Shell Art

Xia Yuzhui's Pearly Won­ders

That's China - - Je T'aime, Dinghai - Text by / Serene Li

One of China’s finest fish­ing grounds, Zhoushan, has been draw­ing fish­er­men from the coun­try’s coastal prov­inces for its cor­nu­copian of­fer­ings for cen­turies. What’s more, the long-time ma­rine in­dus­trial pros­per­ity of the ar­chi­pel­ago has given rise to the city’s bustling arts and crafts scene. The older gen­er­a­tions of Zhoushan folk have in­vented an as­sort­ment of meth­ods of mak­ing beau­ti­ful things out of na­ture’s bounty over the years, and one of the best rep­re­sen­ta­tions of their artsy in­no­va­tion is the mother-of-pearl in­lay work­man­ship.

The in­lay crafts­man­ship, to­gether with a dozen other folk crafts na­tive to Zhoushan, are col­lec­tively known as Zhoushan shell-carv­ing art, the beauty of which has spread to reach the en­tire costal re­gions of China, and has even been shared with peo­ple in South East Asia and those who re­side far away in the cities and towns of dis­tant Europe.

The fish­ing farms lo­cated in Zhoushan ter­ri­tory have long en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion for their huge yield of large yel­low croak­ers - es­pe­cially in the spring flood sea­son. In­ter­est­ingly, the large quan­tity of jelly pro­duced by the dry­ing process of the spring catch con­trib­utes to the unique Zhoushan in­lay crafts­man­ship as a su­pe­rior ad­he­sive sub­stance.

The de­vel­op­ment of the re­gion’s in­lay crafts­man­ship has al­ways been closely re­lated to the lac­quer­work of an­cient China, which ex­plains the fact that most of the shell­carv­ing and in­lay artists and in­her­i­tors - such as Ji Wei­quan and Wei Baoyou – are also lac­quer masters.

The shell-carv­ing art of Zhoushan falls into three func­tional cat­e­gories – for fur­ni­ture dec­o­ra­tion, for or­na­men­ta­tion on jew­ellery boxes and ink-stone cases, and for pure ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the beauty of the art it­self.

The mother-of-pearl in­lay cul­ture of Zhoushan has a his­tory dat­ing back about 200 years, with its hey­day fall­ing around the late Qing and early Repub­li­can Pe­riod of China.

Born in a small fish­ing vil­lage in Ding­hai in 1945, Xia Yuzhui got his aes­thetic en­light­en­ment from his em­broi­der mother and art-lov­ing fa­ther. As the only source of male labour in the fam­ily, Xia Yuzhui left school at a young age to hone his skills and has since worked as a fur­ni­ture or­na­menter. He joined the Zhoushan Arts and Crafts Re­search Panel in 1973 and was sworn in two years later as the di­rec­tor of the core team of the shell-carv­ing de­part­ment of Zhoushan Arts and Crafts Fac­tory, where the man found him­self in his el­e­ment. Through­out the 1970-80s, it was the man’s adept hands and un­wa­ver­ing ded­i­ca­tion that brought the mother-of-pearl in­lay crafts­man­ship back into Zhoushan’s cul­tural pan­theon.

To pro­tect the cul­tural pride of Ding­hai from fall­ing into the abyss, the Ding­hai gov­ern­ment fi­nanced a spe­cial ap­pren­tice­ship project for Xia Yuzhui, de­signed to help him find the right suc­ces­sor to which he could im­part his knowl­edge of the en­dan­gered craft. His first suc­cess­ful dis­ci­ple is Xia Hail­ing, whose award-win­ning in­lay works show that he may just have has what it takes to keep Xia’s pearly dream alive for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy.

The large quan­tity of jelly pro­duced by the dry­ing process of the spring catch con­trib­utes to the unique Zhoushan in­lay crafts­man­ship as a su­pe­rior ad­he­sive sub­stance.

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