Carpentry is a fading skill in modern China. Some in the industry fear it is slowly dying out, while others believe it has the potential to bounce back as a hobby if marketed properly.
Qi Jianfei, 63, is a carpenter. His shop is the only one that sells handmade wooden buckets in the city.
Every day when he makes a bucket in front of his store near the Drum Tower onlookers always crowd around to watch.
“I always feel proud when passers-by circle around to watch,” Qi says. “But I am also sad that this type of craftsmanship is seldom seen in the city nowadays.”
Qi became a carpenter at the age of 16. In the early 1980s, he moved to Hangzhou from Zhuji County in central Zhejiang Province. Since then he has made a living making wooden items.
In the 1980s, he says rural residents hired him to make furniture as dowry for their daughters. During that period, two youngsters were apprenticed to him.
Nonetheless, the prosperous business didn’t last long since plastic products and factory produced furniture replaced handmade pieces. Qi recalls having little choice but to sell his products along roadsides, but was often driven off by urban management officers.
“My apprentices also left because they didn’t think they could earn a decent living from it, plus being a professional carpenter isn’t easy,” Qi says.
It usually takes five to six years for an apprentice to master the skill of Chinese tenon-and-mortise woodworking, which is time-consuming and requires much patience.
Today, Qi is the only person in Hangzhou who makes wooden products all by hand. It takes him half a day to make a bucket, which he sells for 100 yuan (US$17.96).
“Ten years ago, my business improved since many foot massage parlors popped up around the city. They need wooden buckets for soaking the feet of their customers,” Qi says. “I make the buckets out of cedar because it has a mellow scent.”
Qi’s handmade buckets are thicker and stronger compared to those made in factories.
Since his store is in a bustling scenic area, his buckets are also popular with tourists.
Like other craftsmen who have confidence in the products they make, Qi promises to repair broken buckets without charge.
“No one can repair them other than me,” he says. “This after-sales service encourages people to buy my buckets. Actually, as people become more environmentally aware they are switching to wooden buckets.”
Qi’s son is now his apprentice and he is trying to use e-commerce to revive the craft.
Though today’s business isn’t as strong as the peak period during the 1980s, Qi says he will continue running the store until he can no longer work.
“The traditional craft is declining, and I am afraid that someday in the future no one will be willing to hand it down,” Qi says, sighing.
However, there are those who are considerably more optimistic about the carpentry industry, at least as a hobby.
Gao Changqian, 31, and his partner Xu Guangju established a woodworking studio named M. Y. Lab at the beginning of this year. It covers 1,500 square meters and features numerous tools and machines that can be used to make a variety of Chinese and Western wooden items.
Professional woodworking designers from home and abroad are invited to give classes.
As a club that gathers woodworking hobbyists, the studio offers two courses Ñ a short-term curriculum that teaches students how to make a wooden pen, spoon and knickknacks, and a long-term program that includes making a chair and a hobbyhorse. Course prices range from 300 yuan to 3,800 yuan.
The fee is higher than pottery and painting studios, but Gao has his reasons.
“Aside from the cost of timber and time, woodworking brings people a bigger sense of accomplishment compared to other hobbies,” Gao says. “People these days prefer creative activities. Though Hangzhou’s woodworking market is still immature, I have confidence in it.”
Gao and Xu were both designers before opening M. Y. Lab. After becoming obsessed with woodworking they decided to pursue their passion by investing all their savings in the studio last year.
“Unlike traditional carpentry, which requires much patience and time, our studio aims to teach amateurs to do basic woodworking,” Gao says.
They publicize the studio through word-of-mouth marketing and social media like Weibo and WeChat. It has been a successful technique as they have had groups of participants sign up for courses within six months.
“Developed countries usually have a thriving woodworking market and many families have a garage where they can do carpentry,” Gao says. “Hangzhou’s woodworking market is still developing but in the future when more people look for meaningful hobbies, it will absolutely attract a vast number who admire creativity.”
China’s time-honored arts and crafts traditions are being kept alive by a fresh crop of talented, young artists and designers. Across Hangzhou, these emerging artisans are adapting these ancient cultural products to suit modern tastes. Shanghai Daily’s Hangzhou Special is here to put the spotlight on these young innovators.
Source: Shanghai Daily