Lacquer thread sculptures

Updated: 23 Jun 2008
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Shen's grandfather, who is now 90 years old, spent half of his life in making lacquer wares. 

When seeing his granddaughter's works, he always keeps saying: "It can be better."


Lacquer thread sculptures are a delicate art. The sap of lacquer trees is mixed with brick powder and spun into hair-like threads, which are then used to shape various patterns, such as Chinese dragons and phoenixes. The process involves 27 procedures and has taken local craftsmen more than 10 generations to master and perfect.


In the year of 20o6, the art of lacquer thread sculpture in Xiamen, Fujian Province, was listed as a national intangible heritage. However, a decade ago, the lacquer thread sculptures, like many other traditional Chinese arts, were facing demise. Were it not for Shen Jinli, her workshop and a family tradition, the old art might have well faded away from people's memory.


Ancient art


Lacquer products have been part of Chinese life for thousands of years. About 7,000 years ago, ancient Chinese people discovered the sap of lacquer trees and started using it to coat eating utensils, ornaments and other articles.


Being adhesive and glossy, lacquer also prevented articles from rotting. In 1973, a 7,000-year-old lacquered bowl was unearthed at the Hemudu site in Yuyao, a town in East China's Zhejiang Province. After all the years buried in the soil, the bowl still retains its colour and was in good shape.


Between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC, lacquer wares became very popular in upper-class society.


In the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the technique of making lacquer wares reached its climax as governmental and private lacquer workshops spread around the nation.


Shen Shao'an, a Fujian native, was one of the most famous lacquer ware masters in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Before his time, lacquer wares only featured red and black colours, but Shen created ways to add green, yellow, blue and brown. He even invented methods to apply gold and silver foil to lacquer wares, which made them more colourful and lustrous.


During Shen's time, more craftsmen joined the lacquer business and a slew of new techniques were invented, including a way to make lacquer threads, which later gave rise to lacquer thread sculptures.


Lacquer sap would be mixed with brick powder and other materials. Craftsmen hammered the mixture for 12 hours until it becomes as soft as flour paste. The lacquer paste would then be rubbed into hair-like threads, which could be used to make patterns and pictures.


Threading through generations


In the past, the lacquer thread was mainly used to decorate Buddha sculptures, as the tenuous threads could add more liveliness and details to the giant figures.


One of Shen's forefathers was master in making lacquer wares and lacquer threads. Such techniques were passed on from one generation to another for more than 300 years, however, nobody in Shen's family was still earning a living from lacquer work.


Shen Jinli learned the skills to make lacquer thread sculptures in her childhood. When she was 5 years old, her grandmother started to teach her making lacquer threads. It was threads at first, then over time, the whole range of lacquer work skills.


Shen's career started very unexpectedly. In 1988, her father, Shen Xue'an passed away and before his death, told a true story, which changed Shen Jinli's life.


Xue'an, a name given by Shen Xue'an's grandfather, means to follow the footsteps of the lacquer master Shen Shao'an.


Shen Jinli's great grandfather became an apprentice in Shen Shao'an's lacquer workshop and after years of hard work, was able to earn a living off his own lacquer business.


In memory of the kindness of Shen Shaoan, the once "little apprentice" gave Shen Jinli's father the name of Xue'an, hoping his offspring could inherit the techniques of lacquer work.


Shen Jinli, running an embroidery business at that time, started her own lacquer workshop in 1990 to fulfil her father's last wish. Back then, lacquer crafts had lost their popularity among ordinary people and most lacquer craft companies in Fujian Province were battling to survive.


In the earlier 1990s, even the largest lacquer craft company in Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian Province, went bankrupt.


Shen Jinli's little workshop consisted of only three people and seemed to stand little opportunity to beat the odds. So instead of turning her workshop into a company, she chose to hone her skills and practise new techniques.


In 1992, Shen Jinli made a visit to Beijing and the Forbidden City, the Imperial Palace in China's Ming and Qing dynasties. The old palace was the largest and most beautiful lacquer work she had ever seen. The woodcarvings on the palace walls, the pillars in the magnificent palaces all amazed her. She even found traces of lacquer thread sculptures.


"After the trip, I found confidence in the lacquer art, as lacquer could be made into the world's most beautiful artwork," said Shen.


In 1997, Shen established her own lacquerwork company, the Xiamen Youbide Lacquer Craft Company and her own lacquer art research centre in Xiamen.


Over the following years, the lacquer art became the main theme of Shen's life. Besides her efforts to learn new techniques and improve skills, Shen spent most of her time to promote the lacquer thread sculptures around the nation. The art, despite being 300 years old, had little popularity outside Xiamen. Shen then decided to attend every art exhibition with her lacquer thread sculptures.


"Hard work will pay off some day" the old Chinese saying goes. Yet, even before 2002, Shen saw little sign her efforts to promote the lacquer thread sculpture would pay off. Instead, Shen had lost 2 million yuan (USD250,000) in her lacquer company.


In 2002 15 years since her father passed away Shen decided to hold an exhibition of her own works in memory of her father.


"By opening the exhibition, I was also telling my father that I have done my best and after exhibition I would have to close my company," Shen said.


Held in the Great Hall of the People, Shen's exhibition achieved great success. Her lacquer thread sculptures were even chosen as State gifts for guests visiting China, including the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) Honorary Chairman Lien Chan.


Since 1997, Shen has made 103 pieces of lacquer work, with a number of them winning awards in national exhibitions.


Shen's most satisfying work can now be seen in the lacquer-work museum she established in Xiamen. The work, called "Nice Dragons of Auspice," also adopted the techniques used in Beijing Cloisonne enamel and embroidery.


The work consists of nine dragons made from lacquer thread and a gourd-shaped porcelain bottle. On the top of a dark-red bottle, two Chinese dragons are chasing a pearl with a background of clouds and sea. In the lower part, the seven dragons are flying through the clouds.


Shen's grandfather, who is now 90 years old, spent half of his life in making lacquer wares.


When seeing his granddaughter's works, he always keeps saying: "It can be better."


SOURCE: China Daily

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