Bless­ings from the Pin­wheel

Ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, pin­wheels, also known as jix­i­ang lun (aus­pi­cious wheels) or bagua fenglun (tri­gram wheels), bring about joy and hap­pi­ness to fam­i­lies.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated from Png Yu Fung Edited by Mark Zuiderveld

Ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, a pin­wheel, also known as jix­i­ang lun (aus­pi­cious wheel) or bagua fenglun (tri­gram wheel), brings about fam­ily joy and hap­pi­ness. The tra­di­tional pin­wheel looks like a sim­ple toy, but bears the un­for­get­table child­hood mem­ory of Bei­jing lo­cals and is con­sid­ered a must-have at the tem­ple fairs.

As de­scribed in Di­jing jing­wulüe (“records of Bei­jing’s scenery”) of the late Ming Dy­nasty ( 1368– 1644), a pin­wheel is made us­ing two- inch sorghum sticks and red and green paper squares. When the wind blows, the pin­wheel spins, mix­ing both colours like the so­lar halo and pro­duc­ing a beau­ti­ful, chro­matic cir­cle.

In Wux­inzhuang Vil­lage, Xiji Town, Tongzhou Dis­trict of Bei­jing, there lives a fam­ily who in­her­ited the na­tional in­tan­gi­ble her­itage of mak­ing pin­wheels, an art with hun­dreds of years of his­tory in China. Liang Jun, 84 years old, started learn­ing how to make pin­wheels from his fa­ther to grand­fa­ther since age ten. He is a third gen­er­a­tion crafts­man in his fam­ily. To­day, he has passed down

the skills far this tra­di­tional art to his son and is en­joy­ing fam­ily life. He would some­times make chil­dren’s toys like toy roost­ers and tam­bourines, find­ing en­joy­ment in what he does.

The Leg­end

As visi­tors en­ter the small court­yard of Liang’s house, they are sur­rounded by gor­geous pin­wheels, in­clud­ing the two-wheeled tra­di­tional pin­wheel, five-wheeled cre­ative pin­wheel and 50-wheeled large-scale pin­wheel.

Liang ex­plained that the toy pin­wheel is unique to China and they are mostly found in Bei­jing. Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the pin­wheel was in­vented by Jiang Ziya, an an­cient Chi­nese mil­i­tary strategist. One day, a bird with ten heads, re­spon­si­ble for es­cort­ing the Queen of Heaven, was be­headed for eat­ing the trib­ute and sent to the mor­tal world for re­pen­tance. How­ever, it con­tin­ued to spread evil and Jiang had to deal with and dom­i­nate it us­ing the “rod of heaven and earth.” Af­ter­wards, com­mon folk came up with some­thing sim­i­lar to the “rod of heaven and earth” to dis­pel evil and pray for aus­pi­cious­ness, and named it fengche (pin­wheel).

The Liang fam­ily has al­ways lived in Tongzhou, the place where Liang’s grand­fa­ther spent his whole life mak­ing pin­wheels and kites. He was a well-known fig­ure there. Around Spring Fes­ti­val each year, Liang’s grand­fa­ther would ride a don­key with his beau­ti­ful pin­wheels, make his way to the tem­ple fairs in Zhangji­awan town and put the pin­wheels up for sale. Al­though Liang’s grand­fa­ther would some­times set up a stall, there were times when he would move about the streets to sell them.

Liang’s fa­ther in­her­ited the art of mak­ing tra­di­tional pin­wheels. Dur­ing the Spring Fes­ti­val and month of March, Liang’s whole fam­ily would make and sell pin­wheels and kites to­gether. Most adults would buy a pin­wheel for their kids for fun. Grad­u­ally, the Liang fam­ily’s pin­wheels be­came well-known in Tongzhou.

Mak­ing a Name

It has been about 70 years since Liang started learn­ing how to make a pin­wheel at ten years old. With his life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence, he de­scribed the skills in­volved in mak­ing pin­wheels as “easy to learn, dif­fi­cult to per­fect, hard to in­no­vate.”

“It is easy to pick up the skills of mak­ing a tra­di­tional pin­wheel. As long as one is deft, he would be able to make a pin­wheel even with­out any foun­da­tion.” ex­plains Liang. Liang has al­ready mas­tered the dozens of steps re­quired in mak­ing pin­wheels. Most of his ap­pren­tices started out with­out any ba­sics. A pin­wheel may not be a pre­cise in­stru­ment. How­ever, there are par­tic­u­lar de­mands in its struc­ture, size and colour ar­range­ment. Most of the pin­wheels sold at tem­ple fairs are eas­ily ru­ined, but Liang is con­fi­dent that his pin­wheels can last for 30 years. He grows his own red sorghum, a qual­ity ma­te­rial he uses for his pin­wheels. Af­ter con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments, Liang de­cided that non-wo­ven fab­ric is the best choice for storng and good­look­ing pin­wheels.

Liang didn’t merely de­velop the skill of mak­ing tra­di­tional pin­wheels but also in­no­vated to give pin­wheels a new mean­ing. Tra­di­tional Bei­jing pin­wheels had 10 wheels at most, but Liang cre­ated one that has 289 wheels and is at five me­tres ( m) in height. He also re­duced the size of a

10- wheeled pin­wheel from 1.5 m to 45 cen­time­tres ( cm). The pin­wheels he makes can be so tiny that they can be placed in palms, or so large that they are nearly the size of a bi­cy­cle. Liang also had new ideas for the vol­ume of the drum and the sound pro­duced by the drum­stick, to per­fect his pin­wheels.

Ac­cord­ing to Liang, it’s chal­leng­ing to make in­no­va­tive pin­wheels since it re­quires mul­ti­ple skills. For ex­am­ple, a 300- wheeled pin­wheel must be very sturdy and re­quires car­pen­try skills for the bam­boo. The pin­wheel has to be de­tach­able for

easy trans­porta­tion. This in­volves me­chan­i­cal de­sign and sketch­ing. To make Liang’s type of pin­wheels, one needs to learn how to make kites. Many peo­ple have come from all over to learn how to make pin­wheels from him. Yet none of the ap­pren­tices could sur­pass Liang be­cause they didn’t have his spe­cial touch or the right skills to make pin­wheels.

A pin­wheel may be small, but is made us­ing the sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples of trigonom­e­try, ge­om­e­try, weather and power. While in­her­it­ing this tra­di­tional art, Liang man­aged to cre­ate a gi­gan­tic Tongzhou pin­wheel with dis­tinc­tive Bei­jing flavour, which later be­came a cul­tural land­mark at Bei­jing’s tem­ple fairs dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val and folk fes­ti­vals. The “gi­gan­tic pin­wheel” was even­tu­ally in­cluded in the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage di­rec­to­ries.

Work­man­ship

A pin­wheel may be a toy for chil­dren, but there are about forty or fifty steps in­volved in the process to pro­duce the var­i­ous parts, in­clud­ing the frame, drum hoop, drum head and wheel.

The first step is to make a clay drum us­ing good qual­ity loess that is tacky and not rigid. In or­der to find the most suit­able clay, Liang vis­ited many places on his bi­cy­cle and found a place named Lan­tayao in Dahuangzhuang, Xianghe County of He­bei prov­ince, 30 kilo­me­tres from his home. The place fires brick all year round and has good soil tex­ture. He hired peo­ple to dig good qual­ity soil from 30 me­tres be­low ground to make clay drums.

The soil can’t be used im­me­di­ately, and is left alone to let air in­side the soil dis­perse, slowly chang­ing its soil tex­ture. Im­pu­ri­ties like macadam, splin­ters of wood and small bam­boo sticks are re­moved. Im­pu­ri­ties are fil­tered and the wa­ter in the soil is volatilised to at­tain del­i­cate clay. To moisten the clay, paper scraps are added. The clay is then moulded into the shape of a drum hoop and left to dry for three to five days.

The drum head used to be made with kraft paper im­proved from Korea that Liang or­dered from Tian­jin. The kraft paper is thin, firm and tough. He later dis­cov­ered that Ja­pan had kraft paper with even bet­ter qual­ity and de­cided to use it even though this would in­crease pro­duc­tion costs. The drum head is made by fit­ting the kraft paper onto the drum hoop at a cer­tain de­gree of tight­ness so that the drum is firm and durable and the sound pro­duced would have vi­brato.

The clay drum is the main com­po­nent of the pin­wheel, made up of dozens of hand­made parts. The frame is made us­ing red sorghum for ap­peal and the joints are con­nected with bam­boo nails. Creat­ing the wheels takes the most ef­fort. The bam­boo skin is trimmed into strips, soaked in warm wa­ter, made into a round shape us­ing a clamp­ing fix­ture and fi­nally con­nected to the cen­tre axle to make a 13- cm wheel.

The strip on the pin­wheel used to be made with white writ­ing paper made from bam­boo, and breaks eas­ily when there’s high wind. Liang de­cided to use high­qual­ity, non-wo­ven fab­rics, cut­ting it into strips 60 cm in length and 16 cm in width and dye­ing them red, yel­low and green. The strips are soaked thor­oughly to en­sure that the colours on both sides are equally bright. Af­ter be­ing aired to dry, the strips are fur­ther trimmed to suit­able lengths.

Af­ter the coloured strips are ready, the next step is to make the cen­tre of the wheel. A rec­tan­gu­lar open­ing is cre­ated at the two cm mark on the five- cm long sorghum stick, so that the coloured strips can pass through. A 13- cm fine bam­boo stick is bound to the frame and di­vided into two cir­cles. The joint is con­nected us­ing la­tex. The 12 coloured strips are passed through the open­ing and glued at a tilted an­gle to al­low for the re­volv­ing move­ment. The parts are even­tu­ally at­tached onto the bam­boo sticks and a colour­ful pin­wheel is com­pleted.

The 12 coloured pieces on the up­per half of the pin­wheel rep­re­sent the months in a year while the 24 coloured pieces rep­re­sent the 24 so­lar terms. The pin­wheel is placed on the holder and se­cured with glue

so that it won’t loosen or de­tach. The drum is fas­tened onto the pin­wheel while the plec­trum and bam­boo drum stick are at­tached with ny­lon rope.

Beauty in Con­cep­tion

Pin­wheels are com­monly seen at tem­ple fairs dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val.

It is said that when the wind blows and pin­wheels spin, hap­pi­ness and aus­pi­cious­ness will soon fol­low. Liang said it is easy to make pin­wheels but dif­fi­cult to give a spe­cial mean­ing to them. For ex­am­ple, the coloured strips each have a dif­fer­ent mean­ing: red rep­re­sents sun­shine, yel­low rep­re­sents Chi­nese de­scen­dents and green rep­re­sents the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. To­gether, it sig­ni­fies peo­ple liv­ing un­der the sun in har­mony. Liang once made a “289-Pin­wheels” for a Hong Kong cus­tomer, as it means “let’s get rich to­gether.”

In 2009, to com­mem­o­rate the 60th an­niver­sary of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, Liang spent three months from the con­cep­tu­al­is­ing to the creat­ing of a 60-wheeled “Na­tional Day Pin­wheel.” The wheels rep­re­sent 60 years of time the coun­try has been through while the five flags on the pin­wheel rep­re­sent “five bless­ings and longevity,” sym­bol­is­ing wishes for na­tional pros­per­ity.

The tra­di­tional Bei­jing pin­wheel is bright in colour, makes a quiet sound, spins flex­i­bly and is heard when­ever there’s wind. Al­though it has a tra­di­tional ap­pear­ance, the pin­wheel has a unique ap­peal and re­flects the cre­ativ­ity of labour­ers. None of the com­po­nents of the pin­wheel is worth a lot; sorghum stalks are used as fire­wood and clay can be ob­tained any­where. The only ma­te­ri­als that are dif­fer­ent on some of the pin­wheels to­day are the Ja­panese paper and rub­ber bands, which are some­times used to re­place thread. The pin­wheel is al­to­gether low- cost prod­uct made from re­cy­clables. How­ever, the pin­wheel has its own charm, re­mind­ing the el­derly of their child­hood and is well liked by chil­dren to­day. A child run­ning in the wind with a pin­wheel feels more care­free than one us­ing a smart­phone or com­puter. Liang be­lieves that the de­sign of the tra­di­tional pin­wheel can still be im­proved. The ten- wheeled pin­wheel is too large and not con­ve­nient enough for chil­dren to play with, so he re­duced the blade di­am­e­ter of the wheel and used iron wire from bi­cy­cles to make the wheel and axle, in­creas­ing the force of the wind ro­tor. He also re­placed the silk cloth on the pin­wheel with 24 coloured strips made of radic­u­lar fiber, and fur­ther im­proved the frame and colours of the pin­wheel. His well- de­signed pin­wheels spin freely with a res­o­nant sound, look­ing like flow­ers fly­ing in the air.

Liang never stopped brain­storm­ing new ideas and cre­ated a va­ri­ety of in­no­va­tive pin­wheels. In 1997, he made many pin­wheels with many dif­fer­ent num­bers of wheels. Dur­ing a Spring Fes­ti­val ex­hi­bi­tion, he cre­ated a dis­play of yi­fan­feng­shui ( wish­ing one suc­cess) all with pin­wheels. Liang also cre­ated pin­wheels for other events in­clud­ing Hong Kong’s re­turn to China and 2001‘s suc­cess­ful bid for the Olympics. The fa­mous and cel­e­bra­tory Olmypic logo pin­wheel he made re­flected his ex­cite­ment towards the suc­cess­ful bid for the Olympic Games, as a folk artist.

Liang smiled proudly while speak­ing about the hun­dreds of thou­sands of beau­ti­ful pin­wheels he’s made, say­ing, “You can hear it even when there’s no wind. And when there’s wind, you hear it con­stantly. The wind blows and the pin­wheel moves, spin­ning luck and wealth to its owner. This is the unique qual­ity of my pin­wheels.”

Pho­tos by Ma Ke

Olympic themed pin­wheels made by Liang Jun

Cut­ting bam­boo sticks

Assem­bling a pin­wheel

Mak­ing a clay drum

Assem­bling the frame of a pin­wheel

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