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Cultural Progress
Old Stays Gold
Artisans pursue traditional crafts with dedication
By Lu Yan | NO.7 FEBRUARY 16, 2017


A folk artist puts the finishing touches on a dough rooster in Zaozhuang, Shandong Province, on January 8 (XINHUA)

By the intersection of two busy urban roads in Luohe, a city in central China's Henan Province, there is a low-key watch repair stall. Its owner, 60-year-old Li Guoqing, has been working as a watchmaker for more than four decades. A low wooden table, a glass cabinet, delicate watch parts and tools, and a stool make up Li's entire workshop.

Most watch repairers closed down or switched to other trades in the past few decades as the watch industry and its number of customers declined. But Li refuses to give up the skill he has practiced for most of his life.

In today's China, industries are fast modernizing with assembly lines and mass production by machines. However, there are still artisans like Li, scattered here and there, who are doggedly continuing with their traditional handicrafts.

Sands of time

By the end of the 1970s, China began undergoing a dramatic change following the initiation of reform and opening up. People's lives were getting better and there was an unprecedented urge to spend. A bicycle, a watch and a sewing machine were regarded as the "three musts" for a newly wedded couple. A branded watch became a symbol of its owner's fashion sense and social status.

Li was a witness of the social transformation. After graduating from high school, he became apprenticed to a watch repairer. While learning from his mentor, Li read many books to improve his skills. In 1983, he finished his apprenticeship and started up his own business.

Mechanical watches were a common accessory in China in the 1980s; as a result, watch repairing was a popular trade. There were more than 30 stalls like Li's in his neighborhood when business was booming. He could earn 10 yuan ($1.5) per day at a time 500 grams of pork cost a few cents.

Mending watches requires one to be focused. On busy days, Li had to sit at his work table for the whole day and often didn't even have time to drink water. But the nature of the work fascinated him. "As long as my business runs, I don't mind working a bit harder," he said.

In the 1990s, with the emergence of electronic watches and other options like pagers, the mechanical watch and its related industries faced a severe challenge. Despite the gloomy situation, Li's stall still attracted a large number of customers due to his skills and reputation.

He has repaired more than 80,000 watches. "So far, I have never encountered a single watch that I couldn't fix, except for those that need expensive parts," Li reminisced.

Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to find anyone to pass on his workmanship to. Although he used to have three apprentices, they switched to other professions. His son and daughter have their own careers and have no interest in fixing watches.

"For today's young people, doing the same thing in the same old store every day is difficult to stick to. After all, repairing watches is not a profitable job," Li conceded with understanding. "I really hope I can find someone who can handle this kind of loneliness to relay my lifelong skill and experience."

A child enjoys a sugary treat at a temple fair in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, on January 31 (XINHUA)

Cutting a pretty figure

Unlike Li, Hu Guangfu, a 62-year-old artisan who makes dough figurines, worries less about passing on his legacy and cares more about the kick he gets out of the work. Every day, Hu puts up his makeshift stall by the famous Shichahai Lake, a historical scenic area in downtown Beijing.

In the late afternoons when the place gets busy, his stall, decorated with colorful, lively little figures, is swarmed by intrigued visitors captivated by the folk art that dates back to the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220).

His skillful hands knead dough made of wheat flour and sticky rice flour and then fashion out 5-inch-long animals or human figures. They include famous literary or mythical characters like the Monkey King and modern-day icons like Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty.

"Don't underestimate these works even though they are tiny. It's not like children playing house," Hu said. While talking, he carefully puts a sesame-size glob of black dough into the eye socket of a brightly colored rooster with a steady hand. His presbyopic eyes behind his golden glasses wear a look of concentration. Each piece of dough has to be placed precisely so as to make the entire figure look alive.

"My eyes are always sore after completing a figurine but it's okay because I can rest them by looking at the beautiful lake and scenery right in front of me," Hu discloses the reason for choosing his work location.

Making dough figurines has been a family heritage. Hu learned the art from his uncle when he was 17. Although he worked in a factory as a young man, after retiring, he has taken up the art as a real business, putting a lot of love and dedication into it.

"I feel calm and peaceful when I am making the figurines. I really don't care about how much money I make," the sexagenarian said. "That is the charm of traditional Chinese art."

Asked about preserving and passing on traditional Chinese arts, Hu is optimistic. "Look at the spectators around us! They are all showing great interest in the work," he said, adding that he can feel that people are more aware of the need to protect traditional arts than before. It is reflected in the inclusion of the dough figurine art in China's national intangible cultural heritage list.

Besides, modern elements have been added to the traditional art to retain onlookers' interest and create a market. Many visitors want to buy as souvenirs dough figurines that are modeled on them. Lu said some of his peer artisans have opened online stores to expand their customer base countrywide.

No surrendering

During the Spring Festival holiday in 2017—which lasted from January 27 to February 2—people thronged the temple fairs in Beijing, a tradition observed every year to add to the celebrations and showcase traditional arts and crafts. Artisans flocked to the temple fairs as well as crowds of merrymakers, selling clay figures, paper cuts and traditional snacks.

"I really enjoy going to such events with my daughter," said Li Yu, the mother of a 13-year-old. "Her generation is engrossed in electronic products like smartphones and tablets, which I think restrict children's imagination and functional capability." Li Yu feels folk art should be promoted and craftsmen given their due respect.

"I want to learn how to make sugar figurines. They are awesome," Li Yu's daughter Xiao Tiantian said, holding a sugar dog in her hand.

Tian Qing, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a researcher on intangible culture heritage, said folk artists should do their part to preserve traditional crafts. "Artisans and artists should not waver and surrender to new fashions even though the times and society change," Tian said. "Originality is very important."

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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