Vat­man Zhou Donghong: Life of a Mas­ter Crafts­man

China Pictorial (English) - - Five Years Of Hard-won Achievements - Text by Zhou Xin Pho­to­graphs by Zheng Liang (

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1985, in a small, pic­turesque vil­lage in An­hui Prov­ince, Zhou Donghong, then 18, snuck back home af­ter work­ing for a week in a pa­per fac­tory. He was sore from head to toe, and blis­ters cov­ered his soaked hands. He wanted to quit. At the time, he could have never imag­ined re­turn­ing to work there for more than three straight decades, but it even­tu­ally hap­pened. He is now a fa­mous crafts­man with ex­quis­ite skill.

Cal­lig­ra­phy is an artis­tic trea­sure of Chi­nese cul­ture, while Xuan pa­per (a tra­di­tional rice pa­per) shoul­ders the cru­cial task of car­ry­ing it. The man­u­fac­tur­ing of Xuan pa­per is the jewel in the crown of China’s pa­per tech­nol­ogy. From raw ma­te­ri­als to fin­ished prod­uct, each roll of Xuan pa­per un­der­goes 108 steps, and the full process can take up to three years. Cre­at­ing a great Xuan pa­per crafts­man takes even more years of hard work.

Ab­sent-minded Ap­pren­tice

Zhou Donghong was born in Dingji­aqiao Town of Jingx­ian County, where Xuan pa­per orig­i­nated and con­tin­ues to be pro­duced. In July 1985, Zhou de­cided he was ready to make a liv­ing on his own. Thanks to a rec­om­men­da­tion from his un­cle, he ven­tured into a lo­cal Xuan pa­per fac­tory.

His un­cle had taken him to visit the work­shops of the en­tire fac­tory. When they ar­rived at the work­shop for vat­men, Zhou’s eyes lit up. Vat­men stood on ei­ther side of a wa­ter tank filled with pa­per pulp. Each clutched one end of a bam­boo screen and swung it back and forth to “vat” a piece of pa­per. The en­tire process takes less than 20 sec­onds. “The work­shop was cool and the process very sim­ple,” Zhou re­calls. “Each pa­per was made with two swings, so I thought I could do it.”

A week later, he re­al­ized that the seem­ingly easy task was far from it. He spent over ten hours ev­ery day stand­ing next to the wa­ter tank, and blis­ters formed on his hands af­ter be­ing soaked in wa­ter for so long. With­out telling his boss, he snuck back home. He dared not tell his mother ei­ther, and in­stead told her the fac­tory was on hol­i­day.

A week later, Zhou’s un­cle found the miss­ing child at home. When his mother heard the truth, she scolded him. Be­fore learn­ing pa­per vat­ting, Zhou had al­ready worked for half a year as a car­pen­ter. He con­sid­ered it too ex­haust­ing and gave up. Zhou com­plained to his mother that “vat­ting pa­per is even harder than car­pen­try. You have to stand for over ten hours and get blis­ters all over your hands.” His mother replied, “You won’t do this or that, so what is it that you can do?”

Zhou re­con­sid­ered. “If some­one else can do it, why can’t I?” he thought. Even­tu­ally, he headed back to the pa­per fac­tory.

No Man Is a Mas­ter the First Day

Later, Zhou trans­ferred to the Jingx­ian Xuan Pa­per Fac­tory, the pre­de­ces­sor of to­day’s China Xuan Pa­per Group Cor­po­ra­tion, to con­tinue work­ing. In this new en­vi­ron­ment, Zhou had a hard time find­ing a good men­tor. Six months later, he had failed to mas­ter the essen­tial skills of his job. He could vat pa­per, but the qual­ity was not es­pe­cially promis­ing.

He and a col­league at the same level worked more than ten hours a day, but failed to com­plete their as­signed tasks in the first two months. Pa­per-vat­ting pays by the vol­ume of pieces pro­duced, so he only re­ceived a nom­i­nal salary of around 20 yuan. Af­ter about eight or nine months, Zhou went home again and told his mother that pa­per-vat­ting did not earn enough money.

His mother re­torted, “Why can oth­ers earn a liv­ing and not you?”

“It’s not that I can’t do it, but I can’t get the hang of it.”

“How can you do your job well with­out set­tling down to learn?”

Af­ter more of his mother’s per­sua­sion, Zhou re­turned again. This time, he got in touch with Mr. Shen, the best crafts­man in the fac­tory, and be­gan learn­ing from him. Shen was happy to teach him.

When pa­per is pro­duced, un­qual­i­fied prod­ucts have to be beaten into pa­per pulp again, and the qual­ity of rice pa­per made out of re­cy­cled pulp is even bet­ter. This time, Zhou made up his mind to learn the tech­niques well, and his tal­ent as a vat­man was grad­u­ally dis­cov­ered.

It takes two peo­ple to vat pa­per, and one must lead. The per­son in charge is called Zhanglian, and the as­sis­tant is called Tail­ian. The rice pa­per qual­ity de­pends pri­mar­ily on the Zhanglian. Zhou was con­sci­en­tious. When he vat­ted pa­per, he never hes­i­tated to ask ques­tions, and even asked his men­tor for ad­vice. Af­ter a pe­riod of time, the stu­dious boy wanted to try his hand at serv­ing as the Zhanglian. The fac­tory had just re­cruited a num­ber of ap­pren­tices, so he asked the mas­ters to sleep in and let him wake up early to vat pa­per, with the ap­pren­tices serv­ing as Tail­ian.

“The dif­fi­cult part is be­ing able to vat any type of Xuan pa­per, whether it’s sup­posed to be thick or thin, large or small.” Vat­ting pa­per evenly is not the only worry, be­cause the weight must also be en­sured. There are many va­ri­eties of rice pa­per, and the fixed weight of each type varies. Each piece has to weigh within a gram of a spec­i­fied weight. Fur­ther­more, the con­cen­tra­tion of pa­per pulp is rel­a­tively high when it is first placed into the tank and gets di­luted as more pa­pers are vat­ted. How do vat­men guar­an­tee that the thick­ness of pa­per is right when they vat with dif­fer­ent con­cen­tra­tions of pulp? There is no way to ac­cu­rately mea­sure, leav­ing suc­cess en­tirely in the hands of the mas­ter.

“You can only feel with your hands, and it’s about co­or­di­na­tion be­tween two peo­ple. What­ever job you do, be­ing the best at it is never easy,” Zhou says.

When pa­per is stacked af­ter vat­ting, it is not sup­posed to have flaws like bub­bles or holes. Zhou had to learn how to avoid such im­per­fec­tions him­self.

Af­ter three years of prac­tice from dawn to dusk, Zhou grad­u­ally be­came ex­pe­ri­enced. His mas­ter en­cour­aged him to work as Zhanglian. “He thought I was ready to do it, but I was still ner­vous. But if I never tried, I could never suc­ceed.” Soon there­after, Zhou Donghong’s ap­pren­tice­ship ended.

How are mas­ters rated? “One mea­sur­able is the rate of fin­ished prod­ucts and an­other is per­cent­age of pa­per that meets the re­quire­ments, and both cri­te­ria must be met,”

Zhou ex­plains. “Im­per­fect prod­uct is re­cy­cled into pulp again.” A month af­ter fin­ish­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship, Zhou reached the skill level needed to serve as a Zhanglian mas­ter.

Re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of Great Crafts­men of the Na­tion

Since then, Zhou Donghong’s skill has only in­creased, and he can now pro­duce any va­ri­ety of rice pa­per. In the 1990s, the fac­tory be­gan to pro­duce many new prod­ucts, and Zhou led the tri­als for a va­ri­ety of in­no­va­tive pa­per prod­ucts.

Var­i­ous awards fol­lowed; he was hon­ored as a man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­pert and an ad­vanced pro­duc­tion worker, an “out­stand­ing worker” of Xuancheng City and a model worker of the county and the prov­ince. In April 2015, he won the Na­tional May 1st La­bor Medal. He was fea­tured on CCTV in the same year and be­came a well-known crafts­man across the na­tion. Many do­mes­tic cal­lig­ra­phers and painters now specif­i­cally ask for his rice pa­per.

Zhou first chose his ca­reer sim­ply to make a liv­ing, but he even­tu­ally came to un­der­stand why an­cient rice pa­per pro­duc­tion meth­ods are trea­sures passed down by our an­ces­tors and re­main part of the wealth of the Chi­nese na­tion. Pass­ing on the an­cient art is Zhou’s great­est concern now.

In 1989, Zhou Donghong wel­comed his first ap­pren­tice, who is now the se­nior tech­ni­cian of the fac­tory. So far, he has trained more than 20 ap­pren­tices, but more left than stayed. “Vat­ting pa­per is hard work,” he sighs. “It re­quires a high out­put and long work­ing hours—around 14 to 15 hours a day. My best run was 35,000 pieces of rice pa­per in a month.” Af­ter work­ing the job for more than three decades straight, Zhou knows bet­ter than any­one how hard it is.

In win­ter, a bucket of hot wa­ter sits along­side the wa­ter tank. Be­cause a sub­stance in the pa­per pulp is af­fected by tem­per­a­ture, the vats have to use cold wa­ter even in win­ter. Vat­men dip their bare hands in the hot wa­ter from time to time to ease the pain. The work­shop is per­pet­u­ally hu­mid and few can es­cape flare-ups of arthri­tis.

Zhou and his col­leagues are ag­ing, while fewer and fewer young­sters are in­ter­ested in learn­ing to vat pa­per. “You’re al­ready over 50—how long are you plan­ning to con­tinue vat­ting pa­per?” his wife teases him.

“I don’t care how old I am,” he re­torts. “If I can do it, I will do it. I like my job.”

2 Then, a worker makes the ma­te­rial into a thin cake with the help of a big mal­let. The ma­te­ri­als are pounded 3,000 times. The beat­ing sound is so loud that the worker has to wear a head­set to pro­tect his hear­ing.

There are more than 100 steps in­volved in mak­ing Xuan pa­per. First, work­ers pick the best- qual­ity ma­te­ri­als. The raw ma­te­ri­als of the pa­per are a mix of grass and wood in a cer­tain pro­por­tion. 1

3 The pounded ma­te­ri­als are piled and cut into pieces.

6 Then, the pa­per pulp is poured and mixed in a tank full of wa­ter. Two work­ers use a spe­cially-made bam­boo cur­tain to pick up the rough pa­per from the tank. Each time, the work­ers pick up one piece of pa­per. This is a cru­cial step of mak­ing Xuan pa­per.

Af­ter the pounded ma­te­ri­als are cut into pieces, they are stuffed into a cloth bag and washed in a pool. Im­pu­ri­ties, in­clud­ing sand, are washed away. Just the white pa­per pulp re­mains. 4

The pa­per pulp is mixed with a kind of gelatin and trod­den by a worker. This process in­creases the vis­cos­ity of the pa­per pulp, mak­ing it easy to treat. 5

When the process is com­pleted, the prod­ucts are ex­am­ined. Un­qual­i­fied pa­per is re­cy­cled in the form of pa­per pulp. 8

When the wet pa­per is picked up from the tank, the sheets are first peeled off one by one and then stuck on a heated wall, which makes them dry fully. Each worker can dry up to 400 pieces of pa­per ev­ery day. 7

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