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Complex Craft Fights To Survive

Complex Craft Fights To Survive

Jan 09, 2017

Few people would argue that the craft that most represents China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is cloisonne enamelware.

The mainly blue metal artwork that requires more than 100 steps to finish used to be recognized as something reserved for the royal family and the nobility, not only because of the complicated process needed to make it, but also because of its price, which took into account the cost of pure gold and lots of copper, things ordinary folk could hardly dream of in that era.

Completing a piece of cloisonne is time-consuming. Craftsmen say it takes about three months to finish a vase only 15 centimeters high; pieces as large as 1 meter take much longer.

"There are roughly six major steps," said Zhang Li, a staff member of the Beijing Enamel Factory, the only time-honored brand in this industry. "The most important one is the second, pinching copper wire, which is the first thing we do in our factory."

The first step is making the base, which includes welding copper boards into the desired shape. This is done outside the factory.

Pinching copper wire requires drawing the patterns on the copper base, then shaping copper wires into the patterns using tweezers, and finally pasting the wires onto the base. Patterns appear in 3D mode after this step.

The next process is called filling enamel, which produces the color of cloisonne after it is finished.

Craftsmen dip into the color needed for certain places using burettes and carefully put the liquid in position. At least three or four layers of coloring are required.

The item should also be burned between each layering of color to get rid of the frosted-looking surface, leaving it bright and shiny.Some people may think cloisonne only comes in blue because that's how it is named in Chinese - JingTai Blue.

Jingtai was the name of an emperor in the Ming Dynasty, and blue refers to the main color in use, but not the only one.

Over the centuries, colors used for cloisonne were only generated from natural crystal, which is ground into powder and mixed with water.

But as all colors other than blue need added gold to be visible, craftsmen had little choice but to make items mostly in blue.

After burning the colored works, they all look much like the finished product, apart from their rough surface and red lines, as copper turns red after burning.

So the next two steps are polishing and gilding.

Charcoal made of basswood is used in the polishing process to burn the surface of the cloisonne again. Then 24-karate gold is gilded over all the copper lines.

"The cost of copper, gold and irreplaceable manual skills together set the threshold of cloisonne's price," said Zhang.

Over 600 years, the 108 steps in making cloisonne were passed down generations of craftsmen mouth to mouth without any written rules or guidelines until in 1958 Qian Meihua, the first and one of the six most prestigious cloisonne designers in China, decided to devote herself to this craft at the age of 31.

Qian passed away in March 2010 at the age of 83. From June 8 to July 8, the Beijing Enamel Factory, the place where she had worked for more than 50 years, will hold an exhibition dedicated to her designs.

Thirty-six items will be on display, 30 of which will be newly made. Qian designed most of the works from the 1960s to the 1980s, on the theme of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

All the works are by Qian, including a 2-meter-tall vessel named "Peace", with all kinds of flowers and birds on it. This was her last work and also features the art of carving.

"The exhibition marks one of the factory's developing areas: high-end works of value for collectors," said Yi Fucheng, board chairman of the factory, who was a polisher back in the 1970s when he first came to the factory.

Yi said the other prospect for traditional state-owned factories like theirs is to combine the craft with modern architecture or interior design, like their efforts at making large outdoor fountains, or small containers for tea and Chinese white spirit.

"Applying the intangible heritages to daily life is better for their protection than simply making something beautiful but useless," Yi told METRO.

People think I am an expert on these topics, as my website is the largest online matchmaker in China; people just take it for granted that I can answer these questions," Gong laughs.


Gong says her success is the result of a chance meeting with an old high school friend.

A year after Gong had worked at the factory, she met her high school friend who had entered university. It was then that Gong realized her life was so different from her peers and wanted to change.

"We actually did not have too much in common as she went to the university and I was a factory girl," Gong says.

"I thought that if I didn't go back to school, my life would be freeze-framed into this picture forever. I would have needed to choose my husband from my co-workers, such as security guards, chefs and porters, and I was unwilling to do that."

The first exam Gong took after returning to school was terrible. Apart from Chinese, she failed everything else. But the setback made her even more determined and after a year and seven months' of further study she received an offer from Peking University to study Chinese.

She continued her postgraduate studies at Fudan University, in Shanghai where she majored in media management.

In 2003, while she was studying in Shanghai, she turned 27 and decided it was time to start a family.

Gong had suffered several unpleasant experiences on some dating websites, and feeling cheated and angry she joined forces with her brother to set up her own.

She asked her classmates to join and also emailed people from BBS (or online bulletin boards) urging them to sign up to her site. One of these people was her now husband and father of her two-year old baby.

Within months she had thousands of subscribers, and within a few years she had millions.

What Gong treasures most is receiving wedding invitations and thank-you letters from her users.

"I feel touched to see people find their other half from my website, and this is actually pushing me to make this website better," she says.

She says her site creates many new happy stories every day and she delights in telling of a senior couple who recently found love.

Wu Jieqin, an 82-year-old retired professor from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, found a 57-year-old woman in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Although they live 2,000 km from one another jiayuan.com connected them: the couple decided to get married after knowing each other for less than two weeks.

"While establishing this website, I have made it strict as this is a dating website for people who want to find the other one and get married, if the user does not have this serious attitude, she/he should not my customer," Gong says.

Art of saving vase

Revealing the multi-step process of making world famous Chinese pottery

Few people would disagree that the craft most representing China's glorious Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is cloisonn?enamelware. The iconic Chinese artwork, which requires more than 100 steps to finish, used to be recognized as something reserved for nobility, not only because of the complicated manufacturing process, but also because of its price.

Considering the cost of pure gold and the amount of copper wire used, these precious handicrafts were out of reach of ordinary folk.

Craftsmen say it takes about three months to finish a vase only 15 centimeters high; pieces as tall as 1 meter take much longer.

"There are roughly six major steps," says Zhang Li, a staff member of the Beijing Enamel Factory, the most famous brand in this industry.

"The most important one is the second, pinching copper wire, which is the first thing we do in our factory."

The first step is making the base, which includes welding copper boards into the desired shape. This is done outside the factory.

Pinching copper wire requires drawing the patterns on the copper base, then shaping copper wires into the patterns using tweezers, and finally pasting the wires onto the base. After this step is completed, patterns appear in 3D.

The next process is called filling enamel, which produces the different colors on an object.

Using burettes, a vertical cylindrical piece of glass, craftsmen dip them into the right color and then carefully apply the liquid into the right position. On some pieces, at least three or four layers of coloring are required.

The vase is also burned between each layering of coloring in order to get rid of the frosted-looking surface, leaving it bright and shiny.

Judging by its Chinese name, JingTai Blue, some may think cloisonn works only come in blue. Although blue is a dominant color used in these popular works, it is not the only one.

Local artisans produced China's first enamelware works during the Yuan Dynasty (1270-1368) but in the time of the Ming Dynasty, the technique of cloisonn enamelware became more refined, especially during the reign of Emperor Zhu Qiyu, also called Jingtai, hence the title Jingtai Blue.

Connoisseurs of Chinese cloisonn enamelware say pieces made during the Jingtai period are considered to be the world's best.