Eight Crafts of Bei­jing

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS -

Dur­ing the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, the im­pe­rial courts es­tab­lished dif­fer­ent work­shops within the palace. Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, Em­peror Kangxi (1661–1722) set up a work­shop in the Yangxin Dian (Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion) es­pe­cially for the man­u­fac­tur­ing, re­pair and stor­age of tools used in the palace. Im­pe­rial prod­ucts pro­duced there rep­re­sented im­pe­rial aes­thet­ics and top crafts­man­ship. The mar­vel­lous “Eight Crafts of Bei­jing” came into be­ing dur­ing this in­no­va­tive pe­riod.


His­tor­i­cally, opin­ions var­ied on the ori­gins of Chi­nese cloi­sonné, a tech­nique gen­er­ally be­lieved to have been in­tro­duced from abroad dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271– 1368). Chi­nese ar­ti­sans in­te­grated cloi­sonné with tra­di­tional styles; hence a pre­cious trea­sure came into be­ing.

Mak­ing the mother mould, us­ing fil­i­gree (wire in­lay), ap­ply­ing enamel and fir­ing the enamel all th­ese pro­ce­dures con­sti­tute the hand­made art of cloi­sonné. Just like the phoenix that rises out of the ashes of a fire, cloi­sonné is burned re­peat­edly. Cor­re­spond­ingly, cloi­sonné has gone from be­ing a uten­sil to a sym­bol of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

Whether it is pleas­ing to the eye or not de­pends, first of all, on the craft of mak­ing the mother mould. The red cop­per sheet must be cut ac­cord­ing to the draw­ing and clipped into dif­fer­ent fan shapes or cir­cles; the clipped pieces are then ham­mered into cop­per moulds of var­i­ous shapes. For ex­am­ple, when mak­ing a bot­tle, one first di­vides the bot­tle into three sec­tions, namely the bot­tle's neck, belly and pedestal; then the ar­ti­san ham­mers and welds them to­gether.

There is a say­ing for cloi­sonné moulds that “the cop­per must be pure.” There­fore, cloi­sonné gen­er­ally uses red cop­per due to its “pure” look. More­over, cop­per has a high melt­ing point, fine duc­til­ity and can eas­ily be glazed, so red cop­per be­came one of the ma­jor ma­te­ri­als for mak­ing moulds. Gold and sil­ver can also be used to make moulds.

A fine ves­sel shape is at­trib­uted to mould mak­ing, and ex­quis­ite dec­o­ra­tive de­sign de­pends on fil­i­gree (wire in­lay). Cloi­sonné's tech­ni­cal name is “fil­i­gree enamel with a cop­per body,” which in­di­cates the im­por­tance of both. Fil­i­gree pro­ce­dures mainly in­clude three parts: glu­ing wires, weld­ing and wire in­lay­ing. First, fine and flat cop­per wires are glued to­gether with pigskin glue so that flower pat­terns can be made. If the wires are not glued to­gether, only one piece of wire can be used at a time.

When glu­ing the wires to­gether, six, eight or even ten wires can be used to­gether to form flower pat­terns. Iden­ti­cal fil­i­gree pat­terns may be used for prod­ucts made in pairs.

An ar­ti­san needs to break off and curve th­ese soft, flat, fine and flex­i­ble cop­per wires into var­i­ous pat­terns with tweezers ac­cord­ing to the draw­ing, and then glue them on the cop­per mould.

Once fixed, the fil­i­gree pat­tern can­not be changed. There­fore, the pat­tern mak­ing is the most chal­leng­ing job in the whole fil­i­gree craft. Whether the pat­tern is a fig­ure, bird or flower, it should be true to life, both in ges­ture and ex­pres­sion. This is the most dif­fi­cult as­pect of the work, and the one that tests one's skills the most.

Enamel fill­ing ( di­an­lan or “fill­ing in blue”) is an im­por­tant link in cloi­sonné mak­ing. The pro­ce­dure of “enamel fill­ing” con­sists of mix­ing enamel glaze pow­der with a proper amount of wa­ter, then adding dif­fer­ent colourants and sol­vents to pre­pare dif­fer­ent colour glazes.

Af­ter that, ac­cord­ing to the sketch of the cloi­sonné pic­ture, the glaze is filled into the in­ter­spaces be­tween the wires with pro­fes­sional tools and then enam­elled. Cloi­sonné has over 60 kinds of glaze colours. It is nec­es­sary to match the colours in ac­cor­dance with the de­sign. In 2009, the Bei­jing Enamel Fac­tory Com­pany de­vel­oped 64 kinds of lead­free, eco-friendly glazes, end­ing the his­tory of lead-based enamel glazes.

Nowa­days, cloi­sonné is more widely used, in­clud­ing in cais­son ceil­ings, crest­ing on door­ways and on door­knobs. For over 600 years, the beauty of cloi­sonné hasn't dimmed with the pas­sage of time.

Lac­quer Carv­ing

In China, the dis­cov­ery and ap­pli­ca­tion of the sub­stance can be traced back to the Ne­olithic Age, be­fore 7,000 BC. Peo­ple found that lac­quer alone did not pro­duce a sat­is­fac­tory re­sult, and their pur­suit of beauty pushed them to be­gin en­grav­ing or­na­men­tal pat­terns on the sur­face of enamel coat­ing.

This was ac­tu­ally an ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery that was a re­sult of the nat­u­ral in­stinct to cre­ate mean­ing. Over time, flow­ers, birds, fish, in­sects, trees, moun­tains, rocks, pavil­ions, men and women all be­came part of the ar­ti­sans' reper­toire. As gen­er­a­tions of ar­ti­sans be­came more skilled, their tech­niques grew, and their aes­thetic stan­dards im­proved.

The prin­ci­pal raw ma­te­rial for carved lac­quer­ware is lac­quer, a sort of gray­ish white sap taken from a tree called Rhusver­ni­cifera, com­monly known as a var­nish tree. Af­ter fil­ter­ing the raw lac­quer, se­nior ar­ti­sans mix the lac­quer with boiled Chi­nese wood oil, cinnabar and wa­ter, turn­ing the milky-white raw lac­quer into some­thing bright and red, and suit­able for use.

In this process, the cop­per base should be cleaned thor­oughly and coated with lac­quer ash, and then dried in the base­ment and fired in an oven. If the base is made of wood, it should be fired first and then coated com­pletely with lac­quer to seal it. Each layer of lac­quer paint needs to be dried in the base­ment.

Af­ter the raw lac­quer and Chi­nese wood oil are dry, an ar­ti­san grinds old roof tiles into a fine pow­der and mixes this with lac­quer to form a paste, called lac­quer ash. This is evenly painted over the wooden base, and then a piece of cloth is pasted on top. Af­ter be­ing air-dried, the sur­face is scraped and painted with more lac­quer ash.

Lac­quer coat­ing is com­prised of var­i­ous lac­quer paint­ing steps. Di­vided by tech­niques, this pro­ce­dure in­cludes pre­coat­ing, ap­ply­ing the lac­quer, fin­ish­ing, dry­ing, edge-trim­ming, trim­ming and en­hanc­ing the lac­quer. Dur­ing the pre­coat­ing process, a layer of thin lac­quer is rubbed all over the sur­face of the piece, then is left to dry. Once dry it's fired in an oven and then sanded and cleaned.

Only at this point does the ac­tual lac­quer coat­ing process be­gin. Each layer of lac­quer shouldn't be too thick, and an­other layer shouldn't be ap­plied un­til the pre­vi­ous one dries. Dif­fer­ent prod­ucts re­quire var­i­ous lay­ers of coat­ing, each tak­ing a dif­fer­ent amount of time.

How­ever, 4–5 mil­lime­tres of coat­ing is of­ten re­quired, which takes 70–100 lay­ers of coat­ing over a pe­riod of four or five months, some­times up to a year. Once the lac­quer coat­ing is thick enough, the edges should be trimmed so as to main­tain the cor­rect shape. The en­tire lac­quer coat­ing is crit­i­cal and takes the most time, thus very labour-in­ten­sive.

The carved pat­terns must be de­signed be­fore mak­ing the base. The carv­ing process is the most im­pres­sive, com­plex and won­der­ful part of mak­ing lac­quer­ware, and is what makes lac­quer­ware dif­fer­ent from other hand­i­crafts.

Af­ter com­plet­ing the brocade carv­ing, the carved lac­quer­ware be­comes a so­phis­ti­cated piece of work. But the process isn't fin­ished. Next, the carved piece of lac­quer­ware will be placed out­doors for sev­eral months to ex­pose it to the el­e­ments.

The weather-beaten lac­quer­ware is then brought back in­side for the fi­nal steps—pol­ish­ing and fin­ish­ing—while at the same time fix­ing any mi­nor de­fects. To make the lac­quer smooth and glossy, fur­ther stages such as fir­ing, wip­ing and glaz­ing will be done.

To­day, carved lac­quer­ware still re­mains some­what a mys­tery to the pub­lic, be­cause raw ma­te­ri­als are dif­fi­cult to find and the pro­duc­tion is both tir­ing and mo­not­o­nous, so fewer peo­ple are will­ing to do this work. In 2006, lac­quer­ware was listed as a Statelevel In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage item.

Palace Car­pets

When Em­peror Chengzu (reign: 1403–1425) of the Ming Dy­nasty moved the cap­i­tal to Bei­jing, to match the ele­gance of the pre­vi­ous cap­i­tal of Jin­ling (present-day Nan­jing), he or­dered all court­yards in the palace to be laid with car­pet to high­light its regal stature.

By the Qing Dy­nasty, car­pets had be­come an im­por­tant as­pect of the palace, and the im­pe­rial court set up two de­part­ments to man­age work­shops in Bei­jing to pro­duce car­pets for the palace, as well as es­tab­lished palace car­pet work­shops in Xin­jiang, Ningxia and Qing­hai.

Both the qual­ity and num­ber of palace car­pets reached its peak dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty. To re­cover this tech­nique, the Bei­jing No. 5 Car­pet Fac­tory set up a Pan­jin Car­pet Res­cue Team in 2013. The team vis­ited the Palace Mu­seum three times, and af­ter care­ful study, fi­nally re­vived the work of pre­vi­ous ar­ti­sans. From then on, the weav­ing tech­nique of pan­jin car­pets started a new chap­ter, and its value has gained wider recog­ni­tion.

Weav­ing a palace car­pet first in­volves de­sign­ing the pat­tern. Moun­tains and rivers, flow­ers and birds, in­sects, fish, and beasts can all be used as el­e­ments in car­pet pat­terns. The metic­u­lous “Bei­jing-style” pat­tern with a sym­met­ri­cal de­sign be­came one of the palace car­pet's typ­i­cal pat­terns.

The “Bei­jing-style” pat­tern is com­posed of “bor­der, cor­ner, kui, and flower.” “Bor­der” is di­vided into wide and nar­row bor­ders, and the straight lines be­side the bor­ders are called “lines of stitches.” “Cor­ner” refers to the pat­terns in the four cor­ners of a car­pet. “Kui” refers to the kui dragon (a bul­l­like dragon with only one leg), which is the cen­tral pat­tern.

“Flower” refers to a tra­di­tional dec­o­rated pat­tern with ex­quis­ite flower branches. Af­ter the de­sign comes colour match­ing, as the suc­cess of a car­pet's pat­tern re­lies on its colours. The main pat­tern of a palace car­pet must be mag­nif­i­cent; aux­il­iary pat­terns must be bright in colour; foil pat­terns must be soft and har­mo­nious; and dark pat­terns must have a light grey colour. Af­ter a pat­tern is com­pleted, it is nec­es­sary to pro­duce a draft ac­cord­ing to the ac­tual size of the car­pet, a process called “loft­ing.”

Wool used in palace car­pets mainly comes from sheep. Based on their ex­pe­ri­ence, crafts­peo­ple pre­fer wool pro­duced in Qing­hai, Gansu, Ningxia, Sichuan and Ti­bet. Wool that has been sheared from sheep once each au­tumn is the top choice. When the weav­ing tools and ma­chines are ready, car­pet weav­ing can be­gin.

The restora­tion of the dou­ble-sided coil­ing tech­nique was an achieve­ment re­sult­ing from the Pan­jin Car­pet Res­cue Team's three vis­its to the Palace Mu­seum. Kang Yusheng, a State-level palace car­pet weaver, was al­ready a mas­ter in weav­ing palace car­pets at that time, but the weav­ing tech­nique of pan­jin car­pets was new to him.

Since in the past, pan­jin car­pets were

used as tributes to the em­peror sent from dif­fer­ent prov­inces, most of the pat­terns had strong re­gional char­ac­ter­is­tics. There­fore, Kang and his ap­pren­tices had to make Bei­jing-style pan­jin car­pets by us­ing re­gional pan­jin tech­niques.

Af­ter study­ing the pat­terns and hav­ing dis­cus­sions with ex­perts in lit­er­a­ture, his­tory, pat­tern de­sign and silk weav­ing, they fi­nally se­lected the kui dragon pat­tern, which had the most regal char­ac­ter­is­tics. In 2005, Wang Guoy­ing, Kang's youngest ap­pren­tice, wove a pan­jin car­pet called “Nine Drag­ons Gath­er­ing Hap­pi­ness.” With a kui dragon in the cen­tre and pat­terns in the four cor­ners, the pan­jin car­pet's gold foil threads are clearly vis­i­ble.

Pan­jin car­pets look golden be­cause the threads used are gold foil threads, though they are not en­tirely made of gold. The gold foil thread is first made into thin slices and then glued to bam­boo pa­per. Af­ter that, the slices are flat­tened and pol­ished and then cut into one-mil­lime­tre fil­a­ments, which are twisted and wrapped into threads.

At the time of restor­ing the pan­jin car­pet weav­ing tech­nique, the gold foil threads had not been pro­duced for a long time. The gold foil threads were no longer avail­able in Bei­jing and all the crafts­peo­ple of this tech­nique in the Nan­jing Gold Foil Fac­tory had al­ready re­tired.

There­fore, the fac­tory had to in­vite re­tired masters to pro­duce gold foil threads for weav­ing. This prac­tice also saved an­other en­dan­gered in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture her­itage— the “gold foil” man­u­fac­tur­ing process. It is said that the most skilled crafts­peo­ple can pro­duce nearly 700 square me­tres of gold foil with just 50 grams of gold.

To make the “soft re­lief” palace car­pets praised by many, flat­ten­ing, wash­ing, piec­ing and cut­ting are the es­sen­tial steps. “flat­ten­ing” is the first process to make the car­pets even and smooth, so that there are no crevices or lines show­ing in the sur­face, but still re­tain the same thick­ness.

The next step is to “wash” the car­pet. The clean­ing mix­ture's main in­gre­di­ents are lye, bleach­ing pow­der and sodium hypochlo­rite, with hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide and ox­alic acid used as sup­ple­men­tal chem­i­cals if needed. Af­ter soak­ing, scrap­ing, brush­ing, drain­ing and flush­ing the car­pet, all the grease, dust and dirt are re­moved and the car­pet looks clean.

Af­ter wash­ing, the wool fi­bres on the sur­face have been im­proved, and the car­pet has a silky lus­tre, ap­pear­ing more regal. Af­ter that, its pat­terns need to be pieced and cut. Com­pared with flat­ten­ing and wash­ing, piec­ing and cut­ting is a process more de­mand­ing of the craftsper­son's skills, and de­ter­mines whether the palace car­pet can meet de­sign re­quire­ments and be a true work of art.

Be­fore stor­ing a palace car­pet, the last process is called “trim­ming.” The process of trim­ming is a com­plex and highly tech­ni­cal task that re­quires pa­tience and care.

Fil­i­gree In­lay­ing

With metal­lic yarn as raw ma­te­rial, the craft is also called the “fine metal work­man­ship.” Among the un­earthed fil­i­gree in­a­lyed ob­jects, a crown dur­ing the reign of Ming Em­peror Wanli is con­sid­ered un­par­al­leled, in­di­cat­ing that this art reached its height dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty. Fil­i­gree in­layed art­works were rare in an­cient China and could only be found in im­pe­rial mau­soleums, since gold was rare and pre­cious.

Mak­ing gold wire is re­garded as the most “ba­sic” process of the craft, and refers to mak­ing solid gold into thread. An ar­ti­san places a cru­cible onto a lit stove, and heats the gold un­til it be­comes liq­uid. The liq­uid is poured into a pa­per tube, where­upon the liq­uid cools and so­lid­i­fies into a gold metal bar.

The ar­ti­san then places the gold onto a ta­ble press with two V-shaped steel grooves, which when put to­gether form a square. Pressed by the solid metal plates, the gold bar be­comes long and thin. This process is done re­peat­edly over an ex­tended pe­riod. The sub­stance that emerges is known as “gold wire,” though at this stage it is still thick and rough.

The ar­ti­san then coils the wire and heats it in a burner, turn­ing it hard once again. This next stage re­quires a spe­cial tool called a thread board. Once the cooled wires have been threaded through holes drilled in the board, ex­tru­sion and stretch­ing will again make them “raw.” Thus, the ar­ti­san once more coils and heats them. Af­ter heat­ing, the ar­ti­san will re­peat­edly thread the wire un­til it be­comes as thin as 0.02 mil­lime­tres, mark­ing the end of the process.

Now, the ar­ti­san must weave two or more wires to­gether. They put the wires on a board, holds them down with a piece of wood, and pushes the wood back and forth. Un­der pres­sure and the force of fric­tion, the wires en­twine to form a dec­o­ra­tive de­sign.

Like­wise, twist­ing hard­ens the wire, mak­ing it brit­tle. Af­ter each twist­ing, the ar­ti­san re­heats the metal. Two or three wires are of­ten twisted to­gether, form­ing the sim­plest and most ba­sic pat­tern.

To trans­form wires into a fin­ished work of art, the ar­ti­san uses eight tra­di­tional tech­niques, each of which is sub­di­vided into va­ri­eties. In­lay­ing forges wires into var­i­ous pat­terns us­ing a pair of tweezers or a clamp, and then sol­der­ing them onto the ob­ject.

The most com­mon method of in­lay­ing gold fil­i­gree is edge­wise in­lay­ing or baok­oux­i­ang. An ar­ti­san presses a cop­per

sheet un­til it reaches an ap­pro­pri­ate thick­ness, cuts the pressed cop­per sheet into strips to form the edge of the bowl, then sol­ders the edges and bot­tom of the bowl to­gether.

The ar­ti­san puts a gem­stone into the cop­per bowl, and with force presses the edges to­ward the bowl cen­tre, hold­ing the gem­stone in place. A bowl made by an ex­pe­ri­enced ar­ti­san will wrap per­fectly around the gem­stone. Edge­wise in­lay­ing makes use of semi-pre­cious stones.

A tra­di­tional tech­nique is re­quired to in­lay pre­cious gems like di­a­monds. A drill bit is se­lected ac­cord­ing to the gem­stone size to punch holes into the fil­i­gree piece. Af­ter the gem­stones are laid, the ar­ti­san should patch the holes with a milling cut­ter.

In June 2008, fil­i­gree in­lay­ing was listed as a State-level In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage item.

Gold-in­laid Lac­quer­ware

Chi­nese lac­quer is a nat­u­ral ma­te­rial that is an­ti­cor­ro­sive, mois­ture-re­sis­tant and wear­resis­tant. Ob­jects coated with such ma­te­rial are glossy, giv­ing them a warm feel­ing. There­fore, all the em­per­ors in Bei­jing through the ages liked to have such ob­jects made us­ing a wooden base, which was painted and dec­o­rated us­ing such tech­niques as in­lay­ing, out­lin­ing in gold, gild­ing, gold in­lay­ing, carv­ing and fill­ing, and draw­ing coloured de­signs. Gold-in­laid lac­quer­ware, known as one of the “Eight Crafts of Bei­jing,” is mag­nif­i­cent but not flam­boy­ant.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, Bei­jing's gold-in­laid lac­quer­ware tech­nique be­came ma­ture and a new tech­nique of soft mother-of-pearl in­lay was cre­ated in the Yuan Dy­nasty. The Ming Dy­nasty saw the de­vel­op­ment of lac­quer­ware flour­ish. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Yon­gle (1403–1425), the court set up an of­fice to pro­duce lac­quer­ware in Guoyuan­chang (now east of Xishiku Av­enue), with gold, sil­ver, tin and wood used as the rough­cast base, and two types of tech­niques—red lac­quer carv­ing and lac­quer fill­ing—were adopted. In the Qing Dy­nasty, 42 work­shops were es­tab­lished un­der the Im­pe­rial House­hold De­part­ment, one of which was a spe­cial lac­quer work­shop. With the end of the monar­chy, this gold-in­laid lac­quer­ware tech­nol­ogy was passed to the com­mon peo­ple.

The suc­cess of a piece of gold-in­laid lac­quer work de­pends on its de­sign. Artistry and prac­ti­cal­ity, mod­el­ling and pat­terns, theme and tech­nol­ogy, ma­te­rial and tech­nique, and main fea­ture and back­ground should act in con­cert with each other and bring out the best in each other. Af­ter the de­sign is fi­nalised, the ar­ti­san chooses fine wood, which is first dried and shaped, to make the base. Af­ter the wood base is pre­pared comes lac­quer coat­ing. First of all, the ar­ti­san will sand the sur­face of the wood base un­til it is flat but not glossy, be­cause lac­quer won't ad­here to a glossy sur­face. Af­ter that, a few coats of Chi­nese nat­u­ral lac­quer or syn­thetic lac­quer will be ap­plied.

Then, the ar­ti­san uses a knife to ap­ply lac­quer ash and a piece of cloth. Lac­quer ash is made by mix­ing raw lac­quer with pow­der made of ground-up roof tiles or porce­lain and con­coct­ing this into a paste, which is ap­plied to the sur­face of the base with a plas­tic scraper or ox horn scraper. As for pieces in a spe­cial struc­ture, spe­cial tools have to be pro­duced us­ing rub­ber or other pli­able, tough ma­te­ri­als. When the lac­quer ash layer is com­pletely dry, it will then be pol­ished with sand­pa­per. Ar­ti­sans need to

re­coat the un­even ar­eas with fine lac­quer ash un­til the sur­face is smooth with­out holes.

As an­other key part of the pro­duc­tion of the base, ap­ply­ing the cloth re­quires su­pe­rior skills: The cor­rectly-cut cloth is evenly coated with raw lac­quer on both sides, then, fol­low­ing a cer­tain or­der, the ar­ti­san places the cloth in the spec­i­fied lo­ca­tion, quickly scrapes it with a scraper, then squeezes out any ex­cess raw lac­quer or bub­bles. Af­ter each lac­quer layer dries out, the ar­ti­san sands it with sand­pa­per. If there are un­even ar­eas or the wood looks bad due to im­proper sand­ing, re­pairs should be promptly made. Af­ter air-dry­ing for about a week un­til the lac­quer base is com­pletely dry, the ar­ti­san again pol­ishes it smoothly with sand­pa­per, and the lac­quer-coated base is com­pleted.

Dur­ing this process, it is nec­es­sary to make the lac­quer colour even and pure, smooth, bright and clean. If nat­u­ral lac­quer needs to dry out in a base­ment, the tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity in the base­ment should be well con­trolled.

At this point, ar­ti­sans will use lac­quer dec­o­ra­tion tech­niques to carry out sur­face dec­o­ra­tion and in­lay. The ma­te­ri­als and tools used in dif­fer­ent pro­cesses, tech­niques ap­plied, and the artis­tic styles that are formed, all make the ap­pear­ance of the fin­ished prod­uct dif­fer­ent.

The dec­o­ra­tion tech­niques in­clude in­lay­ing, draw­ing coloured de­signs, carv­ing and fill­ing, lac­quer ash carv­ing, mak­ing “pat­terned cracks,” and ap­ply­ing “tiger skin” lac­quer. Each of them can be sub­di­vided into many pro­cesses. In­lay­ing means to make re­liefs of peo­ple, flow­ers, birds, rocks, build­ings and so forth by means of en­grav­ing, sand­ing, stack­ing, shov­el­ling, hol­low­ing out, and carv­ing with a va­ri­ety of nat­u­ral soft and hard jade, mother-of-pearl, an­i­mal bones, ox horns and the like as raw ma­te­ri­als, and to in­lay them in the lac­quer base.

If a high re­lief tech­nique is ap­plied, and a three-di­men­sional ef­fect is made in the re­lief, which is called “rec­ti­fi­ca­tion in­lay” and is a more ad­vanced skill. Three­d­i­men­sional in­lay mostly has peo­ple and drag­ons, phoenixes, uni­corns and other birds and an­i­mals as themes.

Ar­ti­sans first make the base in ac­cor­dance with the de­sign re­quire­ments, and then process jade, an­i­mal bones, or mother- of-pearl in­lay into many dif­fer­ent shapes such as slices, shells, scales and lumps, which are care­fully com­bined and stuck to the wood base. This kind of prod­uct is finely carved and care­fully pieced to­gether, a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of form and spirit. Af­ter other work­man­ships are ap­plied, a fine work of art in­laid with gold lac­quer is born.

In re­cent years, ar­ti­sans have made in­no­va­tions and im­prove­ments to the two tra­di­tional pro­cesses of draw­ing coloured de­signs and carv­ing and fill­ing. They have de­vel­oped new, bold tech­niques bor­rowed from Chi­nese paint­ing; based on the tech­niques, they ren­der tra­di­tional lac­quer­ware and fur­ni­ture re­fresh­ing.

Bei­jing Em­broi­dery

The an­cient Chi­nese in­vented em­broi­dery and used it to em­bel­lish brocade to ex­press a va­ri­ety of thoughts. Over thou­sands of years, peo­ple's never-end­ing pur­suit and de­sire for beauty has mo­ti­vated them to do this work. Nei­ther weav­ing nor tex­tile print­ing can cre­ate such charm­ing and ex­quis­ite works of art.

The term “Bei­jing em­broi­dery” refers to im­pe­rial hand-made em­broi­dery that was based on the folk em­broi­dery of North China. It has ab­sorbed the essence of var­i­ous em­broi­dery tech­niques, in­clud­ing Suzhou and Guang­dong em­broi­deries, as well as the best of all the dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of folk em­broi­dery.

As Bei­jing em­broi­dery prod­ucts were made mainly for the im­pe­rial court, there were strict strict aes­thetic stan­dards and spec­i­fi­ca­tions, crafts­peo­ple had to fol­low fixed pro­ce­dures and stan­dards for de­sign­ing pat­terns. Ma­te­ri­als were also care­fully se­lected.

The threads used were mainly made of silk or even real gold, sil­ver or pea­cock feath­ers. Us­ing gold and sil­ver thread to em­broi­der pat­terns of drag­ons and phoenixes

is called pan­jin. Even the or­na­men­ta­tion worn by the im­pe­rial fam­ily were pre­cious, made with pearls, jade and coral beads. Be­cause Bei­jing em­broi­dery prod­ucts were hand­made, fine brocade, satin and silk were se­lected as the fab­ric to em­broi­der on.

The colours of Bei­jing em­broi­dery are or­nate, beau­ti­ful, no­ble and dig­ni­fied, with azure, yel­low, red, blue and pur­ple the main colours, each with its own im­pli­ca­tion. For in­stance, yel­low im­plies power, red for hap­pi­ness and blue for no­bil­ity. The main fea­ture in colour se­lec­tion was that the threads be colour­ful but not vul­gar. From cos­tume pat­terns to ac­ces­sories, all em­broi­dery pre­sented a care­ful com­po­si­tion and dig­ni­fied style.

Most Bei­jing em­broi­dery prod­ucts had an es­sen­tially dif­fer­ent style from folk em­broi­dery prod­ucts. The lat­ter de­picted hob­bies of schol­ars, the com­mon lives of busi­ness­men and the nat­u­ral beauty of the coun­try­side. The for­mer avoided be­ing vul­gar in all its images.

For in­stance, it used the sun, moon and stars to im­ply one's tol­er­ance and in­sight, moun­tains for calm­ness, drag­ons for vari­a­tion, pheas­ants for tal­ent in writ­ing, tigers and an­i­mals for loy­alty, fire for bright­ness, and rice for feed­ing peo­ple. Th­ese im­pli­ca­tions not only re­flected the em­per­ors' wishes, but also im­plic­itly ex­pressed the idea of pray­ing for bless­ings and get­ting rid of bad luck and evil spir­its.

Tools for Bei­jing em­broi­dery are not com­pli­cated, in­clud­ing nee­dles, a tam­bour and a frame. The frame is com­posed of four wooden pan­els of dif­fer­ent lengths. The longer one is called a tam­bour and the horizontal one called a spile.

There are usu­ally seven steps in the tra­di­tional process of Bei­jing em­broi­dery, in­clud­ing mak­ing the lay­out, draw­ing and em­broi­der­ing. At the be­gin­ning, a Bei­jing em­broi­dery craftsper­son needs to draw the pat­terns on wax pa­per. Then he pricks along the pat­terns with a nee­dle and brushes a spe­cial pow­der on the wax pa­per to print pat­terns on the fab­ric. The next step is the most time-con­sum­ing and labour­some: em­broi­der­ing, which best shows the wis­dom and skills of the craftsper­son.

Bei­jing em­broi­dery orig­i­nated in civil so­ci­ety and de­vel­oped in the im­pe­rial court, and even­tu­ally re­turned to civil so­ci­ety. In 2009, the craft was in­cluded in Bei­jing's In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage List.

Ivory Carv­ing

Bei­jing ivory carv­ing is a tra­di­tional craft that formed in Bei­jing more than 2,000 years ago. Dur­ing the Han, Wei, Jin and North­ern dynasties (206 BC– AD 581), the rul­ing class of the feu­dal so­ci­ety ad­vo­cated a lux­u­ri­ous life­style, which made ivory carv­ings sym­bolic of wealth.

Un­til the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, the craft was exclusive to im­pe­rial mem­bers and noble­men. Ivory carvers from Suzhou, Hangzhou and Guangzhou, in­flu­enced by the pref­er­ences of feu­dal mon­archs and by lo­cal Bei­jing crafts­peo­ple, grad­u­ally es­tab­lished a school of ivory carv­ing with Bei­jing's re­gional char­ac­ter­is­tics, which came to rep­re­sent the “north­ern style” of the craft.

The ear­li­est ivory carv­ings were used as prac­ti­cal tools. With thou­sands of years' de­vel­op­ment and cul­tural in­flu­ence, ivory carv­ing has be­come more com­plex in de­sign and tech­nique. In­lay­ing and other tech­niques com­bined or­gan­i­cally with carv­ing. Grad­u­ally, ivory crafts­peo­ple de­vel­oped a process of carv­ing that in­cluded chis­elling, shov­el­ling, pol­ish­ing, colour­ing and yel­low­ing.

When “chis­elling”—also known as “base build­ing”—a craftsper­son carves on the ivory di­rectly with his saw and chisel with­out bozzetto (mud draft) or any other equip­ment. If the ivory is too hard for carv­ing, the craftsper­son will first soak it in wa­ter. Ivory is hard, but can ab­sorb wa­ter,

and af­ter soak­ing it be­comes softer. Based on his de­sign, a craftsper­son knows roughly where the fig­ures or plants are to be carved be­fore any de­tailed work is done.

“Face carv­ing” refers to the elab­o­rate work of carv­ing the face of a fig­ure. The cross-sec­tion of the ivory should be avoided for face carv­ing be­cause web-like strips within the tusk will de­stroy the fi­nal ef­fect. “Shov­el­ling” refers to the de­tailed carv­ing of a fig­ure's hair, head­wear, clothes, ac­ces­sories and items held in a fig­ure's hand to en­sure that they look smooth and vivid upon com­ple­tion.

Af­ter that, colour­ing and yel­low­ing are done if nec­es­sary. The ivory is coloured and painted on the sur­face. Colour­ing is clas­si­fied into “new colour­ing” and “old colour­ing” ac­cord­ing to the paints and dec­o­ra­tive style. “New colour­ing” is done based on the orig­i­nal ivory colour, cov­er­ing the work ei­ther par­tially or en­tirely with trans­par­ent paints.

Par­tial colour­ing is usu­ally used for the face (eye­brows, eye­balls), hair, items held in a fig­ure's hand or on its col­lar, as well as the but­ter­flies and drag­on­flies of a flower-andin­sect piece. Over­all colour­ing is adopted to add colour to all the parts of a work, and also to paint pat­terns when nec­es­sary.

For ex­am­ple, the blos­soms and leaves of a flower-themed ivory work need over­all colour­ing. “Old colour­ing” on the other hand is done with non-trans­par­ent paints af­ter the ivory carv­ing is “yel­lowed.” “Yel­low­ing” refers to the process of ac­cel­er­at­ing the ivory's ox­i­dis­ing and colour- chang­ing in an ar­ti­fi­cial way. In spite of it be­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial tech­nique for pro­duc­ing an an­tique-like fin­ish, “yel­low­ing” also helps pro­tect an ivory work.

Af­ter colour­ing and yel­low­ing are com­plete, only a wooden base and a silk­lined box are needed to make the ivory carv­ing a gen­uine fin­ished work of art. Wooden bases in­laid with sil­ver wires are pop­u­lar in Bei­jing area. All the ivory carv­ings must be stored in silk-lined boxes for bet­ter trans­porta­tion and col­lec­tion.

Nowa­days, with the ivory trade ban and in­creas­ing pro­tec­tion of ele­phants, the in­spi­ra­tion and tech­niques from an­cient his­tory along with the crafts­peo­ple's pro­fes­sional, per­fec­tion­ist spirit will never dis­ap­pear. In a sense, jade, bam­boo and wood carv­ing are an in­her­i­tance and fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of ivory carv­ing.

Jade Carv­ing

Since an­cient times, jade has been con­nected with all that is valu­able and beau­ti­ful. In an­cient China, jade was con­sid­ered a sym­bol of good­ness and no­ble char­ac­ter. The jade dragon carved by the Hong­shan peo­ple 5,000 years ago fully demon­strates the then Chi­nese jade crafts­peo­ple's wis­dom and skill. Even to­day, the work main­tains its mys­tique and arouses end­less imag­i­na­tion.

Jade carv­ing is a tra­di­tional hand­i­craft unique to China. Since an­cient times, it has been di­vided into the “south­ern school” and “north­ern school.” The “north­ern school” rep­re­sented by Bei­jing fea­tures a stately air, cap­tur­ing the cul­tural at­mos­phere and the rhythm of an­cient Bei­jing.

Tra­di­tional Bei­jing jade carv­ings rep­re­sented the top level of the in­dus­try and were mostly made by court crafts­peo­ple, whose work­man­ship was sim­ple, but dig­ni­fied and fine. Af­ter the Qing Dy­nasty was over­thrown, court crafts­peo­ple started to work in pri­vate work­shops and be­came the back­bone of the in­dus­try from the Re­pub­lic of China era to the 1980s. In the 1990s, the style of Bei­jing jade carv­ing be­came more di­verse. Af­ter thou­sands of years of de­vel­op­ment, jade carv­ing has be­come an art with a com­plete pro­duc­tion process and di­verse tech­niques. To do a good job, a craftsper­son must first “read the ma­te­rial,” gain­ing a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of the colour, qual­ity, shape, lus­tre, hard­ness and other nat­u­ral prop­er­ties of the jade. Carv­ing must be done based on the orig­i­nal shape of the jade, and there­fore the craftsper­son usu­ally has the fin­ished prod­uct's look in mind be­fore work be­gins.

The de­sign process in­volves not only the ap­pear­ance of the fin­ished prod­uct but also the tech­nique em­ployed. Tech­niques are adopted based on the nat­u­ral prop­er­ties of the jade and its ex­pected fi­nal shape, so that the fin­ished work is unique.

Carv­ing is di­vided into “pre­lim­i­nary shap­ing” and “fur­ther re­fin­ing.” Be­fore his carv­ing, a craftsper­son first paints lines on the jade to de­fine the gen­eral shape, which is called “shap­ing.” “Fur­ther re­fin­ing” de­ter­mines whether the fin­ished work can be con­sid­ered truly ex­quis­ite.

Through “fur­ther re­fin­ing,” the work takes on a more life­like look, and the fig­ures, land­scapes, birds and an­i­mals seem vivid and re­al­is­tic. Af­ter all the afore­men­tioned steps are com­pleted, the jade has be­come a semi-fin­ished prod­uct that needs only fi­nal pol­ish­ing and dec­o­ra­tion. The sur­face must be pol­ished to get rid of any coarse spots. Fi­nally, the semi-fin­ished prod­uct must be cleaned, oiled and waxed into some­thing smoother and finer.

In 2008, Bei­jing jade carv­ing was in­cluded on the State-level In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage List. In the same year, the Bei­jing Jade Carv­ing Fac­tory was recog­nised as a work­place of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, be­ing called the “birth­place of in­dus­trial art” and the “cra­dle of spe­cialised craft.”

A cloi­sonné lamp

A carved lac­quer vase

A palace car­pet at the Palace of Heav­enly Pu­rity in the For­bid­den City

The crown made dur­ing the reign of Ming Dy­nasty Em­peror Wanli

A gold-in­laid chest of draw­ers

An em­peror‘s dragon robe fea­tur­ing Bei­jing em­broi­dery

An ivory carv­ing

Guan­cang­hai ( View­ing the Sea), a carv­ing on a grey Hotan jade peb­ble

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