Car­ry­ing for­ward a legacy of cre­at­ing art on metal

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By ZHANG KUN in Shang­hai zhangkun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

When Gu Qin was a school boy, he used to help with his fa­ther’s metal carv­ing work in or­der to earn pocket money.

To­day, Gu has come full cir­cle by car­ry­ing on his fa­ther’s legacy and pro­mot­ing the craft — it is rec­og­nized as one of Shang­hai’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itages — in for­eign lands.

From Jan­uary 12 to 13, Gu’s cre­ations of iron teapots fea­tur­ing elab­o­rate metal carv­ings, as well as a col­lec­tion of carv­ing pat­terns, will be show­cased at the Ex­hi­bi­tion of Chi­nese In­dus­try and Com­merce in Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia.

Gu is an ex­pe­ri­enced de­signer of Chi­nese gar­dens too. His de­signs were ex­hib­ited at the 2008 Shang­hai De­sign Bi­en­nale.

“Many sec­ond- and third-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants from China in Amer­ica are in­ter­ested in hav­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese gar­den art in their back­yards. It is their way of find­ing some con­nec­tion with their home and dis­cov­er­ing their cul­tural iden­tity,” said Gu.

Gu has through the decades been doc­u­ment­ing carv­ing pat­terns found in an­cient works as well as vin­tage build­ings and gar­dens. With the help of his stu­dents at the Shang­hai In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Gu has to date doc­u­mented hun­dreds of de­signs of an­cient Chi­nese gar­den win­dows, paths and handrails.

“They come from the same cul­tural root and they of­ten rep­re­sent the phi­los­o­phy of the owner of the place. Such pat­terns can al­ways be adapted for metal carv­ing,” said Gu.

The craft of metal carv­ing, called zan ke in Chi­nese, has been passed down three gen­er­a­tions in the Gu fam­ily. While their an­ces­tors hailed from Wuxi, Jiangsu prov­ince, Gu’s fa­ther had moved his fam­ily to Shang­hai in or­der to pro­vide his chil­dren with more mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion.

Fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of his stud­ies in civil en­gi­neer­ing, the pa­tri­ach Gu Zheng worked as a crafts­man who re­stored an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture in Shang­hai. Metal carv­ing later be­came a side project that he would work on dur­ing his spare time.

“There was a time when the mu­nic­i­pal­ity re­cruited crafts­men to cre­ate pieces for ex­port. As it was eas­ier to carve on flat sur­faces than those with curves, my fa­ther al­lowed me to try my hand at it,” re­called Gu of his in­tro­duc­tion to the craft.

Ac­cord­ing to Gu, metal carv­ing was pop­u­lar­ized dur­ing the Ming dy­nasty (1368-1644) when metal plates dec­o­rated with carv­ings were widely used to strengthen mor­tise joints. The craft was also com­monly ap­plied to fur­ni­ture pieces and other house­hold wares. In south­west­ern China, metal carv­ing was also com­monly em­ployed in jew­elry de­sign while in north China, the craft was used in cloi­sonné art.

While com­puter pro­gram­ming to­day en­ables ac­cu­rate and quick re­pro­duc­tion of metal carv­ings, be it in re­stored gar­dens or on an­tique fur­ni­ture pieces, Gu ar­gues that ma­chines lack the hu­man touch.

“With the help of com­puter tech­nol­ogy, ma­chin­ery can eas­ily re­peat carv­ings ac­cu­rately, how­ever many times you need. But it is still ex­tremely im­por­tant to pre­serve tra­di­tional de­signs and pat­terns. This is, af­ter all, the core of her­itage,” said Gu.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

metal carv­ing art­work

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