Jul 21, 2012

The Chinese traditional handicraft of blue calico has a history of more than 1,000 years. Produced through the manual arts of spinning, weaving, printing and dyeing, its simple yet elegant patterns reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the people that produce, use and wear the fabric.

Nantong in Jiangsu Province is a main center for blue calico. A principal cotton producing area, it is also an abundant source of indigo plants, from which the dye that gives Chinese calico its distinctive shade of blue is made. Blue calico manufacture is a popular cottage industry in Nantong and the end product is a feature of every household, in the form of quilt and cushion covers and daily-use articles, as well as clothes.

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Tradition Maintained

Nantong native Wu Yuanxin grew up in one such domestic blue calico production unit. His earliest memories are of his blind grandmother daily spinning the thread that his mother weaved each day. As a boy, I fell asleep and woke each day to the sound of my mother weaving, Wu recalled. When farm work allowed, his father would help dye the cloth and take it to the local market to sell.

Times grew hard for Wu's family when his father's health declined. The sole son of the family, Wu left school at 17 after graduating from high school to assume the responsibility of supporting his family. When, in the late 1970s, township and village enterprises emerged in rural areas, the majority of Wu's contemporaries found jobs in electrical machinery and semiconductor factories. He alone chose to work at a local blue calico dyeing works. As the only apprentice at the factory, I learned the entire production procedure for blue calico. Design and research interested me most, and I spent a great deal of time collecting patterns from local people, Wu said. It took Wu one year to learn the basic skills. He then went on to study design and block carving from a master in the craft. Thus prepared, he embarked on his career as a producer and designer of blue calico.

Until the 1950s this time-honored and exquisite handcrafted fabric was commonly seen, as clothes and household ornamentation, throughout the country. Designs were passed down from one generation of craftsmen to the next, and new patterns constantly appeared, maintaining a steady expansion of the blue calico portfolio. Sad to say, mechanization of the printing and dyeing industry reduced demand, forcing blue calico artisans and craftsmen to quit the trade, so stemming the flow of patterns and designs. Many were lost forever.

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Sources of Inspiration

Set on revitalizing blue calico designs, Wu spent his spare time visiting folk artisans and collecting samples of their patterns. He also took painting classes to improve his artistic skills. In 1982, Wu was admitted to the Fine Arts Department of Yixing Ceramics School. At that time, few dyeing factory workers had been through formal vocational education. Although the school library was small, it broadened my horizons beyond measure, Wu said. What he learned inspired Wu to design new patterns that considerably boosted his factory's business.

Wu became a star student in pattern design and innovation during this three-year course. The school employed Wu after his graduation, and he incorporated blue calico into the basic aesthetic design course. In 1987, Nantong established an institute specializing in tourism handicrafts. Blue calico was one of its major research topics. As an obvious candidate, Wu Yuanxin was offered a post and returned to Nantong to do research on the art and craft of blue calico.

Wu spent the next 10 years visiting printing and dyeing workshops and dozens of folk artisans and masters in the area. During this decade he amassed a treasure trove of examples and photos of fine patterns and products.

Wu spared no effort in compiling his collection. He trudged several hours along a country road to the home of an 80-year-old woman to obtain her bedspread in the classic auspicious Year of Abundance pattern. Hearing that a resident of Yongyang Township owned a rarely seen item of embroidered blue calico, he visited almost every household in the area before eventually locating it. On another occasion he walked miles in heavy rain just to see the blue calico pillowcases that were the family heirloom of an old farmer. Moved by his sincerity, the family donated their century-old precious collection to him.

In 1989, Wu took an advanced course at the Department of Decorative Arts, Central Academy of Craft Art. He later enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Arts under Professor Yang Xianrang, director of the Department of Folk Arts. During this two-year course in Beijing, Wu completed a dissertation on fish-themed blue calico wall hangings, which gained acclaim at home and abroad and also won the National Tourism Handicrafts Award.

In 1996, due to lack of funds, the research institute was taken over by a cap factory. Wu was then confronted with two choices: the first to design hats at the factory, which meant abandoning his 20 years of work on researching and producing blue calico; the second to resign and rely on his skills to make a living.

Years before a group of Japanese merchants, understanding the cultural value of folk crafts, had borrowed Wu's collection to set up a blue calico exhibition hall in Shanghai and launch a touring exhibition in Japan. Inspired by this event, Wu decided to put his years of experience and research, as well as his collection of blue calico items and designs, to work by opening a blue calico gallery in China.

This bold decision amounted to a make-or-break venture. Wu used his entire life savings and also borrowed from his mother and various relations to rent and refurbish a small courtyard, property of the Nantong Textile Museum in the recesses of a local park, as premises for his business.

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One year later the gallery opened. It acts as a showcase for hundreds of choice items gathered during his 20-year career. Wu later established a dye works. During the day he took guests on tours of the gallery and gave background information on each piece. At night, he retreated to the dye works to work on new designs. To secure an income, he delivered goods to Shanghai twice a week. At that time, it took more than six hours to travel by boat from Nantong to Shanghai. To save on accommodation, Wu traveled on the cheapest berth of a boat leaving at 10 p.m. and slept onboard. After three years of hard work, Wu's gallery became self-sufficient.

In December 1999, Wu Yuanxin launched the Nantong Blue Calico Art Exhibition at Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Blue calico thus made its debut as highlight of a national-level exhibition center. The exhibition showcased more than 500 items and photos, and drew crowds of both local and overseas visitors. Wu selected 3,000 or more items and photos for his two-volume book, An Overall Collection of Chinese Blue Calico Vein Patterns, published in 2004, thus filling a blank in the field.

In 2006, the printing and dyeing of blue calico was listed among the first batch of National Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Wu was recognized as the inheritor of the craft. Three of his works won gold prizes at the Third China Folk Art Fair, and are on display at the National Museum of China and China National Arts and Crafts Museum.

Last year, Wu was invited to attend the Chinese Cultural Year in Italy. Some 100 pieces of archaic and new blue calico products, such as tablecloths, toys and bags, were exhibited in Rome, Florence and Venice. Wu introduced this historical culture to foreign visitors and also demonstrated the technological process of this traditional craft.

Wu feels intensely gratified at the honor bestowed on the blue calico handicraft. It is social affirmation of his 30-year efforts to research and preserve this age-old art, which he regards as a lifelong obligation. Wu is dedicated to carrying forward this splendid aspect of folk culture.

SOURCE : chinatoday.com.cn

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