Fans of tra­di­tion

Once used as a sta­tus sym­bol and lux­ury ac­ces­sory in China, tra­di­tional fans are now mak­ing a come­back in the world of an­tique col­lec­tion, thanks to a group of crafts­men from Suzhou

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By XUJUNQIAN in Shang­hai Bo Yi­meng con­trib­uted to this story. Con­tact the writer at xujunqian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Tra­di­tional fans are mak­ing a come­back as col­lec­tions.

It is the mid­dle of June in Suzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince, and the tem­per­a­ture is at a sti­fling 32 C. In­side his two-story stu­dio, large beads of sweat trickle down Wang Jian’s wrin­kled fore­head. Within this cozy space, dozens of fold­ing fans lie around, some in their un­fin­ished state. But the Suzhou na­tive is not us­ing any of them to get some re­prieve from the heat.

Made us­ing pa­per and bam­boo, th­ese fans cost at least 15,000 yuan ($2,244) a piece, about five times the price of a stan­dard air-con­di­tion­ing unit in China. There is no up­per limit to the cost of th­ese del­i­cate hand­i­crafts, each of which takes ap­prox­i­mately a month to craft.

Ar­guably China’s most well­known maker of fold­ing fans, Wang thinks that his cre­ations are ac­tu­ally un­der­priced con­sid­er­ing peo­ple’s av­er­age in­comes th­ese days. Back dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (13681644), the time when fold­ing fans peaked in terms of pop­u­lar­ity and di­ver­sity in China, such cre­ations were con­sid­ered trea­sures.

Lo­cal fan re­tail­ers, tour guides and avid fan col­lec­tors have lav­ished praise on Wang through­out the years. The 51-year-old’s cre­ations are so sought af­ter that some even say that it is serendipity, and not money, that gets you one of his fans.

The his­tory of fold­ing fans

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, it was the Ja­panese and Kore­ans who in­vented the fold­ing fan. The item later found its way to China when it was given as a trib­ute to the royal fam­ily dur­ing the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279) be­fore gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity early in the 15th cen­tury. Un­like in the coun­tries of its ori­gin where it was made for ev­ery­day use, fold­ing fans in China were seen as a sta­tus sym­bol and as an ob­jet d’art.

Known as a cra­dle of lit­er­ary fig­ures and men of let­ters, Suzhou has un­sur­pris­ingly be­come a hot­bed for the pro­duc­tion of ex­quis­ite fold­ing fans. There are gen­er­ally three types of fans avail­able in Suzhou— moon­shaped ones made of silk, those crafted us­ing san­dal­wood and those fold­ing fans that come with a blank pa­per cover. The last type is meant ex­clu­sively for peo­ple to paint or write cal­lig­ra­phy on them. As such, it is of­ten re­ferred to as the “literati’s fan” among col­lec­tors.

“It’so­ne­ofthe­few­gad­gets in­China, if not the world, that re­quires both skill­ful crafts­man­ship and skill in paint­ing, cal­lig­ra­phy and lit­er­a­ture. It’s not acom­plete fold­ing fan with­out ei­ther one of the two el­e­ments,” says Wang of the literati ver­sion.

In China, fold­ing fans are hardly ever meant as a means to cool one­self down. There is a strict set of rules on how to un­furl, hold and wave a fold­ing fan. The side of the fan cover that fea­tures paint­ing or words, for ex­am­ple, must al­ways face the out­side for oth­ers to see.

“A fold­ing fan is like a name card. Peo­ple can learn about its owner just by look­ing at the sig­na­tures on the fan. Fac­tors such as the per­son who con­structed the ribs of the fan, the artist who painted on your fan cover all de­ter­mine the sort of the per­son you are. It is kind of like to­day’s so­cial net­works, ex­cept this takes the form of a ma­te­rial ob­ject,” saysWang.

Con­tem­po­rary de­mand

The lat­est craze for literati’s fans oc­curred in 2005, the same year Huang Tian­cai, an avid col­lec­tor from Tai­wan, or­ga­nized an auc­tion in Bei­jing and sold his en­tire col­lec­tion of 232 fold­ing fans for a whop­ping 22.5 mil­lion yuan.

The sen­sa­tional event has since given a mas­sive boost to the pop­u­lar­ity of fold­ing fans, which used to have lit­tle clout in the an­tique col­lec­tion world. The auc­tion is also be­lieved to have re­newed in­ter­est in the col­lec­tion of such fan ribs. Ayear later, a fan rib that is be­lieved to date back to around the 18th cen­tury, sold for a record price of 121,000 yuan at an­other auc­tion.

“Peo­ple have started to re­dis­cover the value of fold­ing fans, but I don’t think they truly un­der­stand it yet,” saysWang.

As an­tique fans are scarce, in­vestors be­gan to eye newly-made ones in­stead, be­liev­ing that their value would ap­pre­ci­ate through time, just likeChina’s aged pu’er tea and ea­gle­wood, or agar­wood.

While the prices of fold­ing fans vary greatly from sev­eral yuan to sev­eral mil­lion yuan, those that are priced above 100 yuan have gen­er­ally seen a gen­eral dou­ble-digit per­cent­age growth in their value. Fac­tors that af­fect the price of a fan range from the ma­te­ri­als used for ribs— usu­ally ivory, wood and bam­boo— to the rep­u­ta­tion of its maker.

“Wang Jian’s fans are def­i­nitely the most pricey. Usu­ally, it’s out of the reach of com­mon re­tail­ers and buy­ers,” says a fan shop owner in Suzhou, who adds that while the pre­mium fold­ing fans are the ones that have al­ways dom­i­nated the spot­light, there is a grow­ing “mid­dle class” in the sce­newhoare will­ing to pay sev­eral hun­dred yuan for a medi­ocre fan “to play with”.

Hum­ble be­gin­nings

Wang first started mak­ing fold­ing fans 35 years ago at a State-owned fan fac­tory in Suzhou. Fas­ci­nated by the com­plex pro­ce­dures in­volved in fan-mak­ing — he says that it takes roughly 300 steps to com­plete a fan — Wang dived into the craft im­me­di­ately af­ter he grad­u­ated from school and has since “been ad­dicted to the magic”.

“It’s hardly pos­si­ble for one to ex­cel in all the steps. But I would like to learn as much as pos­si­ble within my life­time,” he says.

One of Wang’s most no­table achieve­ments is re­viv­ing the craft of Ming Dy­nasty-style, gold-painted, pa­per-cover fold­ing fans. Wang be­lieves that this par­tic­u­lar type of fan rep­re­sents the high­est aes­thet­ics of fold­ing fans. In­deed, its mar­ket price re­flects this as well — the cost of such a fan starts from about 60,000 yuan.

“But prices are only for am­a­teurs to learn its value. Mak­ing fans is the only thing that I am ca­pa­ble of and in­ter­ested in. All I want to do is make real Chi­nese fans,” saysWang.

Wang left the fac­tory and started his epony­mous brand in 2000 when the decade-old fan fac­tory was plagued by low ef­fi­ciency lev­els and had fe­worders com­ing through.

WhenWang de­cided to set up his own busi­ness, the fold­ing fan mar­ket was still in a nascent stage. To­day, his stu­dio has a score of­work­ers and stu­dents who help pro­duce thou­sands of fan ribs and tens of thou­sands of fan cov­ers every year. Most of the fans are made to or­der.

While the stu­dio’s out­put is still low com­pared to an in­dus­tri­al­ized pro­duc­tion line, col­lec­tors and in­vestors are more than ready to wait.

“Th­ese fans are like Her­mes bags. Goods things are al­ways worth wait­ing,” says a cus­tomer at Wang’s stu­dio.

Young blood, old in­dus­try

A grow­ing num­ber of young peo­ple have started to flow into this in­dus­try and are, some­what sur­pris­ingly, mak­ing a good liv­ing de­spite the com­pe­ti­tion.

Li Jing is one such per­son. The 30-year-old na­tive of Ji­ax­ing, a neigh­bor­ing town of Suzhou, says he was born “an old soul” and has been in­ter­ested in Chi­nese tra­di­tional opera and its props ever since he could read and un­der­stand the an­cient Chi­nese lan­guage used in such per­for­mances.

With lit­tle chance to sing opera on and off the stage — he says that his strict par­ents never al­lowed him to — he took a de­tour “to in­dulge in the things he loves”. He later be­came a self-taught moon-shaped fan maker while ma­jor­ing in busi­ness man­age­ment in col­lege.

A widely-used prop for fe­male char­ac­ters in tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera, moon-shaped fans gen­er­ally have a silk cover and frames made from bam­boo or wood. Li’s fans, how­ever, fea­ture a twist. His cre­ations, which are made us­ing re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als from old fur­ni­ture, jew­elry and ac­ces­sories and are sold for thou­sands of yuan, have been quickly snapped up by col­lec­tors.

“The fact that rich Chi­nese shop for lux­ury bags and fancy cars doesn’t mean they have bad taste. It could also mean that those for­eign brands have found a way to cater to their con­tem­po­rary needs. That hap­pens to be some­thing Chi­nese crafts­man are poor at,” says Li.

His bright and well-dec­o­rated stu­dio is hid­den in an al­ley in down­town Suzhou. Like his fans, the stu­dio is quaint but fea­tures a modern touch.

“I be­lieve the pen­chant for tra­di­tional things is deeply rooted in al­most ev­ery­one. As a crafts­man, I feel a need to bring out this in­cli­na­tion in peo­ple and to make tra­di­tion more ac­ces­si­ble,” says Li.

“That is also why every pe­riod in his­tory needs its own crafts­man, de­spite the fact that there is al­ready so many mas­ters ahead of us.”

Wang Jian (top) and Li Jing have each earned ac­claim for their work in craft­ing tra­di­tional fans. Fans that have good crafts­man­ship and in­tri­cate de­signs are highly sought af­ter by col­lec­tors and can cost tens of thou­sands of yuan.

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