Hidden gem: Octogenarian continues to craft traditional scales

Zhu Ying
In a modest three-square-meter house near a local wet market, resides Pan Renguan, an elderly man who has dedicated over six decades to the art of scale-making.
Zhu Ying

Shot by Zhou Shengjie, Jiang Xiaowei, Zhu Ying and Cai Xiaotong. Edited by Zhou Shengjie and Cai Xiaotong. Subtitles by Zhu Ying and Cai Xiaotong.

Scales are often revered as a symbol of justice, as exemplified by the iconic statue of Lady Justice – a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales, representing fairness and impartiality.

With the rise of electronic scales, traditional types like the ones Lady Justice holds have gradually faded from our daily lives. However, in Shanghai's Pudong New Area, there is an octogenarian who remains steadfast in his craftsmanship.

In a modest 3-square-meter house near a local wet market resides Pan Renguan, an elderly man who has dedicated over six decades to the art of scale-making. A row of steelyard scales adorn his wall, arranged in ascending order of length.

The scales on the wall range from 45 centimeters to 140 centimeters, with respective weight capacities varying from 5 kilograms to 100 kilograms. However, these are just ordinary scales.

In a corner of Pan's store, a large scale measuring approximately 2 meters in length can bear loads of up to 250 kilograms. "It was custom-made for a businessman who intends to display it in his office, as scales are considered auspicious symbols," explained Pan.

The Chinese word for scale is "cheng" (称), and a related Chinese idiom states "chen xin ru yi" (称心如意), meaning satisfaction.

According to Pan, it is a local tradition for people to purchase scales when moving into a new home or getting married.

A steelyard scale consists of a wooden rod marked with several weight points. Suspended from a fulcrum toward one end, the rod is divided into a long and a short portion. A hook hangs from the shorter end, while a metal counterweight slides along the longer arm to balance the load and indicate its weight.

"The process of making a steelyard scale involves 18 steps," Pan said. "The most challenging step is measuring the weight points on the beams."

The choice of materials is crucial in scale-making. Pan emphasizes that the logs used should be solid, hard, and free of cracks. After purchasing the logs from the market, Pan meticulously polishes them into rods before immersing them in lime water for a month to darken their color. Following another month of drying in the shade, the rods are finally ready for use in creating scales.

"The logs are obtained from a specific tree species that can withstand temperatures as low as 30 degrees Celsius and grow very slowly," Pan explained.

Born into a family of craftsmen, Pan began learning the art of scale-making at the age of 16, following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, both scale makers.

According to Pan, the golden age of handmade scales spanned from 1996 to 2004 when digital scales had not yet gained popularity.

"Believe it or not, I earned 1,500 yuan a day during that period," Pan reminisced. "The income allowed me to afford a three-story house."

Despite the decline in profits compared to the past, Pan remains resolute in preserving this traditional craft until he is no longer able to continue.

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