Artisan's passion on oil paper umbrella pays off

By CHEN MEILING in Beijing and YANG JUN in Guiyang | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-10-26 08:34
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Li Zhenxia (right) works with her daughter at her oil paper umbrella store in Datong ancient town in Chishui city, Guizhou province. [Photo by Wang Changyu/for China Daily]

Li Zhenxia's lifelong love is earning her a living in Guizhou province

In the late 1960s, when Li Zhenxia was 5, she dreamed of buying the beautiful, red oilpaper umbrella in a store next to her grandmother's house. It was too expensive for her family to afford one at the time.

When she was 10, she watched a young Miao bridegroom pass by her village house on his way to pick up his bride. He and his companions were carrying six red oilpaper umbrellas, and the image touched her heart. When she was in high school, her physics teacher would arrive with an oilpaper umbrella every time it rained. She and the teacher became good friends.

In 1996, Li's dream of oilpaper umbrellas came true when she started learning how to make them for herself. Two years later, she produced her first one. Of course, it was red.

Today, Li is an entrepreneur and an intangible cultural heritage inheritor, and she enjoys talking to her customers and passing on her techniques to apprentices.

"The oilpaper umbrella is like my lover; it has been with me my whole life and always makes me feel better," the 58-year-old said.

The traditional Chinese handicraft, which is made of bamboo and paper coated in the oil of the tung nut for waterproofing, has been around for at least 1,000 years and was eventually adopted in other parts of Asia. Both ceremonial and practical, it was used on rainy days, as well as during weddings and religious ceremonies. Usually exquisitely patterned and now more decorative than functional, it is often found for sale at tourist sites or in hotels as decorations.

Li's store in Datong ancient town in Chishui city, Guizhou province-a town where there is a lot of rain-welcomes curious, nostalgic tourists who buy her umbrellas to model in photos, decorate their homes or add to collections, and sometimes even to use for catwalks at shows and performances.

"It's more a piece of art that adds elegance and grace than a means of protection from the rain," she said.

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