International Department of the CPC Central Committee       BEIJING REVIEW
The Last Masters
By Pamela Tobey 
Yang Shaojin demonstrates how to paint the red dots on the frog's yellow spots in his workshop in Yuxian County, Hebei Province in north China, on October 20 (COUTRTESY PHOTO)
On a cool weekend in mid-October, an eager group of 12 boarded a small bus for a four-hour drive to the western edge of Hebei, a province neighboring Beijing. Their destination was Nuanquan Town, or Warm Spring Town, with its ancient walled villages dating from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, relatively untouched by the influence of modern redevelopment. They were traveling for a weekend of learning how to make traditional paper lanterns.

Nuanquan is known for its red paper-cut art that is so much on display during the Spring Festival holiday as well as for performances of dashuhua, literally meaning beating out flaming flowers.

Ironworkers throw hot molten iron against a cold brick wall with a large, specially treated spoon carved from a willow. When the shallow dip of iron hits the cold bricks, it explodes in a dramatic shower of sparks resembling the flowering canopy of a large tree and hence the name. It requires skill since the cold spoon can't be dipped too deep into the molten metal or the temperature difference will cause an explosion before it can be thrown onto the wall.

On a Spring Festival culture trip organized by Beijing Hikers, a family-run business that conducts hikes and expeditions, Sun Huijie, the organization's general manager, noticed the colorful paper flower and animal lanterns hanging above the streets of the town.

"I thought, oh, this is so cute and interesting. Who made those lanterns?" she said. "So I started thinking about [how] we could organize something, how we could make those lanterns. A lantern study trip."

Sun contacted a government official she knew in the area to learn more about the lanterns and find their creators. She took a day in February to travel to Nuanquan to set in motion her idea for a cultural lantern trip.

Zhu Ying holds up her lantern as Dong Jianxi shows her how to glue the red paper cut trim along the pink fringe (PAMELA TOBEY)

Meeting the masters

The town has been home to many generations of artists skilled at handcrafting lanterns, but now there are only two masters left still practicing the ancient art. Previous generations who made lanterns have either died or moved away, so currently, Dong Jianxi of Xigubu Village and Yang Shaojin of nearby Beiguanbu Village are the only ones left.

Their lanterns are mostly bought for the Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival, held on the 15th day of the first lunar month, by local business people and the town government.

Dong said he is the 15th generation of his family to design and make lanterns. During the Qing Dynasty, his ancestor Dong Rucui learned how to make paper lanterns. He married a woman from a wealthy family and his father-in-law helped the family to enable him to continue his craft.

Dong Jianxi learned the craft from his father and some of the older generation in the village. When he was young, the entire village would gather to help his father make the lanterns in the months before the Lantern Festival. He chose to specialize in flower basket and fruit lanterns, as well as the more traditional six-sided lanterns with intricate paintings on each side.

In his courtyard home, the storage room is full of colorful flower basket and fruit lanterns trimmed with multicolored paper streamers and fringes.

Yang, who also learned the craft from his father, said he makes animal lanterns, specializing in the Chinese zodiac animals as well as the traditional five poisonous animals of China—the snake, toad, scorpion, centipede and spider.

His storerooms were festooned with brightly colored and painted animal lanterns and a few multi-sided lanterns with delicate flowers painted on each panel, all his own designs. The animals included pigs, roosters, tigers, snakes, oxen and fish, and there were even a few watermelons.

The group of 12 arrived with the aim of learning how to make some of these paper lanterns, becoming temporary apprentices to the masters. The participants ranged from a local Beijing family of three to expats from Germany, Switzerland and the United States.

There were also two artistically qualified assistants, Zhu Ying and Sun, who both graduated from Tsinghua University's Academy of Arts and Design, and Alison Cusato, an U.S. art teacher who moved to China in 2017 to teach art at a Beijing international school.

One of the workshop participants, Richard Dunham, glues a red paper flower petal onto the base of his frog lantern (PAMELA TOBEY)

Learning the ropes

Everyone gathered in a large, open room in the new government building of Nuanquan. Each student was given a bamboo basket frame made by Master Dong and his wife and bags of colorful tissue paper flowers. Everyone sat down with brushes and bowls of glue made from cooked flour and water, a centuries-old recipe that still works very well to this day.

Dong demonstrated how to measure and cut the tissue paper for the frames and attach the pieces. Then his wife showed how to attach the bright pink paper-cut fringe around the top of the basket and tie the flowers around the top. The last steps were cutting a simple red paper strip to top the pink fringe and twisting a fringe of green paper around the handle.

The following day, the group gathered at the local office in Beiguanbu, one of the small walled villages in the town, where Master Yang showed everyone how to take a plain wire and bamboo frame and turn it into a frog.

They first cut plain white tissue paper and covered the small frames using the same traditional glue. He then had them outline circles with green paint, leaving the inside of the circles white. They were told to paint between the circles to color the frog's body. He then demonstrated how to paint a small yellow circle inside each white spot.

While the frogs were drying, everyone crinkled tissue paper on a wooden dowel to make lips to glue onto the frog faces. Then they watched Yang cut red paper, fold it into his handkerchief and pull down one side to pleat it to look like leaves. These would be glued on the basket to make the frogs, now green, look like they were sitting on a red lotus.

Yang handed out four pre-painted legs to attach to the body to complete the frogs. They were hung from a six-sided wire star with paper streamers on each point, completing the lanterns.

"I hope we can help the local farmers to increase their income," Sun said.

Many of the residents farm plots outside the town, growing corn and other grains. The small villages are reminiscent of China before the big changes brought about by reform and opening up.

Beijing Hikers plans to offer the trip at other times during the year, especially when school's out so that more children can enjoy the fun of creating lanterns. Sun also hopes to find more masters of other ancient Chinese arts with whom she can create more study tours.

Yang garnered some new orders from some of the trip participants, with one person asking specifically for some of his colorful rooster lanterns to be shipped to Beijing.

Paper-cuts, a part of Chinese lives, are a famed tradition that was included on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Lantern- making, another prized art, has built the reputation of several cities. For instance, the paper lantern-making art of Dongzhi, a county in southern Anhui Province, has been recognized by the Chinese Government as an intangible cultural heritage under state protection.

However, in Nuanquan, the art's future seems uncertain. Both Dong Jianxi and Yang Shaojin's children didn't want to learn lantern- making, telling their fathers that they didn't see it as a good business because it didn't make enough money. They left and took better-paying jobs in larger towns.

After the two masters are gone, there could be no more lantern masters left in the town since no younger residents interested in apprenticing have been found.

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