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Friday, September 22, 2023

Preserving China’s Cultural Relics: The Art of Packaging

CultureArtPreserving China's Cultural Relics: The Art of Packaging

Craftsmanship has been a part of human history for thousands of years, and one ancient packaging technique that has survived the test of time is the use of beautifully crafted wooden boxes. Even in modern times, there are still artisans who maintain and innovate this intricate craft.

According to a report by Yang Feiyue, one such craftsman is based in Hangzhou, China. His name is Wang Lianhua, and he is a master of the art of wooden box making. Wang learned this craft from his grandfather, who was also a skilled woodworker, and has been practicing it for over 30 years.

Wang’s wooden boxes are made using traditional techniques, which involve using only hand tools to shape and carve the wood. He uses a variety of woods, including rosewood, ebony, and sandalwood, and each box is designed to be unique.

One of the most important aspects of Wang’s craft is the use of natural materials to create a lasting fragrance. Like the man from the State of Chu in Han Fei’s proverbial tale, Wang smokes his boxes with spices to give them a pleasant scent that lasts for years.

But Wang’s craftsmanship goes beyond just creating beautifully scented wooden boxes. He also adds intricate ornamental details, such as mother-of-pearl inlays and delicate carvings, to make each box a work of art.

The process of making a wooden box can take anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the complexity of the design. Wang uses a combination of traditional techniques and modern tools to create each box, and he is always experimenting with new techniques and designs to push the boundaries of his craft.

Wang’s boxes are not just beautiful, they are also functional. He creates boxes for a variety of purposes, including storing jewelry, tea, and other valuables. His boxes are also popular as gifts, and he often creates custom designs for clients who want something unique.

Despite the popularity of his craft, Wang is concerned about the future of wooden box making. He worries that the younger generation is not interested in learning traditional crafts, and that the art of wooden box making may be lost.

To address this concern, Wang has started teaching his craft to young apprentices. He hopes to pass on his knowledge and skills to the next generation, so that the art of wooden box making can continue to thrive.

The  ancient art of wooden box making is still alive and well, thanks to craftsmen like Wang Lianhua. His dedication to preserving traditional techniques and experimenting with new designs has ensured that this ancient craft will continue to be passed down through the generations.

During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), paper boxes emerged as a popular form of packaging due to the vigorous development of textiles and paper manufacturing. These boxes were particularly favored by the literati for their simple yet elegant characteristics.

Typically, Song Dynasty paper boxes were made of grass cardboard and framed with Song brocade, which featured gorgeous colors and a soft texture. The inside of the box was lined with cotton to create a soft pocket, originally used to carry fragile items such as inkstones and ink ingots. Later on, thread-bound books were also carried in these boxes.

This art form continued to flourish throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, with artisans creating boxes in various shapes and sizes. They made everything from jewelry boxes and cabinets to royal goods and gifts given by dignitaries.

During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial court recognized the importance of this art form and brought together artisans in the trade to create elaborate packaging. These packages were not only functional but also considered a form of artistic expression.

The techniques used in creating these paper boxes were complex and required a great deal of skill. Artisans had to be skilled in a range of techniques, from weaving brocade to folding cardboard and cutting patterns. They used a variety of materials, including silk, cotton, and paper, to create boxes in different styles and designs.

Despite the popularity of paper boxes during the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties, their use declined over time as new materials and techniques emerged. However, the tradition of creating beautifully crafted boxes lives on, with artisans still creating paper boxes using traditional techniques.

Today, paper boxes are often used for gift packaging, and their popularity is once again on the rise. Many artisans are experimenting with new materials and techniques to create boxes that are not only beautiful but also eco-friendly.

The  emergence of paper boxes during the Song Dynasty was a significant development in the history of packaging. Their popularity continued to grow during the Ming and Qing dynasties, with artisans creating elaborate packaging for a variety of purposes. Although their use declined over time, the tradition of creating beautifully crafted paper boxes lives on today.

Gao Fuhao, based in Hedong district of North China’s Tianjin, is dedicated to preserving the ancient craft of creating brocade boxes, which was declared a national intangible cultural heritage in 2021.

According to Gao, the craft involves making a set of packages for cultural and playful items, commonly referred to as “brocade boxes.” The main objective is to protect the contents from damage caused by external factors such as bumps and prolonged exposure to the environment.

However, Gao believes that the significance of the craft extends beyond just producing outer packaging. He believes that it also involves a certain level of cultural relic protection and repair, much like the workshops that were present in the royal palace during ancient times.

The craft of creating brocade boxes is a delicate art that requires great skill and attention to detail. The process involves weaving brocade and assembling the boxes with grass cardboard. The boxes are then lined with cotton to create a soft pocket, which protects the contents from damage.

Gao is passionate about carrying on this ancient craft and has dedicated himself to preserving its legacy. He believes that the craft is not only an art form but also a way to promote traditional Chinese culture and values.

As a national intangible cultural heritage, the craft of creating brocade boxes has gained recognition for its historical and cultural significance. It is now part of China’s rich cultural heritage and serves as a testament to the skill and creativity of ancient artisans.

Gao Fuhao is a Tianjin native who just turned 50, and is a local inheritor of the craft of creating brocade boxes. Growing up in a family of cultural item collectors, he has been fascinated by ancient relics from a young age, especially the delicate structure and colors of the boxes that hold treasures.

Gao’s interest in art led him to pursue a career in making historical packing boxes. He has studied and explored the knowledge and skills of cultural relic repair and binding for years, and established his own studio at a local cultural street in 2008.

At his studio, Gao mainly takes care of and manages cultural relics for clients. When a client brings an item to him, he designs and makes a corresponding box based on the category and quality of the artifact. If the item is damaged, he also repairs it, and if there are any placement requirements, he matches it with a base.

Gao sees the process of creating an artistic container as a form of artistic re-creation, and he considers it his mission to deliver a complete work of art.

The process of making an artistic container involves several preliminary steps, including conceptualizing the design, sketching the blueprint, and selecting the materials. Gao pays great attention to detail and strives for perfection in every step of the process.

As a local inheritor of the craft of creating brocade boxes, Gao is dedicated to preserving its legacy and promoting traditional Chinese culture. Through his work, he hopes to inspire future generations to appreciate the beauty and value of ancient art forms.

The craft of making artistic containers involves a meticulous and thorough process that consists of various steps, as Gao Fuhao, a Tianjin native and local inheritor of the craft, explains. To start, the first step is to measure the basic dimensions of the cultural relic and draw a basic model. The container has to be one-third larger than the item’s dimensions, precisely measured to ensure a perfect fit and tight seal, even if the box is thrown or turned upside down.

If an item features an irregular shape, data on various parts should be obtained and then a related model diagram is drawn. For fabrics, Gao often uses Song brocade, which has a gorgeous color and a soft texture, and applies traditional cutting techniques. The design must be based on the characteristics of the item it will house, using luxurious and auspicious patterns that render a harmonious effect inside and out.

The actual production process involves a dozen steps, such as cutting fabrics, constructing the frame, making the paste, the interior, and the clasp. The design is conceptualized, sketched, and materials are chosen before moving on to constructing the container. For instance, Gao made a container with a mountain and stone background for a butterfly-patterned hairpin. The hairpin can be inserted in a slot in the background, reducing the chance of hands touching it and creating a whole picture.

Gao considers the process of making an artistic container as a process of artistic re-creation and takes it as his mission to deliver a complete work of art. He mainly takes care of and manages cultural relics for clients, designing and making a corresponding box based on the category and quality of the artifact. If it is damaged, he also repairs it and matches it with a base if there are any placement requirements.

Gao’s passion for ancient relics began in childhood, born into a family of collectors of cultural items. He was attracted to the color and delicate structure of the boxes that held the treasures. As his appreciation for art developed, he pursued a career making historical packing boxes. Having studied and explored the knowledge and skills of cultural relic repair and binding for years, Gao established his own studio at a local cultural street in 2008.

Gao’s craft is beyond just the production of outer packaging and involves a certain level of cultural relics protection and repair, similar to the business of the workshops at the royal palace in ancient times. His commitment to carrying on this ancient craft, which was named a national intangible cultural heritage in 2021, is commendable.

The materials used for packaging containers may vary depending on the collectible’s capacity to withstand force, according to Gao. Hard materials like paperboard, various types of wood, and composite board are used, while soft materials range from brocade, satin, silk, linen, and cotton.

After cutting the materials, the panels of the box are glued together, which takes between two and seven days to complete. Gao stresses that the surface must be smooth and wrinkle-free after the fabric is pasted onto the periphery of the box, with no corners left exposed and even and natural designs.

Gao believes that the most critical step in making the container is making the interior. The materials should be carefully selected and meticulously applied to protect the antique and highlight its features. The final step is to make the clasp and buckle, which can be made out of jade, bone, or wood and can come in various forms.

Gao faces challenges when unfamiliar items are handed over to him. For instance, when he was asked by a friend two years ago to repair a stoneware item and make a pedestal to hold it, Gao went out of his way to deliver a natural-looking base. Although he eventually delivered a nice pedestal, he is still struggling to restore the stoneware item.

Gao states that encountering difficulties when handling various types of cultural relics and artifacts is normal, especially at the beginning. “They have differences and similarities, but if we can master the similarities, it is easier for us to understand new knowledge and techniques,” he says. One of the biggest joys he gets from his work is the continuous acquisition of new knowledge and skills.

“I hope I can learn new things and improve myself every day,” he says.

The ancient craft of making delicate packaging boxes and cabinets has gained greater attention both at home and abroad, and many craftsmen like Gao have engaged in it. Beijing Meida Technology Co. is one such company that employs artisans to make delicate jewelry boxes and cabinets in the old-fashioned way like Gao. Zhang Bin from the company says they have been approached by buyers at major trade fairs held across the country in recent years. He adds that the public has shown great curiosity and interest in these delicate packaging boxes, which they hadn’t seen before. The company’s products have been presented to clients in Europe, in places like Poland and Italy, who have expressed a desire to collaborate in the future. Zhang says that they plan to bring more products featuring traditional Chinese culture and related elements to the overseas market.

Over the years, Gao has also sensed a significant rise in public interest in cultural relics and history. He says that it has consolidated his conviction about the value of his trade and made him very demanding about his work. He insists on ensuring his independence in artistic creation, which has sometimes caused him to offend his clients. He stresses that he feels obliged to take responsibility for every single piece that passes through his hands.

Looking to the future, Gao plans to use the internet, such as the WeChat platform, to share his knowledge and skills of the trade. He says that he’d like to do his part to promote awareness, understanding, and appreciation of this art form to a wider audience.

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