Carving out a new life from old furniture

Yang Yang
Veteran furniture restoration carpenter Yuan Jinxiang recalls his long apprenticeship, and explains the demanding skills required to return old pieces to their former glory.
Yang Yang

Shot by Yang Yang. Edited by Yang Yang. Subtitles by Yang Yang.

Carving out a new life from old furniture
Ti Gong

Yuan Jinxiang (right) instructs an apprentice in old chair restoration at his studio.

Yuan Jinxiang, a furniture restoration carpenter in Wujing Town of Minhang District, has recalled his days as an apprentice.

"I grew from a traditional Chinese apprenticeship which involved significant master-apprentice relations and strict skill learning," he said.

"One apprentice followed one master throughout his entire life, learning skills and even washing clothes for him, and they formed a coterie which was intolerant toward others. It might seem ridiculous for people nowadays, but that actually proves how the trade used to care about its skills in the past."

The 48-year-old, who came to Shanghai from neighboring Jiangsu Province in the 1990s as a carpentry apprentice, now runs his own furniture plant in Wujing and has become an intangible cultural inheritor in old Chinese furniture restoration.

The skill of old Chinese furniture restoration was included in the list of Minhang's intangible culture heritages in December 2022.

"I feel myself as a link between my predecessors and the future generation. I know the past well and live in a bright era of now, and I am afraid that the heritage might get lost and stop its circulation from me," he said.

Old Chinese furniture restoration, for Yuan, is a demanding skill that requires its practitioners to thoroughly master skills in carpentry, carving, coating and bronze accessories making.

Carving out a new life from old furniture
Ti Gong

A carpenter engages himself in carving works.

"The most difficult part might be doing some analysis," Yuan said.

He once came across an ancient China wooden piece.

"Almost all the dragon patterns on the piece had five claws, suggesting that it belonged to an emperor," he said. "But one detail, a four-claw dragon foot, revealed the piece had gone through a false restoration in probably the Republic of China period (1912-1949). Because it's a taboo in ancient China that a four-claw dragon foot pattern, which was used only for an emperor's brothers, to appear on furniture for an emperor. It's a contemporary old furniture restoration carpenter's job to correct the mistake."

In the 1990s Yuan followed his masters to revamp old Chinese furniture pieces collected from areas like Suzhou, Beijing, Guangdong and Zhejiang. The renewed furniture pieces were then traded to Hong Kong, and further to European and North American countries by antique traders.

"You might find them in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London and the Tokyo National Museum," said Yuan.

"But in recent years we see a surge of old Chinese furniture from overseas coming back. Among the collectors are quite a few young people. The purchasing power of our countrymen is rising. What is more important: Their confidence toward their own culture is rising."

The old furniture restoration practice has left Yuan with some sweet memories.

One of his clients, an octogenarian, sent him a disassembled French-style dining table for repair. It was a gift from the French consulate in Shanghai to his father who used to be a chef there. The old man treasured the table so much that even when disassembled he still kept it. The father and son heard of Yuan's skill in old furniture restoration and asked him for help.

Yuan fulfilled their dream, and the old man, after touching the table again, was so moved he was unable to sleep for a whole night.

Yuan is grateful for all the people who helped with old Chinese furniture restoration to be listed as an intangible culture heritage in Minhang.

He says he still has miles to go as an old furniture revamp carpenter.

"I like to restore a good piece of ancient furniture when night falls," he said.

"When I am carving the curves left by the previous carpenter, I can almost feel how this ancient craftsman was, whether he was slim or stout, tall or short, with a boisterous or quiet character; whether he was somehow suppressed in the court or could express himself freely.

"Then I think about myself. Hundreds of years later when a future carpenter is revamping my work, what will he think about it? He might feel it lacking, probably," Yuan added, in a self-taunting way.

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