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A page out of history

By Yang Feiyue | China Daily| Updated: 2023-05-29 Print


Wang Xingwu (second from right) and villagers tie up and soak the bark of a local plant, the unique basis of their paper products, beside a river in Shiqiao village, Guizhou province. CHINA DAILY 

Thanks to the efforts of craftsman Wang Xingwu, an ancient village is enjoying the fruits of a traditional papermaking boom, Yang Feiyue reports.

Wang Xingwu has an occasional, but long-developed habit of collecting wildflowers and grass from the mountains.

He turns them into a special handmade material, which is known as huacao (flower and grass) paper and is mostly decorative, used for wallpaper, lanterns, umbrellas and bookmarks.

It has become a hit among visitors who beat a path to Shiqiao village in the north of Danzhai county, Southwest China's Guizhou province.

They are drawn to the village's profound papermaking history, which stretches back more than 1,000 years, and are eager to try their hand at the craft, which is considered one of the four great inventions of ancient China, on a par with printing, gunpowder and the compass.

It has been years since Wang, who is in his 50s, developed his novel paper stock, with the aim of catering to visitors and promoting the local papermaking tradition.


Wang teaches locals how to select and peel bark to make paper. CHINA DAILY

"I was once making paper in a cave, and then a leaf wafted onto it and got stuck," he recalls.

"Then, it hit me. The paper could be a piece of art if I integrated grass and flowers."

Through trial and error, Wang managed to perfect his method and his novel product has found an appeal among the younger generation.

Wang will walk visitors through the papermaking process.

Compared with conventional paper, making flower and grass paper is more complex.

"When picking flowers, you need to be careful and keep them intact," he says.

The first step in making huacao paper is to flatten flowers and leaves and place them on top of the pulp, Wang says.

"Once they are flattened, we use them to create the design before we add another layer of pulp," he says, adding that, this way, the color of the plants will also be retained.

Then, it will be left to air-dry for a while, before heat is applied to temper the paper.

"The final work reflects a noticeable concavo-convex texture, with an inconsistent, tactile feel. When used as the exterior cover of a notebook, for example, it looks particularly beautiful," Wang says.

Many locals have since taken advantage of Wang's ingenious idea, and use visitors' curiosity in the paper to earn extra income.

Shiqiao lies below a towering bridge upon which countless cars race by every day.

Yet, time seems to slow down in the village, as many locals, who are mostly ethnic Miao, take their time to meticulously turn tree bark into handmade sheets of white paper, using old-fashioned methods and unpolluted spring water from the nearby mountains.

This traditional technique was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.


Handheld fans made with huacao paper. CHINA DAILY

The process of making a single sheet of Shiqiao paper involves more than 10 steps, including soaking, pulping, boiling, rinsing, pounding and drying, Wang says.

"To be more specific, after the bark is peeled off, it is soaked in water for 24 hours, before it is steamed with lime," he explains.

"You can see if the fibers are of good quality, and we use these fibers to make paper."

The fibers will then be soaked, cooked, and beaten into pulp. They are then placed in wooden molds for shaping. After being dried and tempered, a sheet of paper is completed.

The entire process is done manually using natural materials, and the paper has renowned characteristics, such as its flexibility, gloss and strong water absorbency, Wang says.

Experts have found that Shiqiao's papermaking process is basically in line with the interpretation from Tiangong Kaiwu, an encyclopedia that covers a wide variety of technical subjects, compiled by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scientist Song Yingxing. They have confirmed that the village's papermaking industry came into existence during the Tang (618-907) Dynasty.

Wang's paper mill is one of the oldest in the village, and his family has been engaged in papermaking for 19 generations.

He began systematically learning traditional papermaking skills from his elder family members in 1981, right after he graduated from high school, when almost every family in the neighborhood worked in the industry.

The local papermaking tradition has been well-preserved, spanning numerous dynasties over the course of a millennium, and it is regarded as a "living fossil". Its longevity is attributed to its use of the bark of a local plant, which grows in the nearby mountains.

"The fibers of this plant are uniformly fine and consistent, making it suitable for producing high-quality paper," Wang explains.

However, since the 1990s, use of machine-made paper started to significantly affect the traditional business, and many families were forced to look elsewhere to make a living.

Wang was no exception.

"At that time, people preferred industrial paper because it was cheaper and more readily available in larger quantities," he recalls.

Consequently, Wang shifted his focus to the production of fuses for firecrackers. It was through these fuses that Wang's paper mill scraped by.

Unfortunately, Wang's business was set to receive another body blow. After a ban on privately made firecrackers was implemented in the late 1990s, Wang found himself in an unprecedented state of uncertainty.


A special thin paper for restoring ancient books. CHINA DAILY

However, his luck turned in 1998. A Hong Kong client was looking for a specific type of dyed paper, and he managed to establish contact with Wang.

Wang grabbed the opportunity with both hands, eventually delivering the required paper much to the delight of his client. The new business helped him get back on his feet and injected in him a renewed faith in the industry that has been the lifeblood of generations of his family.

In 2000, Wang made the decision to explore new production methods. He wanted to try producing colored paper to expand the market. Moreover, he hoped to transform the colored, handmade paper into souvenirs to attract more tourists.

This approach has not only allowed him to increase his sales and bring more benefits to the local community, but also raised awareness among visitors about the charm of local handmade paper.

In 2004, the government rediscovered the importance of the village and its papermaking tradition, and started to direct more attention and support to the development of its distinctive paper culture, which, in turn, helped fuel Wang's cause.

As his business grew, Wang's paper gained popularity among domestic and international tourists, and has been sold both at home and abroad.

Such experiences woke him up to the importance of innovation in traditional craftsmanship.

"To adapt to today's society, ancient crafts must embrace modern influences. This way, more people can appreciate traditional handicrafts," he says.

One of his proudest innovations is the Yingchun paper, which, he claims, scientists estimate could last for more than 1,500 years.

Now, many facilities, such as the National Library of China and National Museum of China, are ordering this paper for the restoration of ancient books and paintings, as the village is now one of the very few places in the world that can produce paper of this nature.

Speaking about its "recipe", Wang says it's very dependent on location, water quality and temperature, the delicate requirements of which just happen to match Shiqiao's unique conditions.

More locals have reconnected with their family traditions and have joined the village's papermaking army.

One such papermaker, Yang Jinzhu, takes pride in his ability to produce 500 sheets of paper a day.

"It might take three to 10 years to grasp the craft, but it's worth it, since we are making paper from the ancient times," Yang says, adding that he enjoys the increasing admiration from the public toward his hometown's specialty.

Under Wang's leadership, a papermaking cooperative has been founded.

It has forged cooperation agreements with more than 60 travel agencies and institutes of higher learning, and tens of thousands of travelers have made their way to Shiqiao to experience the craft firsthand.


Wang prepares to dry the huacao paper. CHINA DAILY

Since 2020, the cooperative has arranged training for local villagers and visitors to learn about the papermaking tradition.

As more local people are capable of making the paper, they have been able to take an increasing number of orders.

More paper products have also been developed, such as lanterns, fans, bookmarks, handbags and umbrellas.

Last year, the cooperative brought in a total income of 6.5 million yuan ($921,000).

It has been selected as one of 66 exemplary intangible cultural heritage workshops supporting rural vitalization by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, and the National Rural Revitalization Administration.

The booming papermaking has seen Wang take on several excellent apprentices.


Torn bark is soaked in a special liquid for treatment. CHINA DAILY

"They have all committed a lot of time and energy to study the ancient handmade paper craft," he says.

"I believe they will continuously roll out innovations and help bring the craft to more people's attention."

Wang says he is planning to help increase the village's papermaking facilities and raise product quality, as well as trying to find more applications for the traditional craft in art, design and home decoration.

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