The Tra­di­tional Craft of Gourd Mould­ing

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by David Ball Pho­tos by Qu Bowei Pho­tos cour­tesy of Jin Jian­min

“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.

Pat­tern De­sign

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.

Mould Mak­ing

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.

Gourd Grow­ing

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

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