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Reviving the Centuries-Old Art of Handmade Paper Umbrellas in Hangzhou

CultureArtReviving the Centuries-Old Art of Handmade Paper Umbrellas in Hangzhou

Liu Weixue has been captivated by the art of handmade paper umbrellas since he first saw one 17 years ago. Now, he’s bringing a contemporary touch to the centuries-old craft. Yuhang paper umbrellas were once endangered due to the rise of modern umbrellas, but they’ve since been recognized as a Zhejiang provincial intangible cultural heritage for their sophistication and high artistry. Liu, a craftsman from Yuhang district in Hangzhou, aims to breathe new life into umbrella making.

At 33 years old, Liu has already made a name for himself in the design world. His paper umbrella with a 3-meter diameter was displayed at the Paris trade show Maison et Objet in 2015, and he demonstrated his work at the Milan Design Week in 2016. His umbrellas were also showcased at an exhibition in the Palace Museum in Beijing last year.

Liu hopes to share the beauty of paper umbrellas with more people and create ones that can withstand a storm. Making a traditional paper umbrella involves more than 15 days and 72 steps for three or four craftspeople. The process includes selecting bamboo, cutting it into sticks, coating paper with seed oil, and folding the paper canopy. Liu’s studio, located in his grandfather’s former residence in Xiwu village, Hangzhou, produces about 1,500 paper umbrellas by hand each year.

The studio’s craftsmen follow the same processes used centuries ago, from cutting tortoise-shell bamboo during the winter months to storing the ribs and stretchers for a year to increase their density. Liu is driven by a desire to explore the infinite possibilities of umbrella-making and to revitalize the craft using the ancient wisdom passed down through generations.

Liu Weixue is a craftsman from Yuhang district in Hangzhou, China, who is reviving the centuries-old art of handmade paper umbrella making. He aims to breathe new life into the endangered tradition by adding his contemporary touch. The umbrellas are made from bamboo and oiled paper, and in 2007, Yuhang paper umbrella making was listed as a Zhejiang provincial intangible cultural heritage for its high artistry and sophistication.

At Liu’s studio in Xiwu village, his team of three or four craftspeople follow the same processes as their predecessors, taking over 15 days and 72 steps to make a traditional paper umbrella. The tortoise-shell bamboo used for the frames is cut during winter and stored for a year. The canopy is made from sangpi paper, a traditional material made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree that dates back to the Han Dynasty.

To ensure the quality and durability of his umbrellas, Liu sent them for quality testing and found that they could be opened and closed over 1,000 times. He also dyes every umbrella by hand, using colors that he mixes himself. His umbrellas range in price from hundreds to thousands of yuan, and his shop on e-commerce platform Taobao has nearly 85,000 followers.

The origins of the modern umbrella are believed to date back a long way, with a paper umbrella store opening in Yuhang in 1769. In 1951, the Zhejiang provincial government established a cooperative to manufacture Yuhang paper umbrellas, which were once hugely popular. However, in the 1970s, the production and appeal of the traditional umbrellas declined with the rise of modern umbrellas.

Liu Youquan, Liu Weixue’s 81-year-old grandfather, has childhood memories closely connected with paper umbrellas. In the 1970s, he came up with the idea of reviving the dying handicraft and bought 100 sets of bamboo frames and shafts for over 100 yuan. He faced challenges at the time as factory workers earned only dozens of yuan a month. However, his grandson has continued the legacy by showcasing his handmade paper umbrellas at international trade shows and exhibitions, including the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Liu Youquan had a plan, and it played out as he had hoped. He was appointed as a manager of a paint factory in China, and with his eye on the future, he stored away a large quantity of umbrella parts at his home, where they sat for 24 years. After retiring in 2006, he decided to revive his passion for umbrella-making. To accomplish this, he found four senior umbrella makers who could help him to bring this craft back to life, and he also took on several apprentices to ensure the tradition was carried forward. However, there was a problem; the average age of these experienced artisans was over 50, and there were only a handful of them left.

Despite these challenges, Liu Youquan and his team continued their efforts, and in 2007, they received the recognition they deserved. The provincial government listed their umbrella-making technique as an intangible cultural heritage, a significant honor for the team. However, Liu Youquan remained concerned about the future of the craft as the number of aging specialists continued to dwindle.

Little did he know that his revival of the craft would plant a seed in his grandson’s heart. Liu Weixue, a graduate of Hangzhou Normal University, had received his bachelor’s degree in environmental design in 2014. After working at a design company in Hangzhou for a while, he realized that his true passion lay in umbrella-making. Thus, in 2015, he decided to set up his own paper umbrella design studio.

Inspired by his grandfather’s passion and the recognition that the provincial government had bestowed upon the craft, Liu Weixue was determined to preserve and promote the art of umbrella-making. He started to create unique umbrella designs, blending traditional techniques with modern styles, and soon gained a reputation for his work. His studio quickly became a hub of creativity, attracting young designers and artisans who shared his vision.

Together, Liu Youquan and Liu Weixue had brought the traditional craft of umbrella-making back to life. Their efforts had not only revived a dying art but also inspired a new generation of artisans to take up the craft. With Liu Weixue’s innovative designs and the support of his team, the studio is continuing to promote the craft and preserve it for future generations. Today, Liu Weixue’s paper umbrella design studio is a thriving business that is helping to keep an important part of China’s cultural heritage alive.

Liu Youquan considered it vital to pass on the paper umbrella making process to future generations, and he expressed his happiness that his grandson, Liu Weixue, had agreed to take on the challenge. Knowing the difficulties involved in reviving the craft, Liu Youquan offered financial support to his grandson, giving him 60,000 yuan to aid his efforts. Liu Weixue then began learning the craft from scratch at his grandfather’s former residence, which he had converted into a workshop.

In his first year, Liu Weixue set himself the goal of creating an umbrella that could be displayed at Maison et Objet, a prestigious international trade fair. To achieve this, he had to master the complex process of umbrella making, which requires great care and patience, as every detail matters.

For instance, the bamboo used to create the ribs and stretchers must be soaked in water for 30 days and then dried to prevent mold and damage by worms. It’s essential that the 36 ribs and 36 stretchers used in an umbrella come from the same bamboo culm or stem, according to Liu Weixue. Once the components have been assembled, the threads are intertwined through the ribs and stretchers, carefully measured to ensure that the umbrella opens properly.

The next step is attaching the canopy, which is made up of small patches of glued sangpi paper. After folding the paper canopy by hand, artisans paint it with a Chinese brush. Finally, they brush wax oil onto the canopy twice to waterproof it. This lengthy process requires great skill, and the artisans take immense pride in their work.

Fang Jinquan, an umbrella maker at Liu Weixue’s studio, began learning the craft at the age of 12, and he notes that it takes at least three years to become qualified. This is because the art of umbrella making is a complex and time-consuming process that requires great dedication and attention to detail.

Despite the challenges involved, Liu Weixue and his team at the paper umbrella design studio are committed to preserving this traditional craft. They have not only revived the art of umbrella making but also introduced modern elements to it. The studio’s innovative designs have garnered attention from around the world, and their work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and trade fairs.

For Liu Youquan, seeing his grandson carry on the family tradition is a source of great pride. He is happy that his efforts to revive the craft have borne fruit and that future generations will have the opportunity to appreciate and preserve this important part of China’s cultural heritage. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of Liu Weixue and his team, the art of paper umbrella making is alive and well, and it will continue to thrive for generations to come.

Liu Weixue is committed to upholding traditional paper umbrella-making techniques while making creative adaptations that reflect contemporary life. Liu’s design expertise has enabled him to develop his own color palette for his umbrellas, which includes a range of ten plain colors. The colors, such as grass green, gray blue, vermilion, earth yellow, cloud white, and black, offer young people an opportunity to express their individuality through their accessories.

Liu Weixue invites artists to design patterns that are not only derived from traditional culture but also include cartoon characters to appeal to younger customers. He has also partnered with fashion brands to tap into the guochao trend, which mixes fashionable designs with traditional cultural elements. To add a unique twist to his products, Liu Weixue and illustrator Zhang Fan created three umbrellas featuring mythical beasts from ancient Chinese myths in 2018.

In 2020, Liu Weixue’s studio collaborated with artist Guo Jiaxin to incorporate elements from the Archaeological Ruins of Liangzhu City in Hangzhou into seven paper umbrellas. Each umbrella produced at Liu Weixue’s studio is unique because the colors vary slightly each time they are mixed, and each line is painted by hand.

While attracting young customers is essential, Liu Weixue aims to do more than sell paper umbrellas. To raise awareness about the craft, he has given lectures on paper umbrella-making at nearby schools and communities and taken his products to arts and crafts festivals and exhibitions.

In early 2020, with the support of the local government, a museum dedicated to Yuhang paper umbrellas opened in Pingyao town in Yuhang. Visitors can see specialists at work and participate in a canopy painting course to learn about the craft’s history and techniques. Liu Weixue hopes that the museum will inspire visitors and encourage them to incorporate paper umbrellas into their daily lives.

“I hope our museum can trigger the imagination of visitors. When you take an umbrella home, as well as being functional, it can also be a decoration. For instance, put it on a stand with a bulb and it can be a pretty lamp. Exploring its possibilities in daily life keeps the ancient craft alive,” Liu Weixue says. His desire to preserve the art of paper umbrella-making and raise awareness of its importance to Chinese culture extends beyond his studio and into the wider community.

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