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Vibrant heritage of Hunan crafts

Feng Zhiwei
Updated: Mar 9,2015 10:52 AM     China Daily

Colorful Tujia brocade portrays local life and customs in great detail.[Photo/China Daily]

Central China’s Hunan province is creating its own unique mark on the map of the nation’s cultural centers with traditional arts and crafts.

Along with fast economic growth, Hunan’s traditional cultural sector has also expanded rapidly.

The province’s rich intangible cultural heritage featuring exquisite techniques are manifestations of its long history.

Mother Butterfly papercut.[Photo/China Daily]

“Hunan province has nearly 100 categories of folk arts and crafts including carving, metal crafts, lacquer, embroidery, jewelry, art ceramics and fireworks,” said Liang Xiangyong, director of the Hunan Arts and Crafts Museum, which contains almost all the representative art works in the province. “Some of them are well received in overseas markets.

“Now we have a number of national or provincial-level art and craft masters. We want to provide a good communication and display venue for them and help all types of craftsmen promote their works as well. Many of their works have already been acquired by overseas collectors,” Liang said.

Local artists are planning to display chrysanthemum stone carvings at the World Expo in Milan this year, 100 years after an award-winning piece at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915.[Photo/China Daily]

He noted some works such as the brocade from the Tujia ethnic group, Xiangxiu - or Hunan embroidery - and chrysanthemum stone carving have a greater influence both at home and abroad.

Tujia brocade

Originating in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1100 BC), brocade is an essential part of the Tujia people’s culture and daily life. They wear clothes with delicate brocade to participate in traditional ceremonies and dances. When a Tujia baby is born, the grandmother will give her grandchild a piece of brocade as a present.

The brocade has different colors for various occasions. It not only tells the stories of the ancient Tujia civilization, but also silently records the local people’s customs and lifestyles.

Eagle woodburning.[Photo/China Daily]

“In 1976, I first came to western Hunan to study local life,” said researcher Wang Weiyi. “I was completely fascinated by the charming scenery and the lives of the Tujia people in Zhangjiajie. Their brocade is the focus of my research.”

Wang later established a folk art research team at the Hunan Arts and Craft Institute. He has visited a number Tuijia brocade practitioners and collected a large number of brocade patterns over the years.

Wang had once designed a 170-square-meter piece of Tujia brocade called Wuling Scenic Spot, which is now on the lounge wall of the Changsha Railway Station.

A porcelain vase with underglaze color from Liling city in eastern Hunan.[Photo/China Daily]

“From design to the completion of weaving, the work took me a year. A total of 10 excellent Tujia brocade artisans finished the work in eight months with five knitting machines.

“With the magnificent composition, harmonious colors and fine craftsmanship, the work presents the unique characteristics of Hunan province,” said noted artist Liu Keshan, who is also the deputy director of the China Folk Arts and Crafts Committee.

“But during the creation process, we need to go deeper into the lives of more ordinary people and find more details,” Wang said about the future of Tujia brocade.

“For inheritors of the ancient craft, we need to learn to combine traditional techniques with the times and incorporate some new elements rather than get into a rut.”

Other forms

In addition to Tujia brocade, other forms of local arts and crafts have developed with times, although their traditional essence has been preserved.

The Xiangxiu style has a history of more than a thousand years as one of China’s four major traditional embroideries. Today Xiangxiu inheritors are working on developing and designing more new techniques and products.

Chrysanthemum stone carving is a unique craft in Liuyang city of eastern Hunan that features sophisticated craftsmanship and a high value for collectors.

In 1915, a local chrysanthemum stone carving received a golden award at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

A century later, local artists are planning to display their carvings at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, Italy.

To help preserve and pass along chrysanthemum stone carving techniques, the local government has cooperated with vocational schools to cultivate talented carvers each year, said Li Zhou, a veteran master of the craft.

Hunan Arts and Crafts Museum Director Liang Xiangyong said they have been working on organizing a series of activities to further promote the province’s art and craft works. He said giving more young people firsthand experience is crucial for inheriting the traditional arts.

To strengthen the legal protection of cultural heritage, the Hunan provincial government has issued a number of regulations and laws.

In 2005, the government issued guidance for strengthening the protection of intangible cultural heritage. The following year, a regulation protecting folk cultural heritage in western Hunan, which is home to most of Hunan’s ethnic groups, was formally implemented.

The government has also undertaken public education in heritage protection and stepped up efforts to train talent. As well, it has organized widespread research into intangible cultural heritage across the province.

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