China's Craft Master Has Many Fans

Category: craft, fan

Owning an exquisitely handmade folding fan, especially one featuring refined paintings and calligraphy by famed literati, was a status symbol in ancient times. Today, a small population of fan fanatics still cherishes this tradition. And members of this clique flood the home of 75-year-old fan-making master Xu Yilin, in the Taohuawu area of Suzhou, in East China's Jiangsu Province.

Taohuawu gained a reputation for its convergence of handicraft workshops, many of which produced refined products that became royal tributes. Among them, the representative Su Fan remains a long-standing brand of elegance.

The brand produces masterpieces from the folding, sandalwood and round silk categories. Each Su Fan fan blends various handicraft techniques, including engraving, mounting, inlay and brushwork. The local fan industry enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) but is waning today because of the proliferation of electric fans and air conditioners.

"There were nearly 100 people in the fan-making business some 30 years ago. But many couldn't survive on the trade and shifted to other professions. The 10 people remaining are mostly elders, whose techniques face the threat of extinction," Xu says.

His tiny, shabby studio is nestled in a serene valley. Varieties of fan-making tools and incomplete fan ribs are piled up in every corner. Among the several trophies to his name, Xu's latest honor of being designated the Intangible Cultural Heritage inheritor by the Ministry of Culture recognizes Xu's contribution to the preservation of his craft, which he has practiced for six decades.

Xu's father owned a small silk quilt store in the late 1940s. It was a time of turmoil and wars, and the store's production and business were affected by frequent blackouts. So Xu, then age 15, was sent to become an apprentice at a nearby fan-making workshop. He began working in a State-owned fan factory after the founding of New China. Now retired, he continues researching fan-making techniques.

"The completion of a folding fan involves 72 procedures," he explains. "The complicated framework will take two or three days - sometimes even a week. Plus, you also have to be a painter and calligrapher. The craft requires not only a pair of skillful hands but also artistic creativity."

Xu earned the title of "King of Fans South of the Yangtze River" for his sophisticated method of creating bamboo fan ribs, which is recognized as a high-level fan-making technique among those in the circle. According to the technique, a piece of top-quality bamboo would be boiled, sun-dried, shaped, baked and polished until it feels delicate, he says.

Xu has invented more than 100 framework designs throughout his decades of experimentation. His fans enjoy great popularity among collectors from home and abroad because of their graceful styles and literary tastefulness. His creation of 10 2-meter-long, water-polished folding fans set a national record in 1983.

Xu could make 600 to 700 fans a year in his prime time. But he now works only three hours a day and finishes about 100 fans annually, which leaves him far from meeting the high demand for his wares. His two sons have also taken up the fan-making business.

"Few people will sacrifice their youth in a fan workshop and devote themselves to a handicraft that leaves them with wounds," he says, still hoping that the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage inheritor would entice fresh blood to preserve the dying craft. (Source: China Daily)

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