The In­her­i­tor of In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage Gen­er­ates Crafts­man Genes


Special Focus - - Contents - Xu Kuang 许旷

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

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