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A many layered affair

By Yang Feiyue and Yang Jun | China Daily| Updated: 2024-03-14 Print


A collection of lacquered furniture at Gao Guangyou's workshop in Bijie city, Guizhou province. [PHOTO BY PENG YOULIN/CHINA DAILY]

Dafang lacquerware is 1,700 years old, but now one craftsman is taking the tradition in a fresh direction, Yang Feiyue and Yang Jun report.

Rows of lacquerware objects decorated with ancient totems, lifelike flowers, birds and figures dazzle the eye at Gao Guangyou's workshop in Dafang county in Bijie city, in northwestern part of Guizhou province.

Observed from a distance, they shine under the light, reflecting everything around them, but at close quarters, their patterns have a way of hitting one between the eyes, and seem to jump from the surfaces.

"As time passes, the patterns will become even clearer," Gao says.

These labors of love are Dafang lacquerware, which dates back over 1,700 years.

The tradition originated during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) and Dafang lacquerware eventually evolved into tributes sent to the imperial court during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Thanks to its favorable natural conditions, climate and soil, Dafang abounds in lacquer trees.


Gao embellishes the lacquerware with paint. [PHOTO BY PENG YOULIN/CHINA DAILY]

Records show that people of Yi ethnic group have long used raw lacquer to coat things like saddles and quivers. Subsequently, cowhide was used to create the embryos — the base of each piece — onto which layers of lacquer are applied, in stark difference to other popular lacquerware traditions that use wood, bamboo or cloth as their base.

Through a series of manual processes, the leather merges with the lacquer and is used to make wine vessels, tea sets and other daily items. The craft was systematically refined during the Ming Dynasty.

"It takes at least half a year to produce a lacquerware piece," Gao says, adding that this involves 50 steps spread across five main processes, including lacquer-making, embryo-making and decoration.

"First of all, premium lacquer itself doesn't come easily," Gao says.

Local craftsmen concur that it is only possible to get half a kilogram or raw lacquer after tapping trees thousands of times.

To make the cut, the lacquer should be as clear as oil when exuded and take on a striped texture like tiger skin when churned, and it should pour slowly in an unbroken flow. More specifically, it should retain 70 percent of its original weight after being heated to remove water. The heavier the weight, the better the hardness and glossiness of the final products.

After the lacquer is dried, trimmed cowhide is soaked in water for half a day to make it softer and easier to stretch before being nailed to a wood board, ready to be coated with a layer of mixture containing lacquer and a local type of yellow earth.

"There is no fixed ratio between the yellow earth and lacquer, and these proportions require years of practical experience to determine," Gao says.

The mixture is then applied and polished multiple times to harden the hide while ensuring its surface remains smooth and pore-free.

The nails and wood board are then removed and the rough edges of the hide are cut, before the piece is shaped.

Lacquer is reapplied and left to dry before being washed and polished. This step is repeated until the surface gleams.

It is then ready to be decorated, which ranges from drawing and sculpting to the use of eggshell and mother-of-pearl inlay.

"Every step requires precision, so you must hold your breath and be meticulous," Gao says.

Once the decoration is done and dry, more lacquer is layered on top and then polished with different grades of sandpaper to reveal patterns.

Finally, a thin layer of rapeseed oil is applied and powder is sprinkled onto the finished piece for further polishing until it shines brightly like a mirror.

"I have practiced the craft for more than three decades, and I'm still learning," Gao says.


Gao paints patterns on a lacquered vase. [PHOTO BY PENG YOULIN/CHINA DAILY]

Due to its special nature, lacquerware achieves its best levels of brightness, smoothness and robustness after two to six years, he explains.

Growing up in Dafang, Gao was intrigued by lacquerware as a child, and watched his father harvest raw lacquer from the tall trees around the house, which he used to make exquisitely patterned tobacco boxes.

After signing up for painting training for farmers in 1985, Gao was recommended to a nearby state-owned lacquerware plant four years later.

Under the instruction of senior artisans, he developed a better understanding of Dafang lacquerware and made inroads in the traditional craft, which was named a form of national intangible cultural heritage in 2008.

He says he realized then that Dafang lacquerware was part of the Yi cultural wealth and was worth thoroughly studying to ensure its essence was fully preserved and carried forward.

"Since the 1990s, I have traveled to the Taijiang, Danzhai, and Guanling (Bouyei and Miao autonomous county) ethnic regions in Guizhou, to sketch and collect materials, and draw inspiration from art forms like oil painting, printmaking, and paper-cutting," Gao says.

Those efforts have given rise to a series of pieces featuring distinctive ethnic elements, such as the night dances and totems of the ancient Yi people.

Gao takes pride in the fact that many of his pieces have been publicly displayed in China and abroad.

As he got to the bottom of the craft's traditional techniques, he realized that they had to keep pace with the times.

"Traditional craftsmanship is constrained by the conditions of the times and requires a lot of labor, making costs relatively high. So it is necessary to improve traditional techniques," Gao says.

But maintaining a delicate balance between innovation and tradition is key, he adds.


Large lacquered vases are among the highlights at Gao's workshop. [PHOTO BY PENG YOULIN/CHINA DAILY]

After bouncing around a few ideas with his teachers and gaining their approval, Gao revised some traditional methods through trial and error.

In particular, he made a breakthrough in the lacquer stacking technique. The traditional method involves applying lacquer and the mixture of lacquer and yellow earth alternately on the surface.

The tricky part is not applying the layers too thickly, as this will result in uneven drying or even wrinkling, he explains.

For example, to create a decorative pattern 0.3 centimeters thick requires applying 8-12 layers of lacquer and mixture. These delicate steps are not just time consuming and costly, but make it difficult to achieve the desired effect.

Gao experimented with a variety of modern materials, and eventually came up with an innovative approach after three years. As a result of his new technique, the previously repetitive steps have been reduced to a single layering. This significantly reduces labor and shortens production time by 70 percent while the pieces themselves retain the same exquisite, elegant, and durable characteristics as before. They have been instantly well-received by the market.

To better carry forward the heritage of his craft, Gao assembled some folk lacquerware artists and founded his own factory in 2013 specializing in Dafang lacquerware design and manufacture. Additionally, it offers regular training to local makers.

Gao has worked with institutes of higher learning like the Guizhou Normal University and set up lacquerware teaching and creation facilities to nurture inheritors.

Based in traditional craftsmanship, he has made a point of keeping up with trends and has developed antique-style lacquerware furniture, lacquerware paintings, various forms of packaging, tourist handicrafts, and practical lacquerware products.

Under his influence, his two sons have also taken a shine to the art.

"Our main customers are art collectors and tourists," says one of them, Gao Yan, who learned the craft from his father and is now in charge of marketing.

Product prices range from a few hundred yuan to tens of thousands.

"Trinkets, wine cups and bracelets are especially popular with travelers," the 35-year-old says.

The family factory can produce 30,000 pieces of lacquerware a year, and made over 5.5 million yuan ($766,000) in 2019.

Gao Guangyou says he feels the increasing support of the government for intangible cultural heritage preservation and development.

"The inheritance and protection of Dafang lacquerware has seen positive results," he says.

Favorable tax policies have enabled him to earmark more money for experimenting with innovation and promotion.

"That gives us more confidence to carry on this ancient folk art," he says.

Zhao Yandi contributed to this story.


Joyous birds chirping on plum branches are one of the decorations. [PHOTO BY PENG YOULIN/CHINA DAILY]

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