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In a tradition's vanguard

By Xu Lin and Hu Meidong ( China Daily )

Updated: 2015-06-20

Since the Qing Dynasty, a family of boatmakers has created new designs and found new production methods for their craft, but now modernity is endangering their art's survival

On a sweltering afternoon at Fangzhuang village, several workers are busy sawing wood and hammering long iron nails on large half-finished wooden dragon boats. The smell of wood, tung oil and sweat fills the shipyard, even as big electric fans disperses it.

Located at Nantong town, Fuzhou, Fujian province, the village is famous for its tradition of making dragon boats and attracts buyers from Fujian and other provinces before the Dragon Boat Festival on June 20. Villages in the province would organize dragon boat races and a good boat means a better opportunity to win.

 In a tradition's vanguard

Fang Xiaoshui paints a dragon head carved out of camphor wood. He and his family have to work until midnight during the busy season. Xu Lin / China Daily

 In a tradition's vanguard

Fang Hegang works in his shipyard. He and his two brothers are famous for their advanced boat-making technique passed on from ancestors. Xu Lin / China Daily

The shipyard's owner is Fang Hegang. His two brothers also open dockyards in the village. The three learned how to make dragon boats from their father and mastered the technique when they were only teenagers. They are known as "the family of dragon boats", with skills passed on from generation to generation since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The family's fame and good quality boats bring them regular orders, most of which start two or three months before the festival. In slack seasons, they spend several months preparing materials for boat making such as sawing wood and drying them in the sun. They would buy long and straight China fir in deep mountainous areas in Fujian province.

Unlike their ancestors who made boat of the same shape for many years, they are updating their dragon boats every year to cater to market demands. Each of the three brothers has their own boat shape designs and methods to make them.

"Creativity is very important for boat-making, to keep up with the times. That's why our boats are faster than others," says the elder brother Fang Heyong, 57, who is polishing wood wearing presbyopia glasses. He learns about boat shapes from other shipyards to develop new versions, and designs boats according to the number of rowers and their total weight.

New boats are lighter, narrower and faster, with lower draught and smaller resistance. They weigh about 400 kilos each, compared with 650 to 750 kilos in the past.

Fang Heyong says the wood nowadays is becoming lighter, with lower density. Planted trees grow much faster than before due to fertilizers. He used to buy wood that had an age of about 50 years, but now only has to buy those that are 30 or 40 years old. The planted ones make the boats faster, but the virgin forest wood is more durable.

Besides that, the brothers try to make some wood blocks thinner to decrease the weight.

"In the past the boat would start to speed up after all the rowers have paddled five times, but now it takes only twice," Fang Hegang says.

It takes about three hours for Fang Hegang to make a drawing sheet on the ground with a traditional wood ink marker of a carpenter. He has to carefully mark out all the straight and curve lines.

The most essential step is to make the keel and frames of the boat to decide its shape. The number of frames varies according to the capacity of the boat, with its length ranging from 18 to 22 meters. In Fuzhou's tradition, there are 32 paddlers, a drummer, a gong beater, a helmsman and the one who sets off firecrackers at the fore.

Fang Hegang's shipyard has 12 workers, with an average age of 50. The eldest one is 72. They make a daily wage of more than 300 yuan ($48.36). About four or five elder workers left in the past three years, and there are no new workers.

Fang Hegang says he used to find workers at boat-making factories, but there are fewer and fewer. Fishermen often use steel boats because the government doesn't issue new permits to wooden boats to go fishing in the sea for safety concerns.

"It's the busy season and we have to work overtime. Like others, I love rowing dragon boats very much. Winning a contest brings me pleasure and pride," says Yi Hui, 40, the youngest worker in the dockyard.

Like many old craftsmen, Fang Hegang is worried about the passing on of the family traditions. He has decided to keep making boats until he's too old to do so. He persuaded his younger son to learn the craft, but is not sure whether he will stick to it.

"It's a laborious and seasonal job. Young people don't want to learn it; they have better job opportunities," he says.

"I know the philosophy but am not familiar with the practice. It takes at least three years to master all kinds of tools. My cousin has finished his apprenticeship and can carry on the business," says his elder son Fang Chuansheng, 30. He is a seaman and helps his father during busy seasons.

The son says the labor cost rises every year, but the prices of dragon boats remain much the same. After the festival, prices will be even lower. It's not as profitable as some other common industries.

The tradition of rowing dragon boats during the festival is not as popular as before, but their orders are rising in recent years. Fang Hegang recalls that the three brothers made about 50 boats a year, but in recent years the number is more than 100.

"In the past, people would ask us to repair their dragon boats and one boat might last for years. But nowadays with their increasing incomes, enthusiasts are willing to buy new boats," Fang Hegang says. The price of their dragon boat is about 20,000 to 30,000 yuan.

The most critical part of the dragon boats is the dragon head, which is like the soul of boats. People can change the heads as they like every year. The various dragon heads, together with the beautiful designs on the boat bodies, make a magnificent spectacle on the water.

In a tradition's vanguard

About a few miles from the shipyard is Fang Xiaoshui's home. With the music of traditional Chinese opera playing, he and his two family members are busy painting colors to dragon heads carved out of camphorwood. About half of their business is building dragon heads, although they also make wood sculptures of Buddha.

"It's a tiring job and we have to deal with it very carefully. The business is becoming better because people are richer and like to have new dragon heads rather than use the old ones," says Fang Xiaoshui, 40, who started to learn the craft when he was a teen. Most dragon boat buyers from the city order dragon heads from him.

The family makes different shapes of colorful dragon heads in accordance with customers' demands. It takes about 30 days to finish one, with complicated procedures such as carving and polishing. The last step is to bring the dragon to life by painting the black pupils of its eyes.

He says they are auspicious symbols for villages and those with big mouth, large eyes and buckteeth are likely to draw attention during races. He also makes some uncommon ones such as a phoenix for female boat racers, lion, tiger and even panda.

SunLi contributed to the story.


(China Daily 06/20/2015 page1)

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