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Tour guide turns printmaker to keep ancient folk art alive in South China

The city of Foshan, in South China’s Guangdong province, is famous for its centuries-old woodblock printing tradition. Foshan’s Xixiang Lane used to be a national center of printmaking crammed with workshops.

Today, Feng Bingtang’s printmaking shop is the only one of its kind still operating. The 80-year-old master printmaker is committed to keeping the ancient art form alive, and is training a promising disciple.

Visiting the shop, we found Liu Zhongping presenting some unusual examples of these traditional wares, blending the legends of Harmony Gods with modern-day urban youth culture. Liu sold the batch of prints in no time.

For her teacher, Liu is more than a shop assistant. After three years of training, the young woman has shown promise in carrying on the folk tradition.

“She has got some very original ideas. Her presentations lead young people to see that the woodblock prints still have relevance today. Besides, she’s a very fast learner. And she loves the art form. She’s a very good pupil,” woodblock print artist Feng said.

Foshan woodblock printing is a demanding art. Each picture has to go through the press four times to receive an outline and three layers of color: red, yellow and green. To produce a coherent image, the four carved blocks have to be exactly aligned.

Liu Zhongping used to have a well-paid job as a tour guide. Three years ago, she accompanied some clients to Feng’s shop. Here she was struck by the concentration and commitment of the old artist at work.

“It came to me as a revelation to see Mr. Feng drawing and carving. I immediately told myself, ‘That’s what I want to be, I want to be a printmaker,’” Liu said.

Feng had intended to hire Liu as a guide to present the history and genres of his art. But the young woman insisted on creating the prints with her own hands. She said she really enjoys the work.

“In the process of making the prints, I just enter a very peaceful state of mind. Sometimes I seem to be communicating with the gods and people in the image. I even make wishes for myself and my family. It’s like the moments you see a shooting star. It’s such a joyful experience,” Liu said.

Over the past decade, there has been growing interest in Feng’s craft. In addition to a pickup in business, Feng has earned the honor of becoming a national bearer of Chinese cultural heritage, someone with an official brief to pass their art form down to future generations.

With the support of Foshan’s local culture bureau, Liu recently attended a folk art workshop at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. The experience opened her eyes to new art forms. With guidance from Master Feng, she is improving fast as a skilled draftsman, a vital skill for all traditional Chinese printmakers.