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Cave workshop of traditional papermaking persisted in SW China


08:36, May 02, 2012

Wang Xingwu, a local papermaker, examines half-finished paper products in a drying field in his mountain cave workshop near Shiqiao Village in Danzhai County, April 17, 2012.

At the first sight, one got no hint as to Wang Xingwu's actual identity as a master of papermaking with a bunch of honourable titles. This smiling middle-aged man, dressed in dark blue homespun clothes, looked exactly the same as his many Miao ethnic fellows inhabiting Shiqiao Village. Ancestors of the village dwellers began making paper in the middle of ancient China's Tang Dynasty (618-907). Their papermaking techniques are preserved as a village specialty despite the vicissitudes of time.

Wang, now 47, would have ended up a member of the migrant worker legion as most rural Chinese youngsters do if his father, Wang Lun, had not persuaded him out of leaving Shiqiao. A papermaker himself, Wang Lun had hoped that his son would one day become the heir to the village's unique papermaking technique. Wang Xingwu understood his father's good intention, but the young man was not content with the old technique. He had grown up watching how the old-style paper was made, and knew only too well that the heavy labour put into the production could not yield equal profits: market demands were no longer what they used to be over a millennium ago. He wanted change. What he had in mind was raising product quality and adding customer choices, besides exerting the old papermaking technique to its full potential. Over the two decades since he became a professional papermaker, Wang has never ceased experimenting on new production techniques, ingredients and raw materials. "Better protection of Shiqiao's papermaking technique calls for a combination of both inheritance and renewal," he said.

Today, 160 paper varieties in 10 product series are produced in Wang's workshop. One of the products even has a shelf life of 1,500 years. At the same time, his products are receiving international recognition. The workshop's promising status quo can largely be attributed to Wang's innovative power and persistence, plus his father's encouragement and government support. Yet there was a time back in the beginning when he did think about giving up and finding a job in a big city. In fact, his early experiments brought no significant changes to the existing technique although a substantial amount of capital and raw material was wasted. In Wang's workshop, located in a mountain cave two kilometers away from Shiqiao, some 30 villagers are employed as production and research assistants. He moved the workshop to the cave because he believes the cave provides a moisture condition that enables dust-free papermaking, as well as cleaner water resources. Monthly payments to the assistants vary from 1,000 yuan (159.1 U.S. dollars) to 5,000 yuan (795.5 dollars).

"People can make money from papermaking if they are employed by the workshop," Wang said. "And they also have access to the papermaking technique as assistants." To popularize Shiqiao's papermaking technique, Wang established in 2008 a cooperative papermaking institute, under which his cave workshop is operated, along with another 61 papermakers in the village.

In 2011, the cave workshop was made a model for the productive conservation of China's national intangible cultural heritages. It receives 30,000 visitors worldwide each year. "Shiqiao's papermaking would definitely remain slumbering in the deep mountains if no efforts had been made to innovate it," said Wang. "The inheritance and conservation of cultural heritages will be difficult without public recognition and self-sustaining economic profitability." (Xinhua/Qiao Qiming)

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