The Traditional Craft of Gourd Moulding
“Only one in a thousand moulds producing an excellent result” is a well-known saying amongst gourd craftsmen. The difficulty and complex procedures involved make these decorative items valuable works of art.
It is a sunny, breezy autumn day and the fields are quiet. In a village in Liulihe Town, Fangshan District, villager Jin Jianmin is trying to work out why the gourds hanging from the ceiling of the cabin died in their moulds. A dozen of the gourds have had to be thrown away after succumbing to disease and pests, making them useless for making exquisite handicrafts.
In ancient times, gourds were used to rear insects. As keeping insects became more popular, gourd containers also became a favourite of collectors. After the complex procedures of painting, carving, mould making and growing, decorating the surface of the gourds truly enhances their attractiveness.
Many youngsters still keep insects in gourds today. Those gourds with distinctive Chinese or old-beijing features have become cultural symbols, and the techniques used in moulding them have been passed through generations as a precious craft.
Gourd moulding can be divided into two types: plain and decorated. For plain moulding, there are no designs inside the mould. The finished item is undecorated, smooth and
bright, with the shape considered to be more important. In contrast, the moulds used for decorated gourds come in all kinds of exquisite and complex designs, meaning they are considered to be of greater value as both collectables and art. In 2014, gourd moulding was included on the list of the fourth batch of Beijing's intangible cultural heritage items. Its inclusion on the list made fourthgeneration inheritor Jin Jianmin, 52, an extremely happy man.
Jin Jianmin was very fond of gourds when he was young. His hometown of Ansu (today's Xushui) in Hebei Province, used to be the only place for folk decorated gourd moulding in China. Jin started studying the craft from his father, Jin Shuyin, after graduating from high school and has mastered all the skills required for gourd moulding, including growing, design, drawing, calligraphy, carving and later polishing through hard work and trial and error over the past few decades. He is currently one of only three or four gourd moulding craftsmen in China who can carry out all the steps by himself.
Jin's hard work has paid off. Having become well-known in the field of gourd moulding both in Beijing and across the whole country, his creations are sometimes used to rear insects, but more often are collected as works of art.
Jin is extremely skilled at decorated gourd moulding. This refers to the process of placing a gourd in a plaster mould and allowing it to grow for a specific amount of time. The gourd will then grow into the shape of the mould and take on the design which has been carved on its inner wall. Therefore, the very first step is designing the overall shape and decoration of the mould.
In the past, moulds were divided into folk types and those for officials. Folk moulds came in a limited number of shapes, whereas the official moulds for the emperors and nobility were more diverse, including shapes such as a heart, club or hairpin. Based on these traditional shapes, many new designs have been created nowadays. Over the past 26 years, Jin has made various innovations in the shapes of gourds to meet the changing aesthetic tastes over time. His works include those with a flattened body, as well as those in the shapes of round stools, fish baskets, crab baskets and vases.
After the shape has been designed, decorations are drawn on the gourd to make it more attractive. Of course, not just any drawing will do. The pattern must be suitable for being carving and match the shape of the gourd in order to achieve a good visual effect.
Influenced by traditional Chinese culture, the decorations on the gourds are mostly auspicious symbols. The drawings intend to “convey auspicious meanings through pictures,” and generally cover themes such as loyalty, filial piety, happiness, fortune and longevity. Therefore, traditional Chinese elements can be seen in Jin's designs. For example, in his work “Fortune and Happiness,” there is a young boy, an elephant, a ruyi (an S-shaped ornamental jade object, symbolising good luck), persimmons and a lotus. The elephant is used as its pronunciation in Chinese (“xiang”), is a homophone for the word “auspiciousness.” The two persimmons represent “all is going well as expected,” and the lotus and box together symbolise “harmony and family reunion.”
To create the pattern design requires painting skills. The drawing has to be applied to the curved surface of the gourd, taking into account its specific shape. In order to do this well, the craftsman must be a skilled painter.
This is not a hard job for Jin Jianmin since he learned from Huang Jun, a figure painter and art educator, therefore, he also is an accomplished painter. The animals Jin paints are lifelike and his figures are delicately realised, with vivid expressions. He often paints directly from nature, visiting fields, gardens and the countryside. His drawings cover a wide range of subjects, including beautiful ladies, strong men, auspicious patterns and sights from nature. Besides the traditional patterns, Jin also introduces new elements into his designs including calligraphy, seal- engraving and lines of poetry.
How is it possible to make flat drawings more expressive on the curved surface of a gourd? Jin Jianmin has his own secret—leaving space for imagination. In other words, this means leaving the viewers room to add their own interpretation of the scene. Known as “leaving some blank space,” it is a useful painting technique that enables patterns to look good on various different shapes of good.
After creating and adding the design, the artist will make and carve the mould.
Moulds were traditionally made from different materials including wood, tile, clay and plaster. Tile moulds were developed based on wooden ones. A mould is first made from five or seven pieces of pear wood, into which a design is carved in relief. Since the design sticks out, these moulds are also called “relief moulds.” After the mould is complete, it is covered with clay. When the clay is fully dried, the wooden pieces are taken out and the clay mould is fired in a kiln. One advantage of tile moulds is that many copies can be made from the same relief mould, therefore increasing production and lowering costs. However, some clay moulds will lose their shape during the firing process. In addition, in the past, firing moulds in a kiln was something that only the imperial family and the rich could afford—for ordinary people, it was unattainable.
Due to the disadvantages of the aforementioned moulds, plaster became the first choice because of its convenience and low price. As a result, gourd moulding became popular among the common people rather than being an exclusive reserve of just the imperial family and nobility.
Jin also uses plaster moulds.
Although making plaster moulds sounds easy, it is actually quite a difficult process, especially making those for decorated gourd moulding which require both incised and relief moulds.
First, relief moulds are made and then replaced by incised ones. To make the later replacement easier, the relief moulds are mostly made from a soft and flexible material. The first step in making the relief mould is shaping. For that purpose, many craftsmen choose paraffin wax, since it is soft and easy to shape. A planer tool is used to cut away excess wax and produce the shape and raised design. The mould is then surrounded with iron sheets and plaster is poured over it. When the plaster solidifies, it is placed in a pot and the wax is vaporised to produce the patterned incised mould. The incised mould is painted with latex and after being cooled, the shaped latex is removed producing a latex relief mould. This mould can then be reused multiple times to produce additional plaster moulds. A gourd which is still growing is placed into the plaster mould and once it is fully grown, the mould is broken in order to remove it, revealing an exquisite handicraft in a special shape and with a unique design.
The process of mould making enables one to see how difficult it is to make decorated gourds. This step alone has many potential problems, such as problems with bubbles in the plaster, strength of the plaster, vulcanisation of the latex and shrinkage of the wax. Failure to properly deal with any of them will lead to all the previous effort being wasted.
Of course, scientific and technological developments and the efforts of craftsmen have helped improve both the efficiency and level of mould making. During his 26-yearcareer, Jin Jianmin has also made improvements to the materials used in making moulds. In order to improve on the old methods, he went through many ups-and- downs trying to make rubber moulds, but finally succeeded in making his first batch after years of tests and numerous failures. Now the new rubber Jin uses is easier for design carving, which, combined with different cutting knives, allows for the production of better carving work featuring the charm of Chinese paintings.
The most important aspect of decorated gourd moulding is the carving of the design, which makes the gourd grow differently from natural gourds (used for keeping insects), plain gourds and others. Only if the carving on the mould is exquisitely done will the design on the finished product look vivid and artistic. Moulds are the basis of gourd handicrafts and those with wellcarved designs are highly collectable.
However, carving is very different from painting. This is where what
Jin calls “leaving space for the imagination” comes into play.
It is worth noting that gourd carvers have to ensure they apply the right pressure in order to carve the designs on the mould clearly. Besides the correct pressure, they also need to have a high degree of focus to do the carving well. Traditional carving is both time-consuming and has a low success rate, taking 10 days to a month to finish carving a single work. This means that carving moulds is by no means an easy job as any errors from carelessness will mean all the previous effort will come to naught. Craftsman do not permit themselves to commit such errors, especially someone like Jin Jianmin.
Carving is a difficult skill to master. So when Jin Jianmin first started out, he was advised to focus on creating his designs through “modelling,” which was easier. Sometimes a skilled craftsman like Jin will spend weeks and even possibly more than 40 days to carve a single mould. For example, carving the design of an ancient-style work like “The Tang Empress on Tour” takes 400 to 600 hours.
Sometimes the resultant carving fails to live up to the artisan's desired effect and other times the design on the gourd looks too different from that on the mould. Even though the carving is done very carefully by holding a magnifying glass as Jin does, there is still a possibility of not achieving the expected result due to changes in the
shape or the distribution of designs that occurs during the gourds' growth.
All the preparatory work including designing, mould making and carving is finished after the gourds are harvested in the autumn. The following March, new gourds are planted. By the time they have grown big enough in June, some are selected to be placed in the plaster moulds.
A gourd must meet a certain set of requirements to be selected. In addition to being good quality and free from damage by disease or pests, they have to be smaller than the mould's opening so that they can still grow and fill the whole space. When the gourd is fully grown in autumn, the mould is removed and the design has formed into a natural part of the gourd. The decorated gourd is then finished.
The process of removing the mould is referred to by the professionals as “demoulding.” Doing it at the right time is paramount. If done too early, the gourd will not have grown hard enough; and if too late, the gourd will crack. Demoulding is generally done in late September when the gourds are wellgrown and the vines have withered.
When it is time to remove the moulds, the gourds in the plaster moulds are hung from a trellis wrapped in plastic bags. Despite it being the harvest season, the gourd artisans have mixed feelings. The process itself is a difficult thing, which is influenced by both skill and weather—hence the low success rate. The folk saying, “Only one in a thousand moulds produces an excellent result,” describes the reality of the craft. This year, Jin Jianmin put over 1,000 gourds in moulds, but only 400 have grown big enough. Even fewer are satisfactory after the moulds are removed. It is said that just three to four percent of the gourds will grow well enough to be suitable for turning into handicrafts. In addition, the number of acceptable gourds will further decline after they have been dried.
Over the years, Jin has learnt to deal with all the difficulties of being a gourd craftsman. In fact, the gourds used in the handicraft are a hybrid of regular and bottle gourds, because the skin of the former is well-suited to carving designs and the latter has a long body making it ideal for shaping. The first year Jin worked as a craftsman making decorated gourds, he had no experience at all; so when he removed the moulds, he did not find a single one good enough. Besides the selection of gourd variety, growing itself is also a professional job which involves planting the seedlings, building trellises, supporting the seedlings, carrying out artificial pollination, selecting gourds, controlling disease and pests, spraying pesticide and fertilising. Every day, Jin works from early in the morning until late at night. One apt Chinese saying goes, “the work of farmers is determined by Heaven.” As Jin explains, sometimes an unexpected blight may ruin all the gourds in the field before he notices it in time and the whole year's work is ruined. It is for that reason that he built a cabin in his field where he lives day and night from March to October every year. Gourd growing often does not go as expected and the whole process of gourd moulding involves many difficulties, which is best evidenced by the “hill of abandoned gourds” on the ridge by his farm.
Speaking of this, Jin said thoughtfully. “The whole job, including carving in winter, growing in spring and harvesting in autumn, lasts a year. Just like the process of a woman carrying a baby. That's why I love and take care of the gourds as if they were my children.”
The job is difficult but also has its rewards. After the moulds are removed, the gourds are turned into a whole host of different handicrafts: potpourri holders, incense burners, decorative items and snuff bottles. The elegant gourds with their beautiful names and classic designs, fill Jin's cabin with a unique historical charm. Jin Jianmin not only delights in his work, but also in the fact that his son Jin Longdi helps him with his work. Jin is confident that his 24-year-old son, who is majoring in painting and design, is capable enough to inherit the family craft. Added to the fact that his son is also interested in the work, the craft of gourd moulding looks sure to have a bright future ahead of it.
Gourd moulds decorated with Chinese characters and floral patterns
Gourds with various decorations