Traditional oil-paper umbrellas unfurl with flying colors

In a factory in east China's Jiangxi Province, Zhang Shunnyu is busy making a traditional oil-paper umbrella.

In a factory in east China's Jiangxi Province, Zhang Shunnyu is busy making a traditional oil-paper umbrella, pasting the processed paper onto an umbrella frame and trimming the edges.

The recent boom in tourism has brought many new orders to the factory, which specializes in the product. "I can process at least 60 umbrellas a day," said Zhang.

The Jialu oil-paper umbrella, which originated in Jialu Village, Wuyuan County, is a traditional Chinese handicraft with a history of over 800 years. In 2021, the craft of making Jialu umbrellas was included in the national intangible cultural heritage list.

With the passage of time, most people now use modern umbrellas in their daily lives, while oil-paper umbrellas have gone into decline. But in 1990, Dai Gensheng, a native of Jialu Village, founded the Jialu oil-paper umbrella factory, aiming to protect and pass on the traditional handicraft.

"Unlike other traditional umbrellas, whose covers feature simple colors such as black or red, ours are painted with design elements, including flowers, birds and landscapes," said Dai, a provincial-level inheritor of the craft, adding that the objects have become popular with tourists and in scenic spots across China.

According to Dai, it takes at least 72 steps to make a Jialu oil-paper umbrella, including chopping bamboo, making the skeleton and brushing tung oil onto the umbrella cover, among other steps. "It is a handmade craft with complex processes, and machines can't get it done," he said.

Over the past three years, the company's output has been increasing, with an average annual output of 4 million yuan (about 585,000 U.S. dollars). The company has also provided employment opportunities for over 150 local villagers, and boosted the development of local bamboo sales and accessory processing in nearby villages.

Zhang, a villager from Jialu, said she is working from her doorstep. "I can earn more than 3,000 yuan a month. The job is better paid than farming, and I can also spend more time with my family."

Wuyuan County has attached importance to the protection of its cultural heritage in recent years, facilitated the development of local intangible cultural heritage projects, and held training sessions for the inheritors, said Jie Lingfeng, director of the county's intangible cultural heritage protection center.

So far, the oil-paper umbrellas produced by Dai's company have been exported to 28 countries and regions.

In 2020, Dai set up the Jialu oil-paper umbrella experience center for tourists to learn about the traditional techniques and to make oil-paper umbrellas themselves.

"We receive 500 to 600 tourists a day at peak times, and the center also attracts many foreign tourists," said Dai, adding that it serves as a window for the world to learn about Chinese culture.

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