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
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.
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”.
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.