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From designing Ferraris to forging silver

By Qu Zhi (Shanghai Daily)    08:34, December 09, 2013
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Chen Zhongxian, 37, is bent over a bench, meticulously incising a flower petal on a small silver teapot. — Qu Zhi

Secure, well-paying jobs are very important to young Chinese, but three remarkable men decided to follow their passion instead and become craftsmen. Qu Zhi reports.

Chen Zhongxian used to design racing Ferraris, but now he’s self-taught silversmith, meticulously making delicate teapots.

Shi Chang used to be an engineer building skyscrapers, but now he’s a self-taught carver of ornamental stone, still pondering how to carve the raw jade he bought several years ago.

Yin Wei still works as the general manager of a trading company selling cartoon products, that pays the rent.

But it’s his avocation that he loves. He has taught himself to make carved gourd and bamboo ornaments with complex inlays.

These three men, all in their 30s, are unusual today since secure, well-paying positions, especially careers with status, are sought after and seldom relinquished.

But Chen and Shi quit their jobs, and Shi has shifted his focus to his studio. They are unusual in their pursuit of ancient craft skills and the study of Chinese art and culture, instead of material success. They are also unusual because they have the support of their families.

None of the three craftsmen has a website or advertises, and they are usually located through word-of-mouth among a small circle of craftsmen and shop owners.


In Chen Zhongxian’s studio in Minhang District, he is surrounded by delicate silversmith’s tools, tiny hammers, scalpels and welding equipment.

The 37-year-old craftsmen is bent over a bench, meticulously incising a flower petal on a small silver teapot he just produced. It’s tiny and round, made of a single piece of silver in the way of old-time smithing. The knob on the lid is a flower.

Chen insists on following the craftsmanship that originated during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Five years ago, he left his job as a designer of racing Ferraris to become a silversmith. Chen used to teach mechanical design at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and worked for Mitsubishi and Ferrari.

“Being a craftsman is satisfying. With continuous practice, you are able to control your hand movements. All these movements and sense of touch express my ideas and create a unique and heartfelt work, which is reward enough,” Chen tells Shanghai Daily.

He did not start as an apprentice. Influenced by his grandfather, he grew up visiting various antiques shops and was interested in Chinese art and culture. He taught himself.

Craftsmanship requires skill, patience and continuous practice and improvement. It is said that around 10,000 hours of experience are required to produce a master carpenter or musician. It took Chen two years of painstaking practice to produce a small silver pot that was merely presentable.

He finds pleasure in shaping silver and saying, “I made this.” Once he visited an antiques shop in Japan and spotted a beautifully shaped silver pot.

“The Japanese shopkeeper was very condescending and told me that Japanese silverware is way better than Chinese. I was upset because they actually copied the technique from the Chinese,” he recalls.

He also visited a Japanese silversmith in Osaka and watched him for hours.

“The smith was surprised because no one in Japan wanted to inherit his skills, not even his children,” Chen recalls. The man refused to teach Chen but let him watch as he worked.

After returning to Shanghai, Chen began extensive research and tried to find a local Chinese silversmith. He failed. The market and profit are very small.

He decided to do it himself and bought tools from Japan and the UK; he also made some of his own tools.

At first he just hammered silver into the shape he wanted, doing it every day for as long as 12 hours, until the neighbors complained. “The old couple upstairs thought I was crazy,” he says.

Welding is the most difficult part, says Chen. “You have to be extremely focused, even in breathing. If you don’t control the melting point, the work you toiled on for two weeks can be melted into a lump of silver,” he says.

He has no apprentices. One man was interested for a while, “but all the hard work scared him away,” Chen says.

To produce a pot that he can hold in the palm of his hand takes “thousands of meticulous steps,” he says. In a year, he makes 50 pieces at most. A small silver pot costs 10,000 yuan (US$1,642).

Stone carver

Shi Chang isn’t the least bit interested in being an apprentice or have a certificate to demonstrate his own mastery of stone carving. He’s still far from being a master.

Four years ago, Shi resigned his engineering job on skyscraper projects to pursue the ancient art of stone carving.

“I am a man of few words and quite introverted, so when I am carving, I am expressing my emotions,” says the 36-year-old. “For me, stone carving is far more than earning a living; it has become deeply ingrained in my life.”

He runs a small gemstone shop in Jing’an District, but most of the time he is in his own workshop, reading and studying ancient carving, as well as designing and making his own works.

“The circle of craftsmen in Shanghai is really small, so unless you are really interested and go to the shops very often, you won’t find even a dealer,” he says.

When Shi was in junior high school, he often visited stone-carving and antiques shops at flower and bird markets where he saw many kinds of stone sculpture.

He started to teach himself, using books and observation. As a student, he didn’t have access to many tools. “I sometimes made my own by sanding and grinding metal screws and saws,” he says.

After three years of self study, he met his first mentor, a skilled amateur introduced by the owner of a stone carving shop he frequented.

He later was introduced to a great jade-and-ivory-carving craftsman and was allowed to assist him.

“Several years ago I bought three jade gemstones and my mentor told me that I would have the skill to carve them in five years,” Shi recalls. “But I didn’t agree. I thought I had practiced long enough to be able to tackle unusual raw materials.”

He has not succeeded.

“Soon I will give it another try to see if I can carve a satisfying work for myself. If not, I believe one day I will succeed,” he says.

Gourd and bamboo carver

Yin Wei studied foreign trade in college and still works at a trading company selling cartoon products. The 36-year-old spends most of his time making ornaments from bamboo and dried gourd, with complicated inlays. He uses two lathes in his workshop in Fengxian District.

“Of course I got cut a lot, but quitting never occurs to me. I’ll just be more careful,” he says.

“This is my real passion. I actually feel attached to the objects I create. I don’t care about reputation and flocks of customers; that’s why I like a small circle,” he adds “When you sell your crafts to your friends or someone you know, then you know they will value them. And you can visit your own crafts on their shelves.”

(Editor:ChenLidan、Yao Chun)

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