The Inheritor of Intangible Cultural Heritage Generates Craftsman Genes
West Street deserves to be called the oldest business street in Hanyang District, Wuhan. It starts at the Guiyuan Temple on the left and ends at North Town Road on the right. “In the past, people in Hanyang would buy anything in West Street, even for a small button.” For the old generation, you can’t say that you visited Hanyang if you hadn’t been to West Street.
When exiting out of the Zhongjiacun Metro, you will see West Street overline bridge on the left. Walking inside the alley, there are eyecatching graffiti on the wall of the buildings, and rows of grocery stores where you can buy all kinds of daily necessities where you can strongly be immersed in the charming alley life there.
Half way into West Street stands a Copper Crafting Shop where the signboard of “Zeng’s Copper Shop” is yellowed with age. Quite different from the noisy and busy shops in the neighborhood, Master Zeng Xiangao, an 82-year-old man, is the only person working in the shop. He is polishing a 20-cm brass gourd with a small iron hammer.
A Young Apprenticeship
Mr. Zeng Xiangao, a cultural heritage inheritor in Wuhan, is a fourth-generation coppersmith. He started to learn the art of copper work from his father when he was 13 years old. They owned a copper ware shop on Hualou Street and then moved to Huangbei Street in Hankou. In those days, copperware was a necessity for every family—everyone had a brass kettle, bowl, and pan.
His father was very strict and had a bad temper. Being scolded and beaten was frequent for Zeng as he learned the art from his father. But it seemed that he was born to be a
coppersmith. He was stubborn, patient, nimble, and smart.
One day, Zeng’s father asked him to make a brass product. When checking it, his father thought that he didn’t get the essence of the work and threw his creations out of the room. Zeng just picked them up quietly and remade it patiently.
There were myriad trivialities like this in his apprenticeship. When recalling the past, Zeng said that, “This is the “spirit of craftsmanship” in modern terms. It is impossible for you to master the skill without eight or ten years’s practice.”
In those days, people valued quality and durability more than the shape and design when buying things. Zeng learned to make a lot of practical utensils from his father, such as pans, kettles, scoops, plates, and other household necessities. Zeng said he once made a pot base for which he exchanged 1kg of rice. He was very happy about it.
“I used to make articles for daily use. Craftsmanship is the most important thing for a product and my work is quite good. Some people came for artistic handicrafts which require meticulous polishing.”
Master Zeng said that the traditional hot pot was a common utensil, but it was actually very difficult to make because of the complicated craftsmanship involved.The traditional hot pot is made of a coal chamber at the bottom and a utensil on the top, which are connected by a chimney-shaped tube. The fire can be started at the bottom. Now a hot pot, lying silently in the corner of the closet, seems like faint remembrance of a distant time. For not being used for a long time, it is mottled and covered by dust.
Simple but Exquisite
Zeng served out his apprenticeship at the age of 16, and his skills were getting more and more refined.
At 20, he worked as a sheet metal worker in Hanyang Automobile Modification Factory where salary was decided by rank. He was ranked 6 and earned RMB 60 yuan per month, while his fellow workers only got 8 yuan.
Zeng liked to make some small items to amuse himself in his spare time.
In 1986, he retired from the factory and moved to Hanyang. He decided to restart the family business and opened “Zeng’s Copper Shop.” Knowing it, the neighbors at times took their broken kitchen utensils to his shop for mending and his business was gradually thriving.
“Do you think it’s easy to make this gourd? It’s rare to see a gourd made of a whole piece of copper.” Master Zeng held a brass gourd in his hand and said, “The simpler it looks, the more work it requires.” He summed up his experience of making this almostfinished brass gourd, which took him more than one month, “It is believed that gourds bring safety. A lot of families liked to buy gourd-shaped handicrafts in the past, but every line of the gourd tests the craftsman’s technique and skill. It’s even more difficult to make a brass gourd.”
When entering into Zeng’s shop, the first thing you will see is an eye-catching brass “Yellow Crane Tower.” Master Zeng said that it is made of 6.25kg of brass and is a miniature of the real Yellow Crane