The origins and traditions of Chinese oil-paper umbrellas

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/8 18:28:39


Yu Wanlun, successor of traditional oil-paper umbrella maker Bi Liufu, works on an oil-paper umbrella at his studio in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: IC



Consisting of a bamboo frame and a surface made of delicately painted mianzhi or pizhi - types of thin but durable paper mainly made from tree bark - Chinese oil-paper umbrellas have long been viewed as an emblem of China's tradition of cultural craftsmanship and poetic beauty.

Painted with tongyou - a kind of plant oil extracted from the fruit of the tung tree often found in South China - to make it waterproof, Chinese oil-paper umbrellas are not just an instrument to ward off rain or sunlight, but also works of art possessing rich cultural significance and aesthetic value.

History

Enjoying a history of nearly two millennia, China's oil-paper umbrellas number among the world's oldest umbrellas. According to historical records, the first oil-paper umbrellas in China began appearing during Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). They soon became very popular, especially among literati who loved to write and draw on the umbrella surface prior to the waterproofing oil being applied to demonstrate their artistic skill and literary tastes. Elements from traditional Chinese ink painting, such as birds, flowers and landscapes, could also be found on oil-paper umbrellas as popular decorative patterns.

Later, Chinese oil-paper umbrellas were brought overseas to Japan and the then ancient Korean kingdom of Gojoseon during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which is why they were known in those two nations as "Tang umbrellas." Today, they are still used as an accessory for female roles in traditional Japanese dramas and dances.

Over the centuries Chinese umbrellas also spread to other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand.

Traditional symbol

Oil-paper umbrellas are an indispensable part of traditional Chinese weddings. A red oil-paper umbrella is held by the matchmaker as the bride is greeted at the groom's home as the umbrella is supposed to help ward off bad luck. Also because oil-paper (youzhi) sounds similar to the word for "have children" (youzi), the umbrella is seen as a symbol of fertility.

Additionally, Chinese oil-paper umbrellas often appear in Chinese literature works to imply romance and beauty, especially in stories set south of the Yangtze River where it is often rainy and misty. 

Movie and television adaptations based on the famous ancient Chinese story Madame White Snake often have the beautiful snake-turned heroine Bai Suzhen carry a delicate oil-paper umbrella when she meets her future lover Xu Xian for the first time.

"Alone holding an oil-paper umbrella, I wander along a long solitary lane in the rain…"goes the popular modern Chinese poem "A Lane in the Rain" by Chinese poet Dai Wangshu (as translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang). This gloomy and dreamy depiction is another classical example of the umbrella as cultural icon.

The round nature of an umbrella makes it a symbol of reunion because "round" or "circle" (yuan) in Chinese also carries the meaning of "getting together."

Endangered handicraft

It takes quite a lot of time and effort to make a traditional Chinese oil-paper umbrella by hand.

Take the traditional oil-paper umbrellas made in Fenshui township in Luzhou, Southwest China's Sichuan Province - currently the only major production area for handmade oil-paper umbrellas in the country - as an example. Craftsmen must complete more than 90 steps and use over 100 different tools to create a single handmade oil-paper umbrella.

Even though they are made from paper, that doesn't mean that these traditional umbrellas are easily damaged. Quite the contrary, a traditional oil-paper umbrella made in Fenshui "should be able to stand level-five wind speeds on the Beaufort scale [about 29-38 km/h] and last through 3,000 openings and closings," said Bi Liufu, a traditional Fenshui oil-paper umbrella maker, in a 2011 interview with news portal cnr.cn.

Since the appearance of modern mechanical umbrellas, traditional oil-paper umbrellas have suffered from declining sales, while the number of people who know how to make them have also been on the decline.

Fortunately, things have been improving lately.

According to Bi, with the inclusion of Fenshui oil-paper umbrellas as one of China's national intangible cultural heritages in 2008, sales are picking up.
"Aside from its practical function, oil-paper umbrellas have auspicious meaning such as the hopes for many offspring," Bi said in an interview with the Sichuan Daily in 2016. "I would love to pass on all my skills to an heir before I become too old to do so."


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Posted in: CULTURE & LEISURE

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