Bamboo-weaving master finds support among the disabled

Cheng Li, a bamboo-weaving master from Sichuan Province, is turning to disabled people in Shanghai in the hope that they can carry on the craft. 

Directed and edited by Tang Dafei. Translated by Joan Zheng. Special thanks to Andy Boreham. 

At the M50 creative park in Shanghai, bamboo-weaving master Cheng Li runs a studio, Fodu Pavilion, that is full of masterpieces — from articles of daily use such as handbags to exquisite ornaments like floor screens.

At the back of the shop-cum-studio, a large table is piled up with bamboos and various kinds of weaving tools. 

Cheng, 42, usually spends time working at the table, but of late she is involved in a pet project — teaching her skills to disabled people so that they can support themselves working from home.

“We are in the process of applying for the ‘Top 10 Charity Programs’ in Shanghai,” says Cheng. “I hope more people can join us and help the disabled.”

The city is now selecting best charity programs of the year to make good people’s stories heard and to attract more to join the charity cause. Organized by the Shanghai New Media Center for Charity, the selection includes "Top 10 Charity Institutions," "Top 10 Charity Programs" and "Top 10 Charity Stories."

The result will be announced later this month.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Bamboo-weaving master Cheng Li, a native of Sichuan Province, works at her Shanghai studio at the M50.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Despite winning many awards at home and abroad, Cheng almost gave up bamboo weaving when she moved to Shanghai 20 years ago.

Cheng was born in Meishan, a small city south of Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where bamboo-weaving craft has been passed down for generations. Those who live in suburban areas especially look at it as a family business besides agriculture.

In ancient times, villagers would weave fine ornaments for the rich and royal families. But in the decades since 1949, they only made daily necessities as no one wanted to be labeled “the rotten bourgeoisie.”

Cheng learned bamboo weaving from one of her uncles even before she went to elementary school.

The first thing she learned was to deal with bamboos. She had to do more than 10 procedures, such as scraping, splitting, coating, knot removing, layering and color fixation to make the bamboos into filaments as thin as hair. She often cut her fingers. The process was just too difficult and boring for a young child. 

“At that time every child in the village learned bamboo weaving like it was a natural thing,” she says. “I was not sure if I liked it or not because I didn’t really have a choice.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Cheng Li has to do more than 10 procedures to make the bamboos into filaments as thin as hair.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

In 1996, Cheng came to Shanghai to seek a new life. She admits that at that time she didn’t want to be a bamboo weaver for all her life. Many young people in her hometown had the same thoughts and they believed that a metropolis like Shanghai would give them different and wider options.

But Cheng was not lucky back then.

“Looking for a job and settling down in a brand-new city was very hard,” she says. “I never went to college, nor did I have any work experiences. I was stuck when trying to find a job.”

Maybe out of desperation or maybe because of the craftswoman spirit that is always in her blood, Cheng decided to go back to bamboo weaving.

She started to sell her works in suburban Jiading District, and soon local people were impressed by her superb skills: She could make bamboo covers that perfectly match the porcelain wares; she could create bamboo-weaving pictures that were as vivid as the original ones. 

The best work was called “The Invisible Guanyin,” a screen scroll painting. Bamboo filaments were woven into a picture of the bodhisattva, or the Goddess of Mercy, that is partly hidden and partly visible from different angles and under different lighting conditions.

“As a Buddhist follower, Buddhist figures are my favorite themes,” says Cheng. “Bamboo is essential in traditional Chinese culture, which represents the good quality of a decent person, while Buddhism also has profound influence on Chinese culture. I think bamboo and Buddhism match each other very well.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

In Cheng Li's work "The Invisible Guanyin," the bodhisattva is partly hidden and partly visible from different angles and under different lighting conditions.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

At the very beginning of her career in Shanghai, Cheng visited hotels, clubs and other venues, asking them to sell her works. Then she had a counter at the Jade Buddha Temple. In 2010, she registered the Shanghai Fodu Pavilion Culture and Creation Center and was invited to perform bamboo weaving at the 2010 and 2015 World Expo. Some of her works have been given to visiting foreign officials as national gifts.

Cheng explains that fodu, which means “the belly of the Buddha,” is a breed of bamboo. It is also her favorite type for weaving.

“The skin of fodu bamboo has strong tenacity so that it can be made into very, very thin filaments,” says Cheng. “This breed of bamboo is a specialty of my hometown Meishan. Bamboos in suburban Shanghai and surrounding provinces are actually not ideal for weaving because the skin could be easily broken.”

In 2008, Meishan bamboo weaving was listed as one of the national intangible cultural heritage, and Cheng’s uncle, also her mentor, was selected the inheritor. There are, however, not many young people willing to learn the craft, including Cheng’s own daughter, who is now studying in Canada.

“Children nowadays are so vibrant, so you can’t expect them to sit down for a whole afternoon doing repetitive things,” she says.

The handicapped students, however, gave her a lot of hope. Five years ago, Cheng started to cooperate with Shanghai Disabled Persons Federation to give classes to the disabled. They were all very hardworking, and after a year’s learning, they could weave simple vase covers and lampshades.

This year a non-profit organization, the Shanghai Yizhuxing Charity, was formed to help disabled people through teaching them craftsmanship. Cheng joined the group and expanded the class to more communities. Her earlier students became teachers as well.

“The students are very eager to learn,” says Cheng. “I can feel that they can’t wait to do something that will bring them economic independence and boost their self-confidence.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Cheng Li's bamboo covers match the porcelain wares so perfectly that they often look like one piece.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Cheng Li's works include a lot of objects for daily use.

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