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Ancient techniques finding favor with younger generation

(China Daily)


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The technique of making cotton-wadded quilts has been passed down the generations in China for at least 700 years. It was listed as a city-level intangible cultural heritage item of Suzhou in 2020.

The booming city, with a history of 2,500 years in East China's Jiangsu province, has so far recorded more than 300 ICH projects at city level and above. Six of the projects were listed by UNESCO, including Kunqu Opera and Guqin, a seven-string musical instrument.

A consensus has been reached in Suzhou, from governments at all levels to communities, that these projects should be preserved and inherited as markers of traditional Chinese culture.

Jiang Xiaodong is one of those exploring new values from old techniques to help them thrive in modern society.

Jiang and his mother, a government-accredited inheritor of quilt making with the cotton-wadding technique, run a workshop in Fengzhuang village, Zhangjiagang, a county-level city under the administration of Suzhou.

Craftsmen in the workshop carry bow-like tools, using hammer-shaped objects to hit the single string of the tools rhythmically. Each blow to the cotton makes it fluffier.

Usually the cotton for a quilt is hit roughly 7,000 times, then netted by more than 3,000 yarns manually and pressed by millstones.

Normally it takes at least three hours to finish producing a cotton wadding, Jiang said. He added that the craftsmen need to spend two or three years to master the skills.

"The traditional technique takes time, but the handmade cotton-wadded quilts are soft, warm, natural and environmentally friendly. By airing it out in the sunshine from time to time, the quilt can stay fluffy with a good smell," Jiang said.

Graduating from the University of Kansas in the United States with a master's degree in finance, Jiang worked for a trading company and traveled abroad.

He was deeply impressed by the traditional craft techniques which are cherished in many countries. However, the skills to make cotton wadding, which his family have practiced for more than a century, were about to vanish in China. They were mostly replaced by machine-made quilts with a variety of stuffing, he noted.

"I am working hard to display the charm of the traditional techniques, of the fine products with a good design from traditional skills and cultures conveyed in different types of quilts. For example, quilts for weddings," Jiang told China Daily.

He livestreams craftwork scenes through an online shop, explains the skills to viewers and invites some of them to visit the workshop.

His mother, in her 60s, was invited to share her knowledge and experience with primary school students in Zhangjiagang. Meanwhile, Jiang employs skilled craftsmen and trains young workers.

"The job is meaningful to me and to my family. I am planning to export the quilts with cotton wadding to overseas markets in the future," he said.

Currently, his company can sell more than 3,000 quilts a year, including to many young customers and Chinese living abroad.

Also in Zhangjiagang, a leading wine company has invested in a cultural park to showcase its special brewing techniques, another city-level ICH item, and carry on the yellow rice wine culture.

The low-alcohol wine, branded as Shazhou Youhuang, is made from glutinous rice or polished round-grained rice. After complex brewing techniques, the wine turns crystal yellow and is popular among people in regions south of the Yangtze River, including Suzhou.

Besides a grand view of the thousands of large jars of liquor in the storehouse, the industry park reenacts the entire process of winemaking, which can be tried and experienced by visitors.

To help keep crafts alive, Jiang encourages young people who have returned to their hometowns, especially those who grew up in rural areas, to look for interesting projects that they really care about. For example, some ICH projects that are in need of fresh talent.

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