a combined work force of 20,000, produce carved lacquer ware-both traditional items like jars, boxes writing articles, dishes and personal adornments, as well as prize-winning artistic creations.
Filigree and Inlaid Work
Belt buckles, wine jars and chariot axles crafted from gold and silver, inlaid with crystal, white jade and colored glass were already the fashion some 2,000 years ago in China. By the Ming Dynasty, imperial artisans were turning out splendid crowns and other filigree-type ornaments for court use. In the Qing Dynasty, a natural division of labor broke the field into various specialized trades: engraving, assembling, inlaying, enameling, gilding, bead-stringing, etc. Work was still carried out, one trade to the next, in close cooperation, and many exquisite pieces were produced up through the years of the Opium wars.
Today the Beijing Arts and Crafts Factory is responsible for producing filigree and inlaid works. Aside from development of the art in the creation of specialized pieces, the workers have spent most of their time putting out the following for the tourist market. 1) Personal ornaments, including all kinds of jewelry, hairpins and cuff links. 2) Display objects, including small screens, vases, braziers and incense burners. 3) Daily-use articles, such as mirrors, cigarette boxes, ashtrays, candy boxes and lamp stands.
It is said that the art of making flowers goes back to the Sui Dynasty and by the Tang had already become highly refined. According to the legend, the favorite concubine of a Tang Dynasty emperor had a small scar on her left temple. She was able to cover the blemish with fresh flowers in the warmer months, but when winter came, she had to rely on the silk and satin flowers fashioned for her by her attendants. By the end of the dynasty, both court ladies and commoners had adopted the new silk flower style.
In the Ming and Qing, whole branches of the flowers, potted plants and wreaths were being produces in silk flower workshops. "Flower Market" in the Chongwen area of Beijing became known for its annual flower fair, in which women wore arrangements of twisted silk, dried grass and other bits, crafted with such detail they could be mistaken for the real ones.
Nowadays these "Beijing Flowers" have evolved into a whole new field; Bouquets, flower baskets, lanterns and copies of every species imaginable are created from the traditional materials of silk and satin as well as gauze, velvet and waterproof cloth.
Baihua (Hundred Flowers) Carpets
With a history of more than 2,000 years, carpet weaving took on new meaning in the Qing Dynasty when it was determined to lay carpets around the Imperial Palace. The court summoned lamas from Tibet to teach this skill to its craftsmen, who then produced carpets with a particularly Chinese bent. The symmetrical four-corner patterns integrated with a design at center made use of such common symbols as: the Chinese character for longevity, peonies, plum blossoms, pine branches, peaches, cranes, lions, as well as dragons, phoenixes and unicorns.
Numerous carpet factories around Beijing, with a total work force of 5,000, have produced award-winning creations with innovative techniques, colors and designs. Bold new patterns, based on the traditional craft, are making a break into the international market.