Zheng Gao shares his passion for the art of handcrafted Chinese folding fans

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/17 17:58:39

Zheng Gao Photo: Li Hao/GT


 A folding fan Photo: Li Hao/GT

Zheng Gao makes a folding fan Photo: Li Hao/GT


Zheng Gao makes a folding fan Photo: Li Hao/GT

The first people to develop foldable handheld fans probably never imagined their invention would go on to represent the culture of a nation. In a similar vein, fan maker Zheng Gao also never imagined he would become an important inheritor of traditional Chinese foldable fan culture.

Though handhold fans can be found everywhere in China, craftsmen who produce traditional handmade fans are rare, especially in North China. The average Chinese person's knowledge of traditional foldable fans, which have been around for centuries, is also limited. To change this situation, Zheng, who has been making fans for more than three decades, is trying to popularize the art and culture of the traditional hand fan.

Zheng works out of a small shop in the Shilihe area of Beijing, a place where craftsmen and plant and bird sellers can be found. It is also the home base of his Beijing Fan Art Association. While his name is widely known among those who are interested in traditional fans, he hasn't established an online shop or Sina Weibo account. His only attempt at social media so far has been to publish one promotional article on his shop's WeChat account.

"I don't want to be distracted by social media," Zheng told the Global Times.

On Sunday, Zheng took time out from his preparations for the 2nd Fan Culture Art Exhibition, which will kick off on Wednesday and end on Saturday, to share his passion for this traditional handicraft with the Global Times.

A better life

To provide financial support for his family in North China's Shanxi Province, Zheng traveled to Beijing to work in construction during the 1980s. One day as he wandered a local market during his time off, he was surprised to see a handheld fan going for 80 yuan ($12), roughly a month's salary for a construction worker at the time.

Since he had some experience with carpentry, Zheng decided to try his hand at making a fan himself. He purchased a mahogany table leg from a flea market and after a week's effort he managed to complete his first foldable hand fan, which he sold for 120 yuan.

Seeing a new lucrative opportunity, Zheng left his construction job and opened a stall in a local market to sell his handmade fans.

His life was further changed after an encounter with famous Xiangsheng (crosstalk) performer Ma Ji (1934-2006) in the 1980s.

Zheng recalled the day Ma stopped at his stall. The artist was impressed with Zheng's handmade fans, since most fans available at the time were mass produced in factories. Wanting to lend his support to Zheng's business, Ma occasionally would write calligraphy on Zheng's fans. He also introduced Zheng to Hong Juntao, the late veteran fan maker and collector. From Hong, Zheng learned how to make fans using professional tools and techniques.

Deeper understanding

With the convenience that foldable fans brought, they quickly replaced other hand fans during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As calligraphy and paintings were added to these fans, they also evolved to become a symbol of the literati. For centuries, the production of handcrafted fans was a stable and healthy industry in China.

However, that changed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when a large percentage of craftsmen left the tradition behind, according to Zheng. This was a huge blow to handcrafted fans. A further blow hit the entire fan industry when a series of fan factories went bankrupt during the 1990s.

The rarity of experts who can make well-made handcrafted fans has influenced their price, as well as made them the target of collectors.

"Northern China and southern China have different ways of making fans," Zheng told the Global Times. "While Beijing has the largest number of people collecting folding fans, the city has the lowest number of people able to make them."

While Zheng was Hong's only student, he has 13 of his own. He also plans to take on six more this week to pass down Hong's northern style of fan-making. This increased number of people looking to learn this traditional handicraft is an indicator that the market for these fans is growing again.

According to a report from artron.net, the collection market for folding fans has become very hot in recent years.

"The highest price for a folding fan a decade ago would have been around 1,000 yuan. Now a very common fan made from mottled bamboo can sell for more than 10,000 yuan, while the boutique ones can go for several million yuan each," the report noted, adding that prices for folding fans have increased significantly over the past two years despite the recent economic slowdown.

Zheng, however, is not a fan of collectors who are looking to capitalize on rising prices.

"A fan is for fanning oneself and so you can enjoy the calligraphy and paintings on them while you use it. It is not something to be used for speculation," he said, explaining that in his opinion collectors do not understand the true value of this cultural heritage.

"There was a time when the only reason I made fans was to make more money so I could live a better life," Zheng admitted. "But over time I discovered the deep culture and artistic value of these fans. I now want to share this with the people of today."

Zheng has applied for handcrafted foldable fans to be recognized as an intangible cultural heritage. In 2015, he also founded the Beijing Fan Art Association, which gathers a number of veteran craftsmen who specialize in painting and calligraphy on fans, as well as bamboo engraving.

Nowadays, Zheng only comes into the shop on the weekends to take care of matters concerning the association. The rest of his time is spent in his studio in Langfang, Hebei Province, roughly 50 kilometers south of Beijing, where he can indulge his passion for making fans.

Newspaper headline: Unfolding tradition

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