Master craftsman gives a touch of shine to antique furniture

Ma Rugao has spent decades perfecting the art of repairing antique furniture at the Shanghai Museum. Yet, strangely, he doesn't own a single piece of antique himself.   
Ti Gong

Master craftsman Ma Rugao does some preparation work before restoring a piece of antique furniture.

Ma Rugao took to woodwork as a means of survival. A native of Jiangsu Province, Ma decided to learn the craft to support his family after failing to get through the national college entrance examination.

Little did he know then that the craft would stand him in good stead in the later part of his life.

Ma, who has been repairing antique furniture — over 400 till date — at the Shanghai Museum for more than two decades, was hailed by the city government as a “Shanghai Standout” in 2016.

“I am fortunate to work at the Shanghai Museum,” says Ma. “I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to work on these precious antique furniture one day.”

But how did a high school graduate think about woodwork that early in life?

“I liked woodcutting as early as a little boy,” he says. “There was a furniture workshop near my home, so I often went there to play. Sometimes I would carve some patterns on wood.”

As an apprentice, Ma, born in 1964, savored the bitterness and hardship of the early years, but at the same time valued the skills that he picked up early in his life.

In 1987, Ma had his own furniture workshop.

“I borrowed money from my friends and relatives,” he says. “Within a year, I built two houses for my family that greatly changed our financial condition.”

But Ma had to shut down the workshop later because it involved too much work for his aging parents. So he left his hometown Yancheng and moved to Shanghai to seek out better opportunities.

In 1996, he found work at the Shanghai Museum, which was in need of craftsmen to repair antique furniture.

“When my tutor told me that an antique chair of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) sold for US$500,000 at an auction, I was dumbfounded,” he says. “I was so afraid that one of my small mistakes during the restoration process might ruin the entire piece.”

Gradually, Ma came to master the techniques through years of practice.

“With patience I learnt to do what we thought could be mission impossible,” he says.

Besides the skills, Ma also need to talk to experts at the museum and refers to historical materials to understand the patterns of the original furniture before drawing his own layout and beginning the restoration work.

“Once you start the work, you must have something solid, not just your imagination,” he says. “Most of the time I have no idea who are the owners of these antique furniture. But it is just amazing that at the moment it is me who is working on them.”

Ti Gong

Ma Rugao gives some final touches to a restored furniture.

Q: What is the criteria for restoring antique furniture?

A: It should be according to the original plan, technique, shape and material. For example, Shanghai Museum has a large collection of wood varieties, from which we can easily  find one to match the original. But the problem is the wood in the antique furniture usually has traces of erosion. So sometimes I have to put the wood out in the sun and rain, or use some chemicals to make it appear like it has survived centuries.

Q: Among all the furniture that you have restored, which one impressed you the most?

A: It was a throne made in rosewood from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). When we found it at the warehouse, it was broken into pieces. We referred to a lot of historical materials and finally managed to assemble the components and restore it.

It took me nearly eight months to finish it. You can’t imagine how proud I was when it was finally done. Perhaps this is the biggest joy in my job.

Q: Did you ever regret closing down your own furniture workshop and becoming a craftsman?

A: It is true that I could have earned much more money if my workshop was still open. And my wife did complain back then as my salary was not very satisfactory. But I told her that there were many people who owned furniture workshops but very few craftsmen who could repair such valuable art pieces. I was doing something that interested me.

Q: Do you collect antique furniture yourself?

A: No, I have never collected a single piece, but many of my friends asked me to check whether their collected furniture is real or fake. As a professional who deals with antique furniture almost every day, it is easy for me to tell a fake from a real piece.

Q: Do you have any apprentices?

A: Yes, I have one, and I am very, very strict with him. In my eyes, the nurturing of a qualified antique furniture repairman needs at least 10 years. If I am not strict with him, then I am not fulfilling my duty as a tutor.

Q: Have you got any health problems because of your job?

A: Because I often deals with dust and chemicals, my lung and throat are not very good. And take a look at my thumbs, see any difference? My right thumb looks different because it is often struck by hammers and drills.

Ti Gong

Ma Rugao studies the patterns of a piece of antique furniture at his studio.

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