By hand, from the heart
An increasing number of people in China are beginning to develop a keen interest in handicrafts, seeing it as an extension of their personality and a way to preserve traditional techniques
Chen is among an increasing number of people in the country who are beginning to find satisfaction in traditional handicrafts.
Zhang Yan, the founder of Yun Handicraft School, said that she has witnessed a rise in interest in handicraft among those from the younger generation. The school currently has around 10,000 students who are mostly aged in their 30s. The school offers courses at its three branches in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, Jiangsu province.
“Since last year, we’ve noticed a spike in the number of applications from white collars and freelancers who are looking for handicraft courses to kill time, slow down their pace of life and explore the meaning of craftsmanship,” said Zhang, who started the business because of her interest in traditional handicrafts.
In 2013, Zhang and her friend from Suzhou, Jiangsu province came up with the idea to introduce handicraft courses to people like themselves. They first started by organizing classes on Suzhou embroidery — it is an art form that has a history of more than 2,500 years — where professional craftsmen would teach participants how to use the relevant tools and stitch patterns on clothes.
Since then, the duo have expanded their range of courses to include traditional claboratestyle painting, printing and dyeing, as well as papermaking. Currently, the three branches of the school offer more than 20 courses across three categories — painting, printing and dyeing and wood carving — with each class lasting three hours.
“I was initially only interested in handicrafts but now I find myself intrigued and eager to find out more about how we can retain traditional handicraft techniques in today’s modern era and how people can apply such methods and materials in their daily lives,” said Zhang.
Unlike courses that offer ready-to-use materials and tools, Yun Handicraft School only provides raw materials to students so that they can learn about the entire crafting process.
For example, students enrolled in the newly launched papermaking class start by learning how to steam tree bark and create paper pulp before ending up with rough paper. They also learn how to extract color from plants and apply plant ash in other courses such as traditional painting and dyeing.
“We are keen to restore ancient handicraft techniques and apply them in the creation process for modern goods like clothes, accessories and cushions. This ensures that we pass the craftsmanship spirit on to the future generations,” said Zhang.
In this year’s Government Work Report, Premier Li Keqiang said the country will “encourage enterprises to use flexible and custom-tailored production processes and foster a craftsmanship spirit of striving for the best, so that more types of products, products of higher quality, and brand products will be made”.
It was the first time the term “craftsmanship spirit” — it refers to the dedication that craftsmen have for their work — was mentioned in the Government Work Report and experts believe that it signifies a move by the central government to encourage enterprises and individuals to cultivate such a spirit to facilitate economic restructuring and promote innovation.
“The emphasis on craftsmanship by the central government has led to a growing trend where more individuals are getting interested in making products with their own hands as part of efforts to pursue the origins of handmade traditions,” said Yu Hai, a sociology professor at Fudan University.
“However, it is also essential to combine traditional techniques with innovative ideas to create unique handmade products that can be widely applied and used in daily life.”
Another individual who has Hugo Qiu, embraced this new trend is Hugo Qiu, a 36-year-old parttime leatherware maker who owns his brand Muke.
Qiu, who prefers to be called a craftsman instead of the boss of his own business, first became acquainted with leatherworking about a decade ago when he attempted to create a camera cover for his own use. He failed on his first attempt.
Determined to master the art of leatherworking, Qiu did extensive research into the craft and self-taught himself leathercutting and hand-stitching techniques in order to create goods such as wallets and bags.
After years of practice, Qiu is now well-known in the leatherware industry and his handmade Muke wallets command prices ranging from 900 to 2700 yuan. Today, he spends about three to four hours every day at his studio that has about 50 types of leatherworking tools and equipment.
“My items may have simple designs but they are made with fine leather and feature intricate stitching. They can be used for a long time,” said Qiu, who counts himself to be rather lucky as he has a regular clientele that keeps him busy with orders of between five and six pieces every month.
Qiu said that it is the dedication to creating unique products of high quality, instead of earning income from his passion that truly matters to him. He added that he prefers to take his time with crafting items so that he can be focused at every step of the process, ensuring that his clients as well as his own expectations are met.
For instance, Qiu admitted that he is still working on a wallet that was ordered by a client two years ago, citing his own dissatisfaction with the product as the main cause of the delay.
“I treasure the spirit of craftsmanship and this is something that will last until I die. I want to make small amounts of leather products that hold my feelings and ideas,” said Qiu.
“I am always delighted when clients send my products back for maintenance. This shows that my work is valued and it also reminds me why I became a craftsman in the first place.”
are made with fine leather and are intricately stitched. I treasure the spirit of craftsmanship and this is something that will last until I die. I want to make small amounts of leather products that hold my feelings and ideas.”
a 36-year-old part-time leatherware maker who owns his brand Muke.
Chen Jing'ao works on the keel of his first handmade boat, which he used during his marriage proposal.