Field Notes

Craftsmanship revival in China

Push is part of bid to boost quality of products, move up value chain

Five years ago, Mr Wang Junfu gave up his white-collar salesman job and took a 50 per cent pay cut to join the Palace Museum in Beijing as a woodwork apprentice.

Gone are the days when the 34-year-old entertained clients and chased sales targets. His current "office" is the nearly 600-year-old Forbidden City - as the Palace Museum is popularly known - and work comprises sawing, chiselling and filing with myriad tools to repair or refurbish wooden fixtures which have weathered the reigns of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

"We are the handymen here. We are called upon to repair anything that is broken or has fallen off," he said, holding up wooden strips of a replacement door for one of the nearly 9,000 rooms in the vast imperial complex.

"I'm deeply attracted to the ancient architecture here. That's why I can persevere despite the low pay," he said, referring to his 2,000 yuan (S$406) salary, which goes towards paying rent and providing for his mother, wife and a son, aged five.

"Many have told me that things are looking up for our trade and I'm confident of a bright future ahead," said Mr Wang, who has a degree in international economics and trade.

Craftsmen like Mr Wang have been gaining more recognition since China's top leadership promoted the concept of "craftsmanship" or gong jiang jing shen last year. Enterprises should "foster a craftsmanship spirit of striving for the best", Premier Li Keqiang said in the government's closely watched annual work report.

The push for a revival in craftsmanship comes as the world's second-largest economy seeks to improve the quality of Chinese products and move up the value chain of production.

 Carpenters doing repair works on a diaojiaolou, or stilt house, in the Qingyangbei village of Hubei province, last Saturday. Workers carrying ou
 Workers carrying out painting restoration and protection works, using traditional methods, on a section of the ancient Temple of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong province, last year. PHOTOS: XINHUA

Since Mr Li's call, "craftsmanship" has become a buzzword across the country, appearing in government policy papers, media reports, expert reviews, advertisements and Internet posts. Indeed, a Chinese literary magazine picked the term as one of the top 10 most popular words in China for last year, alongside catchphrases like "supply-side reform" and "primordial powers", which was made famous by a popular Olympic swimmer.

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

"The call for an emphasis on craftsmanship is good news for the artisans. It's high time for us to revive our traditional crafts as well as culture," said Mr Xue Jiang of the Central Academy of Fine Arts under China's Ministry of Education.

  • Painstaking quest for perfection

  • Mr Huang Youfang, 60, has been working as a woodwork craftsman in the Palace Museum for more than 40 years. ST PHOTO: CHONG KOH PING

    To perform restoration works at the Forbidden City the traditional "palace way", a craftsman has to master up to 100 types of tools and undergo years of training.

    Apprentices are required to modify some of the tools on their own by hand, Mr Huang Youfang, a 60-year-old woodwork master at the Palace Museum, as the former imperial complex is now known, told The Straits Times.

    He demonstrated how to use a traditional tool that uses an ink-coated string to draw straight lines. There is also an array of hand planes for smoothing and shaping wood.

    Training for his apprentices revolves around how to build structures unique to traditional Chinese architecture, such as the dou gong - a set of interlocking wooden brackets that join pillars and columns to the frame of the roof. No glue, nails or fasteners are used, so the pieces must fit perfectly in order for the structure to hold up.

    "We have fewer chances to do massive restoration work now compared with the time when I was learning the craft, so I get them to make smaller models of the structure in the workshop in order to pass on the technique to them," Mr Huang said.

    After five years of training, they have finally mastered this, he said. His apprentices, like 34-year-old Mr Wang Junfu, are likely to be offered permanent positions with much better pay than the 2,000 yuan (S$406) they get now.

    Meanwhile, work will be busier than ever as renovation of Yang Xin Dian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) - the former residence of eight Qing dynasty emperors - will start once selection of construction workers is completed. The project is part of an ambitious restoration launched in 2002 and due to be completed by 2020 for the Forbidden City's 600th anniversary.

    Chong Koh Ping

"Since the reform and opening up (in the late 1970s), the focus has been on mass production. Speed and efficiency are of the essence.

"We've since forgotten the old skills of carefully selecting materials, meticulous production and attention to details... We need to return to our roots and promote those traditional skills that have been passed from generation to generation over thousands of years."

China has a long history of traditional crafts such as pottery, lacquer ware, dyeing and weaving, woodcarving and architecture.

Many of them, however, are at risk of dying out due to industrialisation and automation.

To help reverse the trend, the central government rolled out a new plan in March aimed at improving management of the traditional crafts industry and boosting its market competitiveness by 2020.

The plan also encourages companies and craftsmen to protect their secrets, apply for trademarks and know their intellectual property rights, reported China Daily.

RETURN TO OUR ROOTS

Since the reform and opening up (in the late 1970s), the focus has been on mass production. Speed and efficiency are of the essence. We've since forgotten the old skills of carefully selecting materials, meticulous production and attention to details... We need to return to our roots and promote those traditional skills that have been passed from generation to generation over thousands of years.

MR XUE JIANG, of the Central Academy of Fine Arts under China's Ministry of Education. 

Craftsmen like Mr Wu Yuanxin, who specialises in a traditional printing and dyeing style known as Nantong blue calico, is the type of talent the authorities would like more of.

In the past three years, Mr Wu has developed more than 1,000 products including wall hangings, bags, scarves and ties, shoes and toys made with Nantong blue calico, he told a forum organised by People's Daily last week.

"The developing and preservation of traditional crafts should not be just focused on their historical value and craftsmanship," the People's Daily online quoted him as saying.

Mr Wu added: "Through innovative designs, we could combine traditional crafts with fashion, making them more accessible to everyone.

"Without demand, or the market, any talk of developing and preserving traditional crafts is just empty words."

MASTERS IN THE FORBIDDEN CITY

There are exacting standards one has to meet to become a craftsman.

For antique furniture maker Guan Yi, who employs some 100 craftsmen making customised replicas of Palace-style furniture, craftsmanship demands a lifelong dedication to performing the same tasks over and over, in pursuit of excellence.

"One will need at least six to seven years of training," he said. Only with such dedication to quality can one be truly called a "craftsman", he added.

Such single-minded pursuit of brilliance has inspired millions of Chinese, especially the young.

Last year, a documentary on museum craftsmen restoring relics became a surprise online hit, with most of the viewers being youngsters born in the 1990s and 2000s.

Masters In The Forbidden City, as the series produced by state broadcaster CCTV is called, has been viewed more than eight million times on Youku, one of China's major video-streaming websites, with an average rating of 9.5 out of 10.

The documentary showcases craftsmen who specialise in restoring some of the 1.8 million pieces of bronze ware, ceramics, clocks, wood carvings, paintings and calligraphy in the collection of the museum, which opened in 1925, a year after the last Qing ruler Puyi was expelled from the palace.

Netizens praised the series for exploring the meaning of craftsmanship. "We are able to see these historical artefacts today because of these ordinary-looking experts. They are willing to endure loneliness to painstakingly work at their craft," wrote a viewer by the name Mengxi on Douban, a film review website in China.

Mr Shan Jixiang, director of the Palace Museum, told Xinhua news agency earlier this year that the documentary's popularity had sparked a surge of interest in conservation craftsmanship. The museum received 15,000 job applications for 20 vacancies at its conservation department last year, said Mr Shan.

Veteran woodwork craftsman Huang Youfang, 60, told The Straits Times that old retired woodwork masters are also enjoying a second wind in their careers.

"My shi xiong (senior colleagues) used to come back to help out with restoration projects when the need arose, but only as temporary workers," said Mr Huang, a Beijing native who has worked at the Palace Museum his entire adult life.

"But from this year, they have been offered official re-employment contracts with a regular salary," added Mr Huang, who will also join the scheme after he officially retires this month.

PASSING THE BATON

Yet, Mr Huang worries about succession. His department, which is in charge of woodwork, tiling, painting and wall drawings, has not hired again after taking in 15 contract apprentices in 2012.

Major repair works at the Palace Museum are still typically subcontracted to commercial companies whose workers are unskilled farmers from the countryside who know nothing about ancient architecture.

"These migrant workers don't care about the craft, or the traditional techniques unique to the palace," lamented Mr Huang. In order for craftsmanship to survive and thrive, skills have to be passed to the next generation, he said.

The Palace Museum could consider recruiting people with lower paper qualifications, such as high school or vocational institute graduates, said Mr Huang. This way, the apprentices can be trained from a younger age - like he did when he joined the museum as a 19-year-old.

 Carpenters doing repair works on a diaojiaolou, or stilt house, in the Qingyangbei village of Hubei province, last Saturday. Workers carrying ou
Craftsmen working on floral parquet at a workshop in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, last year. PHOTOS: XINHUA

The low pay would also be less of a problem for younger folk who have fewer financial obligations.

"I hope this renewed attention to our craft can help bring in a new group of apprentices whom I could teach one to one," he said.

Mr Guan, the furniture maker, currently has five apprentices. He provides them with food and lodging, plus a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan each. He is optimistic about the future of craftsmanship.

"Overall, this heightened awareness of craftsmanship has boosted the image of the industry, which will attract more youngsters who have the potential," said Mr Guan.

More people are keen to have a piece of artisanal furniture in their homes. "We see more customers coming to our workshops and we've been receiving more inquiries over the phone," Mr Guan said.

WATCH THE VIDEO
China is reviving the art of craftsmanship http://str.sg/4bzQ

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Craftsmanship revival in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe