Cai Xiangyang was a law graduate when he first became a weaver in 2004. He is now an apprentice to succeed his master, Zhou Shuangxi, as the intangible cultural bearer for Nanjing brocade.
Nanjing, the host city of the 2nd Asian Youth Games that will take place in August, is poised to impress visitors with its rich history and cultural heritage as the ancient capital of six dynasties in China.
Weavers in the city today are still making Nanjing cloud-pattern brocade: Considered the most extravagant silk fabric, it was produced to make robes exclusively for emperors and imperial court officials.
It was called, yunjin, or cloud-pattern brocade, because its patterns were as beautiful and diverse as clouds in the sky.
The techniques of weaving cloud-pattern brocade have a history of more than 1,500 years. They were, however, on the brink of extinction in 1979 when the Nanjing Brocade Research Institute tried to replicate a dragon gown that had been unearthed from one of the Ming Tombs in Beijing.
The gown was in tatters and its brilliant colors soon faded after exposure to air. It was identified as having been made in 1619 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This was the period when the cloud-pattern brocade production reached maturity and private workshops were allowed to develop because of rising demands from the imperial court.
It took specialists five years to rediscover the ancient skills and recreate the brilliant luster and colors of this historic gown. The design features dragons and symbols of longevity such as cranes, with embroidery of thread made from gold and peacock feathers.
One major obstacle was the problem of finding the appropriate loom — a tool for making fabric by weaving yarn or thread. Zhou Shuangxi, the youngest member of the replica team, explains that they found two looms at one household and had them resembled, but the apparatuses were worn out and the wooden parts were moldy.
A yunjin loom is a large and complicated piece of machinery. It measures 5.6 meters long, 1.4 meters wide and 4 meters high, is made up of 1,924 small components and is manually operated by two weavers. It involves a distinctive technique to make Jacquard patterns — a process of weaving dating back to the 1700s, named after its French inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard — that cannot be done on modern machines.
Zhou, now 58, has since seen more masterpiece replicas based on excavated brocade items. He was named the chief intangible cultural heritage bearer after the craftsmanship of Nanjing cloud-pattern brocade was inscribed by UNESCO on its representative list in September 2009. This record of intangible heritage elements was created to demonstrate the diversity of such heritages and raise awareness about their importance — other skills from China on the list include calligraphy and shadow puppetry.
A broad range of skills and knowledge are required from the weavers, as Zhou explains.
“I need to know everything about brocade making,” he says, “from assembling the loom, dyeing silk threads with natural colorants, designing the patterns and drawing the blueprint, loading the loom with thread and lining up the warps, to the final weaving.”
Zhou explains that great patience and meticulous care is required. The weaver handles the shuttle and pedals on the loom’s footboards, and keeps in mind how to arrange the colors. Creating the brocade is a slow and intricate process requiring considerable attention to detail. An experienced weaver can make progress of five centimeters at most in one day. If the weaver has finished one brocade and wants to change to a new pattern, the loom has to be reloaded and readjusted.
But Zhou’s fascination with brocade making was not love at first sight. As a high school graduate he was assigned to the weaving workshop, and was concerned that he would be looked down on as a macho guy doing a woman’s job. But job-hopping was unheard of at that time, and carried little appeal because the salaries of different jobs were almost all the same.
“The old weavers were all men; illiterate and poor. They learned the weaving formulas by heart. But the skills were idle because the emperors were gone,” Zhou says.
He acknowledges that work conditions for the weavers have improved greatly.
“In the old days, weavers endured hot summers and freezing winters. There was no air conditioning. They could neither use electric fans in summer nor raise a fire to keep warm in winter, for fear that the threads would tie up or get burned,” Zhou says.
His confidence was boosted during exhibitions abroad, where the audience showed deep interest and respect for the skills of the weavers. Zhou left one loom each in Belgium and Norway, at the request of locals who offered to keep the apparatus and arrange further exhibitions.
Zhou’s main responsibility now is to train more young people. But reliable and devoted apprentices are in short supply.
Zhou understands that young people today face many more distractions and pressure to climb the social ladder and make money, rather than throw their college degree away and start all over again to learn the basics of weaving skills.
“College degrees are almost irrelevant to learn the weaving techniques,” he says. “Many young graduates came to me with high expectations and soon found the job was a boring no-match to their degrees. I saw many, after a few months or a year, resign and look for better-paying jobs.”
Cai Xiangyang, 33, is Zhou’s favorite trainee and the only apprentice that Zhou recognizes. Cai had a bachelor’s degree in law when he joined the Nanjing Brocade Research Institute in 2004. He later completed a master’s degree in intangible cultural heritage protection.
Cai’s persistence and diligence won the trust of the institute officials. “I can sit at a loom for 10 hours a day, and I keep practising on Saturdays and Sundays. The job calls for scrupulous care and the ability to resist distractions and loneliness,” he says.
Cai has followed Zhou’s steps and maintained a growing profile in the hope of succeeding Zhou as the intangible cultural heritage bearer one day.
“For Master Zhou’s generation, their job has focused on preserving the traditions and repeating the conventional patterns such as dragon, phoenix and peony flowers,” Cai says. “The ambition of the younger generation is to master the ancient skills and experiment with new ideas, to make the formerly exclusive dresses accessible to the public.”
Today, the brocade is used in home textile products, wedding gowns, scarves, cushions, folding screens and framed artworks.
Cai reports that the brocade museum will give guided tours to young athletes who will take part in the Asian Youth Games in August. They will be invited to have a try at making silk thread from a cocoon, dyeing the threads and operating the loom.
Hu Delong, 49, has 30 years’ experience weaving cloud-pattern brocade. At the institute, weavers are paid by finished pieces. Many weavers are husband and wife, or sisters and brothers, pairing up as a team. It takes three to five years to finish training.
Hu, his wife, and his wife’s two sisters, are all weavers. Hu says he earns at most 6,000 yuan ($972) a month, sometimes only 3,000 yuan a month. He works at the exhibition hall at the institute, demonstrating the weaving techniques to visitors, and responding to their questions.
Hu does not intend to introduce his only daughter to the business, because young people often struggle to cope with the boredom and demanding workload of the job. But Hu himself has developed a true passion for the handicraft and plans to work until he is 60.
He habitually found inspiration for color arrangements when he went to parks and admired blooming flowers.
Hu also takes pride in the recognition of his works which have been worn by television presenters during Spring Festival galas, exhibited in international sporting events, and purchased as elegant souvenirs.
“There can be endless variations in using different colors of thread to make a given pattern. It takes more ingenious intuition than mere memorization of the weaving procedures,” Hu concludes.
- Chen Tao -
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