The Crafts­man­ship of Metal En­grav­ing

Mengx­i­ang (“Mon­gol in­lay­ing”), also known as metal en­grav­ing, is an art form passed down through a merg­ing of Mon­go­lian and Ti­betan metal crafts with Han metal craft. It com­bines gold and sil­ver ware pro­duc­tion with gem in­lay­ing.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Roberta Raine Pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

Ar­ti­san Wu Zhongfeng has been en­gaged in Mengx­i­ang (“Mon­gol in­lay­ing”) for more than 40 years. Ev­ery piece of work em­bod­ies her de­vo­tion to the craft.

Aheavy snow greeted Bei­jing in the win­ter of 1992. In the meet­ing room of the Bei­jing Metal Hand­i­craft Fac­tory, sev­eral se­nior ar­ti­sans were dis­cussing how to en­grave a gold nine- dragon screen in­laid with gems. They ex­pressed their ideas but no­body would take the job. “It’s a job that in­volves com­pli­cated tech­niques and the fi­nal look can’t be guar­an­teed,” some­one said. A recog­nised skilled ar­ti­san stud­ied the pic­ture of the nine- dragon wall in Bei­hai Park for a while and shook his head, say­ing, “Even if all the pieces are pro­duced, they can’t be welded to­gether to form a square.” Then he left. At that mo­ment, some­one sug­gested that Wu Zhongfeng, a woman who once worked in the same fac­tory, be con­sulted as a last re­sort. They de­cided that one of them should go to see Wu in per­son.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, shortly after the ar­ti­san went to see Wu Zhongfeng, the gen­eral man­ager of a clas­si­cal art de­vel­op­ment com­pany in Bei­jing also had the idea to see Wu for the same rea­son. The gen­eral man­ager was ob­sessed with tra­di­tional hand­i­crafts and wanted to have a trea­sure made for him­self by us­ing metal en­grav­ing. Ac­cord­ing to him, he wanted to prove that th­ese tra­di­tional skills could be in­her­ited and handed down. Through var­i­ous con­nec­tions, he found her and in­vited her to pro­duce a gold nine-dragon screen in­laid with gems.

After care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, Wu took the job. It was not easy for her to make this de­ci­sion, but she chose to take the job be­cause she be­lieved that it was a chance to bring the tra­di­tional craft back to pop­u­lar­ity, fully utilise her skills and pro­duce a real trea­sure. Although she faced many chal­lenges, such as a lack of fund­ing and per­son­nel, she nonethe­less started this dif­fi­cult job that would even­tu­ally take her six long years.

A Brief In­tro­duc­tion to the Craft

Mengx­i­ang (“Mon­gol in­lay­ing”), also known as metal en­grav­ing, is a tra­di­tional craft that com­bines gold and sil­ver ware pro­duc­tion with gem in­lay­ing. As it is in­her­ited through oral teach­ings that in­spire true un­der­stand­ing be­tween teacher and stu­dent, the craft re­mains rather mys­te­ri­ous to out­siders. In 1971, Wu Zhongfeng, still less than 16 years old, started learn­ing the skill in the orig­i­nal Bei­jing Metal Hand­i­craft Fac­tory. Now she has been en­gaged in this in­dus­try for more than 40 years. For her, ev­ery piece of work that she does em­bod­ies her de­vo­tion to the craft.

“Mon­gol in­lay­ing is an art form passed down through a merg­ing of Mon­go­lian and Ti­betan metal crafts with Han metal craft,” said Wu. Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), with the con­struc­tion of the Lama Tem­ple and other tem­ples in Bei­jing, Bud­dhist sculp­tures and other re­li­gious ar­ti­cles were in high de­mand, which di­rectly pro­moted other re­lated in­dus­tries and helped the Mon­gol metal en­grav­ing and in­lay­ing craft reach its peak. Dur­ing the Tongzhi pe­riod (1862–1875) of the Qing Dy­nasty, the bronze en­grav­ing ar­ti­sans in Bei­jing and ar­ti­sans of the Qing Im­pe­rial Work­shop opened the Ronghe Bronze Bud­dha Statue Shop near the Lama Tem­ple, which spe­cialised in the pro­duc­tion of Bud­dha stat­ues, re­li­gious ar­ti­cles and ex­quis­ite gold and sil­ver cer­e­mo­nial ware for the palace. This pe­riod marked the early de­vel­op­ment of the craft in Bei­jing.

Draw­ing De­signs

By 1992, Wu Zhongfeng had left the Bei­jing Metal Hand­i­craft Fac­tory, where she had worked for more than 20 years, and opened a pri­vate stu­dio. To main­tain its op­er­a­tions, the Bei­jing Metal Hand­i­craft Fac­tory had to pro­duce daily ar­ti­cles such as hot pots and tro­phies, and the pro­duc­tion of tra­di­tional Mon­gol in­laid hand­i­crafts ceased. As the whole in­dus­try was fac­ing a time of change, ar­ti­sans also had to con­sider mak­ing a sec­ond choice of ca­reer. At that time, the first- gen­er­a­tion ar­ti­sans had ba­si­cally re­tired from the fac­tory. Mid­dle-aged ar­ti­sans wouldn’t give up so eas­ily and con­tin­ued to try to look for new ways to prac­tise and hand down their craft. As for the young ar­ti­sans, be­fore they had enough time to re­ally un­der­stand the old craft, they were forced to look for other work.

In early 1988, sev­eral mid­dle-aged ar­ti­sans who had worked in the Bei­jing Metal Hand­i­craft Fac­tory took some young ar­ti­sans to Shen­zhen in the hope that the old craft could be re­vived there. After tin­ker­ing around, they fi­nally came up with the plan to make a gold nine-dragon screen in­laid with gems. Un­for­tu­nately, the project was de­layed due to a fail­ure in ne­go­ti­a­tions.

After learn­ing of the project, Wu Zhongfeng agreed to act as a leader. She vis­ited the nine-dragon walls in Anyang and Datong in per­son. She went dozens of times to the nine-dragon walls in Bei­hai Park and the Palace Mu­seum and took thou­sands of pho­tos. She minutely drew nearly 1,300 draw­ings of the dif­fer­ent parts of the dragon, and after care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion spent about a year and a half re­vis­ing the de­sign. After more than 50 re­vi­sions and nine mod­i­fi­ca­tions to the over­all de­sign, Wu fi­nally fin­ished more than 800 draw­ings to be used for pro­duc­tion.

The im­age of the dragon is a com­bi­na­tion of the parts of many dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. It has the horns of a deer, the body of a snake, the eyes of a tiger, the lips of an ox, the claws of an ea­gle, the mane of a horse and the scales of a fish, and is a com­bi­na­tion of an­i­mals most of­ten wor­shipped in Chi­nese folk so­ci­ety.

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