Preserving time-honored skills and traditions of ancient artisans

Shi Jia
Hangzhou city government launched an apprenticeship program in 2012 in the hope of passing down five types of local craftsmanship to a younger generation.
Shi Jia

The time-honored skills and traditions of artisans have been in danger of dying out for years. Rapid-improving technology, mass production and the supply and demand of consumerism have almost rendered the art of the skilled craftsman redundant and close to extinction.

The Hangzhou government recognized the danger of this happening and invested in a program to ensure the skills of the local artisans and craftsmen remain alive.

Embroidery master, Wang Wenying, 73, was one of those entrusted by the government to keep the craft alive, and with 53 years of experience under her belt she embraced the challenge. In 2012, she took on five apprentices, who were required to complete a five-year training program.

The apprenticeship was launched and supported by the city government in the hope of passing down five different types of local craftsmanship to a younger generation.

Five national masters on lacemaking, machine embroidery, handmade embroidery, porcelain production and bronze sculpting recruited students nationwide and taught them from scratch.

The enrolment attracted more than 190 applicants but only 24 of them remained and persisted to the end of the program.

A graduation ceremony was held at Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum to celebrate the success and culmination of the program’s completion last month. Selected works from the masters and their apprentices on the program are being exhibited at the museum through March 4.

Preserving time-honored skills and traditions of ancient artisans
Shi Jia

A double-sided machine embroidery piece made by Master Wang Wenying is on display at the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum. 

Most of the participants had some experience in the craftmaking business. But there were also some who had none. The quality that the masters most valued from the applicants was their commitment.

“We go through several rounds of interviews, including a test evaluating basic drawing skills. Those who took it as a hobby, or one possibility in their career, were excluded in the final round,” said Xu Zhouping, one of the apprentices of porcelain master Ji Xigui.

Xu and four others were picked up by Master Ji to be her students. Working in the field for 57 years, Ji is a state-recognized inheritor of Yue ware firing skills, which originated in Zhejiang Province over 1700 years ago.

Ji is also a national master on porcelain art. She designed the ceramic tableware for the banquet of G20 Summit 2016 held in Hangzhou.

“Compared to what they’ve learned in school, I put more emphasis on traditional skills and knowledge involved in porcelain making, including underglaze and overglaze decoration, carving on celadon, painting techniques such as doucai and fencai,” Ji said.

Students went out once a week to practice sketching from nature and attended short-term programs in other cities, like Cixi, Ningbo in Zhejiang Province or Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province — China’s most acclaimed “capital of porcelain.”

In the third year, students were encouraged to focus on a specific technique, before going on to display their latest productions at exhibitions.

“Throughout the program, I produced about four to five pieces each year on average, which I would like to call an artistic production. And of course it was under the guidance of my teacher,” said Xu Zhouping, the apprentice of Master Ji.

Xu also told Shanghai Daily the most difficult technique to learn was the underglaze blue, which is world famous courtesy of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) blue and white porcelain.

The blue pigment is applied directly to plain pottery before glazing. Therefore it is almost impossible to tell the depth of color with a naked eye. The only way to know if it is properly applied is by judging the thickness of the pigment. And that requires a lot of practice.

Preserving time-honored skills and traditions of ancient artisans
Chen Jing

Irregular shaped lotus leave celadon ware made by Zhen Jinghu at the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum

“Master Ji usually lets us try with small pieces of pottery first. After we had a practical idea of what it was like, she would then share with us her experience on that,” said Xu.

These knacks and know-hows, which are summarized by generations of artisans in their years of practice, are what Xu finds most valuable in the apprenticeship.

Prior to joining the program, Xu owned a small pottery workshop where she made on-demand porcelain ware while teaching classes as well.

It was when she received orders of blue and white porcelain ware that she realized there was a market for these traditional techniques.

“In the future, I would like to incorporate this craftsmanship into modern designs, to create something new with old techniques,” Xu revealed.

To make that happen, she intends to pursue a PhD degree somewhere, maybe even abroad.

Two of the five apprentices studying under Ji are going to remain working at her studio, while another two, including Xu, plan to take further study.

One student Zhen Jinghu, who was the most experienced of the five, has already been conferred with the title of “Hangzhou Master Craftsperson,” who enjoys certain subsidies from the government. He also has his own studio at the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum.

Being a porcelain ware designer in Jingdezhen for many years, Zhen admitted that the apprenticeship in Hangzhou gave him new aspirations.

“In Jingdezhen, the division of labor is widely adopted. But here I could try every step in process of porcelain making. You get to know the material better, about how it performs at different stages with different conditions,” said Zhen. “That sometimes has unexpected results on my production.”

In the porcelain section of the exhibition hall, there was a set of celadon ware with irregular shapes resembling real lotus leaves. That was a mistake Zhen made while casting a shape on a potter’s wheel, but it turned out to be work of art in another way.

“All art types need to be regenerated in time. Techniques can be inherited, but forms and patterns do not necessarily have to be,” Zhen added.

Preserving time-honored skills and traditions of ancient artisans
Shi Jia

A blue-and-white vase with doucai painting technique made by Xu Zhouping at the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum

Preserving time-honored skills and traditions of ancient artisans

Five national masters of craftsmanship and their apprentices pose for a group photo at the graduation ceremony held at the Hangzhou Arts and Crafts Museum.

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