District works to preserve skills of city's last remaining blacksmiths

The blacksmiths of outskirt Fengxian District, being over 50 years old, in the city's outskirt towns in Fengxian are dubbed the "last blacksmiths of Shanghai."
Ti Gong

Fang Ruihua, a renowned blacksmith, sharpens a newly produced iron tool in his workshop in Jinhui Town of Fengxian.

The city’s Fengxian District government plans to help preserve the skills of its local blacksmiths as dwindling business opportunities and lack of new apprentices threaten the traditional craft with extinction.

The district’s blacksmiths, all of whom are over 50 years old, are considered the last artisans of their kind in Shanghai.

In an effort to keep their skills alive, Fengxian’s intangible cultural heritage office will send experts to evaluate whether the blacksmithing trade can qualify for protected status, the district government said yesterday.

If eligible for protection, blacksmiths, as cultural heritage inheritors, can receive subsidies to open training centers aimed at better protecting and promoting their skills.

“Even if blacksmithing, which was once a common trade, cannot be listed (for protected status), the authority will still help to preserve its traditional skills and culture,” said an official with the office.

The blacksmith’s trade is a grueling one, requiring the artisan to spend long hours hammering away at metals softened by temperatures that can exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Handmade kitchen knives and woks were once found in nearly every Chinese household decades ago, but such traditional products made by blacksmiths have been all but completely replaced by mass-produced stainless steel kitchenware.

The industry has retained to a shadow of its former vigor in suburban and rural areas like Fengxian, where agriculturalists still rely on blacksmiths for durable farming tools. Nevertheless, the profits from this market are too meager to woo newcomers to this arduous, physically-demanding trade.

“Every candidate will firstly ask how much they can earn per month, and then leave after being told the business can barely make ends meet nowadays,” said Fang Ruihua, an experienced blacksmith in Tairi Community, Jinhui Town, in Fengxian.

Fang’s own once-popular blacksmith workshop will soon be demolished under the township government’s ongoing renovation campaign. Neighborhood committee members have promised to find a new site for him to continue his business, but Fang is more concerned about passing on his skills and knowledge.

The 56-year-old craftsman says he’s the youngest blacksmith in the town as no one from the younger generation is willing to learn the trade.

Fang studied blacksmithing under his father and grandfather. He began swinging a hammer when he was 12 years old, and opened his workshop two decades ago.

His workshop, covering about 60 square meters, once produced hoes, sickles and other farm implements for almost every household in the area, but few use these tools nowadays as towns like Jinhui become increasingly urbanized.

Most of his customers today come for handmade kitchen knives. Lured by Fang’s reputation, some enthusiasts even come from downtown Shanghai or northern districts.

When making a kitchen knife, Fang uses an electric air hammer to shape metal heated in a stove that reaches above 1,000 degrees Celsius. Even with an electric hammer to replace his labor-intensive hand tools, Fang can produce about 10 knives per day. Each sells for about 50 yuan (US$7.3).

A recent customer, surnamed Xu from Baoshan District, said he bought a kitchen knife from Fang’s father two decades ago and it’s still as sharp as a new blade. He came to purchase another knife for his son, who will soon get married.

Fang says he’s accustomed to the scorching heat and physical toil of the workshop, but few young people are willing to follow his path. 

His arms are covered with burn marks and other scares of his trade.

According to the Fengxian government, the township government and neighborhood committee will help the blacksmith find a suitable apprentice. A recruitment notice will be posted on town notice boards, as well as the official WeChat accounts of the town and district governments.

Meanwhile, the Huqiao neighborhood committee in Zhelin Town, has also launched a campaign to help find an apprentice for Zhu Atao, another seasoned blacksmith in Fengxian.

The 71-year-old Zhu says he will pass down his profession to anyone interested in blacksmithing, and willing to bear its hardships, after his two sons refused to follow their father’s footsteps.

Ti Gong

Fang Ruihua, a renowned blacksmith, makes an iron tool in his workshop in Jinhui Town of Fengxian.

Ti Gong

The once popular blacksmith workshop of Fang Ruihua in Jinhui Town of Fengxian will be demolished soon under the township government’s ongoing revamping campaign.

Ti Gong

The iron kitchen knives made by Fang Ruihua, a renowned blacksmith in Jinhui Town of Fengxian.

Ti Gong

 Fang Ruihua now uses an electric air hammer to replace the hand tools to save effort.

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