China / Society

Gleaming with tradition

By Zhang Yue (China Daily) Updated: 2012-12-27 09:33

Silver crafters in Guizhou province take great pride in their cultural heritage as they struggle to preserve a dying art, Zhang Yue reports.

For 41-year-old Li Zhengyun and his family, silver craftsmanship has been a traditional skill that was kept in the Li family.

"And even in the family, it only went to males," he adds.

Gleaming with tradition

Li Zhengyun and his son Li Chen demonstrate their silver craftsmanship at the Beijing exhibition. [Photo by Wang Jing / China Daily]

Members of Li's family stand out where they live in Kaili city, Guizhou province, for their skill at making exquisite silver ornaments by hand. It's a traditional skill made famous by the Miao ethnic group in Guizhou, and Miao women adorn themselves in silver ornaments and headdresses during grand festivals and celebrations.

With a silver string and a pencil, Li starts to twine a strand of silver on a pencil tip, creating the figure of a butterfly. "I do not even need to draw it on paper beforehand."

Li represents the family's ninth generation of masters at silver crafting, which is listed as one of China's intangible cultural heritages. Today, fewer local artisans are passing the skill to the next generation. In recent years, Li has been trying to teach anyone willing to learn.

"Most young people, especially males, prefer to go to cities and work as migrant workers to support their families," he says. "It brings faster and larger sums of money."

At a recent exhibition in Beijing featuring handicrafts from Guizhou, Li and his silver works attracted lots of attention.

"These decorations are special not only because they are elegant and tiny, but also because they are all purely handmade," says Wang Qi, a young customer who spent 200 yuan ($32) on a pair of silver earrings.

Also attracting attention from the crowd was Li's 12-year-old son, Li Chen, who was absorbed in making silver decorations while his father introduced their works to customers.

While the father picked up the skill at the age of 15, the son started to learn when he was 9.

He is the only boy who has excellent skills in silver processing in his class of 40-plus students. The boy has also won several awards in handicraft competitions in Guizhou.

Though the father has been to Beijing many times, this was the younger Li's first visit to the capital.

"In the past, I seldom brought him out of the home for exhibitions or business trips, because I did not want to interrupt his schooling," he says. "This time, I want to take him to Beijing for a couple of days, because I want him to visit good universities and be inspired."

The family used to live in poverty-stricken mountainous regions of Guizhou province. They moved out in the year 2000 due to its remoteness and dwindling agricultural harvests.

"Poor business is also another reason why we moved out," he says. "As we were in the mountains, few people know about our silver ornaments and there was little chance to bring our work to the broader world."

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