Documentary filmmaker’s journey to record China’s disappearing handicrafts inspires young viewers
Published: May 04, 2022 04:33 PM
Director Zhang Jing and participants of his documentary Photo: Sina Weibo

Director Zhang Jing and participants of his documentary Photo: Sina Weibo

Looking for Craftsmanship 4
, a self-produced documentary series that depicts true stories about China's disappearing traditional handicrafts across five episodes has won high rating of 9.9/10 on Bilibili, a streaming platform popular among Chinese in their 20s and early 30s. Director Zhang Jing, a middle-aged man who "destroyed" almost all he had established in life eight years ago to make the show shared his pride and plights about this documentary's journey with the Global Times on Tuesday. During the interview he emphasized his main goal has been to help younger audiences gain cultural confidence. 

The 2022 production introduces more than 10 craftsmen who are the last of their trade such as an old man who does cloth bag puppetry, a family who hand makes wool felt with a rare tool - the camel skin string. It is the fourth season of the series, which was first launched in 2017 and has earned nearly 4 million views in total. 

Ever since season four was released in January, it became very popular among viewers, many of whom describe the documentary as "authentic." 

"I've been a fan of this work for more than three years. It feels very freeform.,  I mean he never tries to make a show of the details he films. So while it comes across as less-organized, it makes you feel that the observer is trustworthy," Xiang Ming, a fellow director, told the Global Times. 

However, Zhang told the Global Times that he has faced criticism from the industry for his "unprofessional" style. 

"They told me things like 'you are unprofessional, can you make it more consistent? Can you make the edits smoother?' But I think a documentary is about recording the truth, so it needs wonder but not choreography," noted Zhang.   

Though only 12 stories were told across the 2022 production, Zhang has collected around 300 to 400 stories about craftsmen from across China ever since 2014. 

"The majority of these people are middle-aged or elderly people who have the skills but do not know how unique they are," Zhang noted. 

Back in 2014, Zhang sold some property in Beijing to raise the funds he needed to embark on this journey of discovery in the hopes of making his filmmaking ambitions come true and of course with the anticipation of eventually making money. 

"I was in my 40s then and felt like a young man trapped by his age. I was so ready and full of ambition to bring more social attention to protecting such craftsmanship," Zhang told the Global Times. 

However, by insisting on his unique style and non-commercial nature, he faced a huge challenge that no platforms wanted his production back then. With his own savings invested into the production, his biggest problem was the possiblility of ending up in "poverty." 

Even though financial predicaments still worry him during this fourth season, Zhang recalled an incident that encouraged him when his work was being looked down on by many in the industry. A friend of his played the documentary at nine schools and took a survey of more than 1,000 students. 

"I still remember that they rated it a 8.33 overall. To be able to inspire young audiences and allow them to gain confidence in our own culture made me believe I could overcome anything," noted Zhang. 

He also underlined that China's poverty alleviation undertaking and the young generation's increased faith in Chinese culture has brought these old handicrafts back to life in a new way. 

"It is not me to try to sound like anything, but poverty alleviation efforts have made many craftsmen able to continue with what they do. And there are more people starting to take up these trades because they know their livelihoods will be safeguarded," Zhang said.     

Fortunately, Zhang was not the only one who saw the work's cultural and educational importance. As his money for season 4 was running out, he received a phone call from the star Wan Qian, a popular actress who recently took part in the hot variety show Sisters Riding the Winds and Breaking the Waves, and she said she wanted to sponsor him unconditionally.  

"I told them [Wan's representatives] I could fail to complete shooting and couldn't get a receipt for everything I spent money on during the journey. They said, 'Yeah no problem.'" 

Also, Chinese super pop star Lu Han, who has 63.1 million fans on Sina Weibo, recommended his production in a post. Soon afterward, his fans were helping Zhang find new filming subjects all around the country. 

"I had a fan who actually went to visit a craftsman after watching my work… Those details made me believe that the significance of the documentary was more than its popularity as it is about how it can influence people to care more about their culture," Zhang said. 

Documenting these craftsmen has also been a way to document Zhang's own life journey. Zhang told the Global Times that he plans to edit the 70 stories that mean the most to him on a personal level into a new work, while also continue working on season 5 of the show. 

"Hopefully, it will come out in the spring of next year," said Zhang. 

"In 2024, I will start visiting all the participants again."