Observations on the Olympics of Chinese craft

The World Craft Council General Assembly in China provided an opportunity to see aspects of a craft culture that is ancient in a very modern way.

We were taken on an official visit to the Zhongyi lace factory, which is one of the economic jewels of the Toglu province. The showroom featured a performance by a dozen or so lacemakers embroidering designs with great concentration.

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This factory specialised in ‘wanlus’ lace, originally imported from Venice in 1919. It has transformed this technique into a major industrial enterprise, as we saw when we strayed from the showroom into the factory complex. Solitary young women supervised rows of massive and loud mechanised looms producing lines such as polyesterlace.

Within the context of the Western craft movement, this contrast between the tranquil scene of traditional handiwork and the mechanical world beyond would normally be something ironic. But the factory owners seemed proud that both could exist together.

In association with the General Assembly there was a huge exhibition of crafts, mostly Chinese. Two in particular seemed worthy of note.

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The pride of the exhibition was the Temple of Heaven Pray Year Palace. It was manufactured by Hong Kong Huangyungguan Bijouterie Co.Ltd, planned by Huang Yunguang and Wang Yongqing, and designed and supervised by Wang Shuwen.

This work transforms a historic architectural monument into a piece of jewellery. The original palace in Beijing was made for the Emperors of Ming and Qing to pray for a successful harvest. The exhibition piece is a quintessential piece of ‘rich craft’. It includes:

  • micro-inlay technology
  • 5,693 golden gemstones
  • 10,000 inner and outer door arches
  • 100 kg silver
  • 200,000 diamonds
  • cadcam technology
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As with the lace, this work is presented in a way that sees no conflict between modern technology and traditional craft values. The work ‘integrates oriental traditional cultural characteristics with modern civilization’.

This year’s Beijing Olympic opening ceremony demonstrated a similar reverence for traditional crafts, particularly calligraphy. The craft and sports Olympics both avoid any reference to the history of modernity, leapfrogging from traditional to contemporary. The craft on display seemed completely divorced from the everyday experience of people living in China. Is this the inverse of the Cultural Revolution, when the traditional was banned in order to focus exclusively on the modern struggle? In today’s China, is the traditional something quite new and fresh? Many questions are left hanging after this brief encounter with craft. As China eventually becomes the world’s leading economic power, we would not be remiss to consider these questions a little further.

Some other observations:

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In a more traditional vein, the exhibition included work by the revered master of Tiny Sculptural Calligraphy, Zhang Yuanxing. Recognised as ‘exclusive work in China’, this work consists of miniature calligraphic script carved into jade. According to his brochure, this craft relates to ancient Buddhist mythology:

A legend in the Buddhist stories says that the Buddhism has the boundless power so he can put a huge mountain into a grain of millet, which is magically spectacular.

Zhang Yuanxing has an interesting personal history. He grew up in the village of Shenyang during the Japanese occupation. While the period is regarded as a tragedy in Chinese history, he combines both Japanese and Chinese script in his work as a gesture of harmony between the nations. It’s an interesting example of ‘craft diplomacy’ through ‘small things’, which enable cultural exchange by slipping through the net of international relations.

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Zhang Yuanxing with his granddaughter Xu Jingmei who hopes to continue his craft of tiny sculptural calligraphy.
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The pendant on the bottom right has a script that advocates filial piety. Mr Yuanxing sells this for half price to encourage its message.

On a more sensory level, there seemed a particular taste in the Chinese aesthetic for complex rhizomic forms. This monumental sculpture of a monk emerging from the ground won much praise from visitors:

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And in the nearby tourist attraction of Westlake, many of the features reflected an inscription set in a chaos of rock.

 

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And from Shanghai airport, the Remy Martin ad for cognac tries to appeal to the same kind of aesthetic.

Perhaps like the rich ginger sauces of Chinese cuisine, these wild baroque forms offer a kind of visual pungency. Yet at the same time, the word of authority emerges from its core in a way that cannot be traced back to any root.

The Chinese showed a great commitment to craft in hosting the World Craft Council General Assembly and creating a virtual Craft Olympics around it. Like the other Olympics, the organisation was flawless. The world of craft owed a great debt to China, and one that it should seek to repay in starting what should be a rich and long-term dialogue.

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