Crafting a new narrative

By Wang Yiran(China Daily)
Updated: 2017-02-03 07:15:07

Zhang Guangyi, 88, runs one of Beijing's last traditional-pen-repair shops. He has practiced his trade for six decades.[Photo provided to China Daily]

The TV documentary Masters in the Forbidden City has made "craftsmen" a buzzword - and the new book Meet Craftsmen in Beijing is answering demand for more stories about folk artisans.

The essay collection about the lives and work of 19 craftsmen in the capital - and their fading trades - is replete with color sketches and photos.

That, along with simple language, endows it with an appeal among adults and children, editor Zhou Lihua says.

Author He Siqian spent three years interviewing and sketching dozens of craftsmen and their areas of specialization, which are in danger of disappearing.

"I hope some of the beautiful traditions that are in jeopardy can be presented to more people," says the 29-year-old university lecturer, who works in industrial design.

Her first encounter with Beijing craftsmen came by chance.

Author He Siqian spent three years interviewing and sketching dozens of craftsmen and their areas of specialization for her book Meet Craftsmen in Beijing.[Photo provided to China Daily]

One day in 2014, the woman who's versed in Western design philosophies encountered traditional-pen repairman Zhang Guangyi. He had practiced his trade for six decades.

"He was polishing a pen tip when I entered (the shop)," she recalls.

"I stood there for a long time, but he didn't even notice me. He really loves his job. He didn't do it just to make money."

She meticulously illustrated his tools and inscriptions on his walls, one of which read: "The spirit of the pen."

The 88-year-old runs perhaps Beijing's last such shop, since digital devices have eclipsed traditional writing utensils.

"I wondered if there were other craftsmen like him in Beijing and if we can do something for them," she says.

She spent most of her spare time in the following three years sketching and interviewing. She and a team of four students met each folk practitioner about five or six times.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

She hadn't realized, for instance, it takes over 100 steps to make a writing brush before she met Hu Chengming. "He told me an apprentice needs to spend three years to learn the second step - 'moistening the brush's hair'. It takes three to five years to become a qualified writing-brush maker." Hu condensed the process into 15 steps for lay readers.

The author had to regularly travel over two hours each way from her home in the city's far northwest to downtown Dashilan, a hub for traditional craftsmen. But their spirit encouraged her to persist, she says.

"I saw their perseverance, ease of mind and enduring love for their occupations," she writes in the preface.

She came to realize most people don't understand them.

"Some think what they do is earthshaking. Some romanticize their work," she says.

"But they're just ordinary people doing ordinary things."

Author He Siqian spent three years interviewing and sketching dozens of craftsmen and their areas of specialization for her book Meet Craftsmen in Beijing.[Photo provided to China Daily]

She writes: "Their clothes are old and torn. The workshops are not elegant at all. But they have hope and responsibilities."

She hopes readers can better understand craftsmen and help preserve traditional techniques.

"I hope we can protect cultural genes and help them infuse modern life."

In 2015, three Rhode Island School of Design designers started a project with metal-knitter Zhou Guoli. Their traditional-but-stylish work impressed the 2015 Beijing Design Week.

She hopes to translate the book so other cultures can understand this legacy.

"These people can present a more authentic Beijing than some tourist attractions," she says.

 

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