The local man and his crusade to protect a vanishing art
Wang Shijun, the founder of Shanghai Arts of Lacquerware Museum in Minhang District, shows us around with a passion hard to hide.
“See, lacquerware are objects decoratively covered with lacquer,” he explains. “Before lacquering, the surface is sometimes painted with pictures, inlaid with shell and other materials, or carved. The lacquer can be dusted with gold or silver.”
Once having worked in the government, Wang resigned in 1994 and began to engage in trade.
In the late 1990s, he sponsored the students of a primary school funded by Project Hope in Yunnan Province. He believes in passing on the kindness, because of the amount of help he’s received from others in his time.
After turning a tidy profit from his trade work, Wang started his career as a collector. But he decided to stick to one principle: only collect one kind of art. He set his heart on Chinese lacquerware.
Then, after inviting the masters of the art in Shanghai to appraise his collections, he found that they made even better lacquerware. That’s when a new idea came to him: rather than collecting these works, he should become a guardian.
He has learnt that despite the long history and intricate techniques involved, lacquerware attracts less attention from people than other mediums. The masters of the art are confronted with the predicament of nearly being out of work.
“I had to do something,” Wang says in a solemn tone. “I love lacquerware and I wanted more people to get to know it.”
So in 2010, he started the preparation for the museum, which opened in 2013. It’s a place where people can enjoy more than 1,000 pieces, from the traditional to the contemporary. There are also studios for eight masters to carry on protective research. After applying for Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage status, Wang and his eight masters have made great efforts in reviving Shanghai lacquerware by combining tradition and innovation.
As a collector, he took pleasure in successfully collecting what he wanted. But now, as a curator, when the masterpieces of lacquerware — the fruit of their painstaking work — won the top award in an arts and crafts contest, Wang has realized his happiest moment. It is the sense of being recognized that satisfies him most.
Speaking of the unique characteristic of Shanghai lacquerware, Wang mentions Shanghai’s spirit: “The sea refuses no river.” In other words, be tolerant to diversity. Such is the character of Shanghai, and of Shanghai lacquerware, whose creators are always open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Different regions in China are famous for different lacquer processing techniques. Shanghai artisans are able to select the refined and discard the crude from these different styles, helping local lacquerware to keep on improving.
After the maintenance of the museum, Wang plans to make a bit of a change. On the first floor, an area for DIY is set up for people — young or old — to try lacquerware-making themselves. On the fifth floor, an audio-visual classroom is prepared for lectures, training, and group discussions.
“The masters are getting older and older,” Wang says. “What is urgent for us now is to recruit young people who have talent, passion and persistence.”
Wang says Shanghai Arts of Lacquerware Museum has cooperated with some colleges to attract more students’ interest, provide them the opportunity to get close to lacquerware, and cultivate the next masters.
But that’s not going to be an easy feat.
“To pass on this cultural treasure,” he explains with a sparkle in his eye, "we have to first attract people’s attention and get them to understand it.”