IM­PE­RIAL LEATHER

皮革上的“软浮雕”

The World of Chinese - - Contents -

An ar­ti­san in Hangzhou rein­vents the leather-craft of his Mon­go­lian an­ces­tors, turn­ing use­ful leather ob­jects into works of art. His "soft re­liefs" based on Chi­nese ink paint­ings are painstak­ingly carved onto hand­made bags and ac­ces­sories over sev­eral days, a trib­ute to the value of ex­quis­ite hand­i­work

A no­madic sur­vival skill lives on as an ex­quis­ite hand­i­craft

皮革上的“软浮雕”

T “each the ap­pren­tice and the mas­ter will starve,” says 44-year-old Zhou Chuan­bin. “This has al­ways been the tra­di­tional mind­set in the leather­craft trade.”

Like his father, grand­fa­ther, and great grand­fa­ther be­fore him, Zhou is a leather-smith. Sev­eral cen­turies ago, Zhou’s Mon­go­lian an­ces­tors mi­grated all the way to Jiangxi prov­ince in the south to evade wartime chaos, and brought their an­cient leather-mak­ing tech­niques with them.

To­day, much of Zhou’s work in­volves carv­ing vivid prints of myth­i­cal crea­tures, por­traits, and land­scapes on tanned leather, known as “soft re­liefs.” The most com­mon dec­o­ra­tive pat­tern is the “Tang plant (唐草纹),” lush flo­ral and leaf scrolls pop­u­lar­ized by the em­per­ors of the sev­en­th­cen­tury dy­nasty in their ar­chi­tec­ture and fab­rics, and which Zhou now carves on hand­bags, wal­lets, and other leather ac­ces­sories.

To his no­madic fore­bears, Zhou’s level of artistry would have been un­think­able. The orig­i­nal leather ar­ti­sans made crude leather san­dals and belts as a tool for sur­vival, and to sup­port their fam­i­lies.

Zhou came to Hangzhou more than two decades ago and opened a small stall for his leather goods in a night mar­ket, then changed lo­ca­tion over a dozen times. He fi­nally gained a per­ma­nent spot at the Live Ex­hi­bi­tion Mu­seum of Hand­crafts in Hangzhou in 2011.

By teach­ing would-be leather-smiths over the past six years, Zhou be­lieves that he is help­ing re­vive the fam­ily tra­di­tion rather than spilling its se­crets. He wishes his stu­dents a heart­felt good luck open­ing their own stu­dios across the coun­try.

“Young peo­ple nowa­days love to make unique ob­jects of their own,” Zhou says. Shi Qi, a stu­dent, agrees:

“Now peo­ple are into lux­ury goods; there are also many knock­offs fly­ing around, but my bags will def­i­nitely be unique.”

Zhou’s course usually takes three months, but even a sim­ple hand­made project is time-con­sum­ing: A leather wal­let takes three to four busi­ness days to fin­ish. But Zhou takes his time. His motto is: “Re­peat the sim­ple tasks daily, and stick to the daily tasks.” Not bad ad­vice for those tak­ing up an an­cient skill—or sim­ply learn­ing to en­joy life.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ZHANG DEMENG (张德萌张德萌) TEXT BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

ZHOU COLORS A TANG- STYLE FLO­RAL SCROLL, HIS FA­VORITE PAT­TERN

ZHOU OF­TEN REF­ER­ENCES CHI­NESE INK PAINT­ING IN HIS WORK

FOR AMA­TEURS, THE EX­TEN­SIVE TOOLKIT CAN BE THE MOST EX­PEN­SIVE PART OF THE CRAFT

TO MAKE AN EX­QUIS­ITE HAND­BAG LIKE THIS, AR­TI­SANS CUT THE LEATHER PIECES, DE­SIGN AND DRAW THE PAT­TERN, MOLD THE PAT­TERN, COLOR IT, ASSEM­BLE THE PARTS, AND FI­NALLY, SAND THE EDGES

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