Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!

Ke Jiayun
Artisans of all ilk are using the Dongjia platform to sell products and share knowledge with people both in China and abroad.
Ke Jiayun
SSI ļʱ

Five years ago, Zhu Jianshan, founder of the traditional crafts online site Dongjia, led a team into the mountains of Guizhou Province in the southwest to scour for interesting local handicrafts.

There they met Miao ethnic minority women whose embroidery was designated a national heritage craft in 2006.

Miao embroidery made its international debut at Paris Fashion Week in 2014 and has since been displayed at other global shows. But the craft is still not widely known and appreciated by the public in China.

Embroidery is an integral part of the Miao culture, Zhu said.

“The women start working with needles when they are children,” he said. “Most of them never attended school. They consider their biggest accomplishment in life is making their own wedding dress.”

Living in remote mountains and unaware of the Internet, the Miao weren’t selling their embroidery works to a wider market.

“This fact bothered us, so we sent people to teach them how to download our app and run a store on it,” Zhu said. “They took pictures of the exquisite works and posted them online.”

Modern commercialism, according to Zhu, standardizes products and squeezes out personalized handcrafts. He said that’s why he created Dongjia in 2015 — to serve as a platform for artisans of heritage crafts.

“No matter what — a simple teabowl or an expensive jade pendant — we want these traditional handicrafts and their beauty to be widely appreciated,” said Zhu.

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

Wu Jian, a master white tea maker in the Fujian Province city of Fuding, dries the tea leaves.

Dongjia is now home to accounts of some 10,000 domestic craftspeople and 2,000 “inheritors” who carry on traditional skills.

People like Wu Jian, 54, a master of making white tea in the Fujian Province city of Fuding. He stumbled across Dongjia by happenstance and opened an account on the platform two years ago.

Wu learned how to make white tea at a vocational school. He went to work in a state-run tea factory in 1982 and one year later founded his own company, which mainly sells for export and to Starbucks.

He was named an “inheritor” of Fuding white tea culture in 2017 and is promoting that heritage on Dongjia.

“I am teaching online viewers about white tea and how to distinguish the real thing from fakes,” said Wu, whose daughter has joined him in livestreaming information.

“I’m always interested in using modern technologies to spread the word about traditional handicrafts and products,” he said. “It’s a way for teamakers to connect with tea drinkers around the world.”

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

Wu Jian makes tea in the traditional style.

Tan Shuqin is a porcelain artist in Jingdezhen, a city famous as the “porcelain center of China.” She is an acknowledged expert in colored enamel porcelain that utilizes skills from the imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing to reproduce the dazzling ceramicwares of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Tan was apprenticed to a porcelain factory in the Jiangxi city when she was 15 years old.

“I’m among the first group of artists in Jingdezhen who noticed Dongjia, and I love the idea behind it,” she said. “I opened my store Baoyunge on Dongjia. It gives us a platform for promoting our products.”

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

A set of traditional Chinese colored enamel porcelain teabowl made by Tan Shuqin

Wu Shanzhao, a 27-year-old woodworking craftsman, is one of the new generation of artists finding Dongjia a helpful channel to promote his works. Brought up in a family of artisans, he now specializes in making wood furniture in the styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Wu joined Dongjia in 2017.

“When we sell offline, we often have to endure nitpicking over price from customers,” Wu said. “But on Dongjia, buyers and craftsmen are mostly lovers or students of traditional Chinese crafts. I’ve made many good friends through this platform.”

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

Wu Shanzhao poses with his self-made classic wood furniture in the styles of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

Wu at work as he makes a wooden chair in the style of the Qing Dynasty royal family.

The rapid growth of e-commerce has been both beneficial and detrimental to the handicrafts realm, he said.

“For those without good sales channels, it’s a chance to attract buyers,” he said. “But there are also some risks. For example, some people sell poor-quality stuff online and that can trigger a negative impression of a handicrafts group as a whole.”

Another young artist, Rui Shuai, specializes in Anhui-style jade carving. A friend introduced him to Dongjia.

“I’ve worked with Dongjia for more than three years and feel that I’m closer to markets,” Rui said. “Dongjia links me with jade collectors in real time, which allows me to follow market trends more quickly.”

He added, “Craftspeople need to use modern solutions in modern times. Digital technology can help cut marketing time and costs, but it also can increase transport costs. How to balance the advantages and disadvantages confronts every craftsman.”

Do you do heritage craftwork? Go online!
Ti Gong

Rui Shuai carves on a piece of jade during a livestreaming show.

Last month Dongjia and its two shareholders — Shanghai-based tourism and cultural retailer Yuyuan Inc and its largest shareholder, conglomerate Fosun — announced a new strategy aimed at integrating traditional crafts into everyday family life.

Dongjia will work with 460-year-old Yuyuan to breathe new life into the company’s local brands online.

Apart from Dongjia, Taobao, and Vipshop online platforms all offer sales sections devoted to cultural heritage.

“These are new ways to promote traditional crafts both in China and overseas,” said Gao Chunming, head of Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Association. “We find frequent online events related to cultural heritage on Taobao, Douyin and lifestyle-sharing app Xiaohongshu (Red).”

His own association did livestreaming events on Dongjia to mark China’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Day in June.

Gao said platforms like Dongjia must address the problem that many traditional craftsmen are elderly and not versant in digital technologies. A survey Gao conducted two years ago found the ages of “inheritors” of traditional skills ranged between 66 and 78.

Bridges between the older and the younger generation of artisans need to be built, he added. And government initiatives need to look at what’s happening now in addition to what’s happened in the past.

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