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.
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.
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.