Shanghai Today

Shanghai People

Zhang's 40-year journey to revive a lost art - March 01, 2019

大匠之髓 —— 振兴失传工艺的四十年之旅

Even for many Chinese, rhino skin lacquer is a strange term. Unlike the name suggests, it’s a type of lacquer where the pattern is made by applying successive layers of different colors on a base of raised moulded lacquer. Then it is polished flat to reveal the pattern.

Zhang Haimin first heard about the art in 1978 as an apprentice at the Shanghai Arts Institution. 

“Skills and knowledge were strictly passed down in families. A rhino skin lacquer master saw I was interested, so he talked about some terms, but never really taught me,” he said. “The master went back to Anhui Province months later, but rhino skin lacquer stayed in my mind.”

From there began a journey that lasted for four decades. Now Zhang has become an inheritor and innovator of the traditional handcraft and the only one officially recognized by the city of Shanghai. And, surprisingly, he is selftaught.

“The master from Anhui only mentioned some names as I was interested,” said Zhang. “I had to work out the techniques by myself.”

It took six years, but Zhang eventually gained the necessary knowledge.

Like any lacquerware, rhino skin lacquerware is highly valued and a treasured skill for the pleasure of the imperial court and distinguished noblemen alike.

Rhino skin items are displayed in museums or in private collections. Zhang rarely had a chance to see such objects.

“My collector friend lent me some rhino skin lacquer boxes which were used by royals, and I would return them after a week,” he said. “And I found references in ancient records which also helped me to learn the old standards and traditions.”

With limited resources, his efforts paid back. Zhang made his second piece of rhino skin lacquerware in 1986 and won a prize at the first Chinese lacquer painting exhibition.

You might call Zhang a natural. He says he just knows how to use each material. But talent and diligence are equally important in the equation.

Before him, nobody had succeeded in applying the technique to materials other than wood.

Mixing raw lacquer with egg yolk, adding crystals, shells or other natural materials with colorful touch, the lacquer can be applied to fans, desks, jewelry boxes, anything with a wooden surface. Zhang expands the use to other products such as sculpture, golf clubs and plastic glasses frames. He was also the first to coat rhino skin lacquer on porcelain.

“A student who attended several of my classes boasted that he could decorate a Buddha sculpture, and failed after trying for two years,” Zhang said. “He had already taken money from the buyer, so he found me to do the task.”

Zhang said that if he reveals the secret, people may think it’s simple, and anyone can learn it. But to create the recipe out of nothing is the challenge that has beaten most people.

Zhang spent a whole year working day to night to finish the Buddha sculpture.

“A famous monk on Putuo Mountain who rarely stepped out of the temple heard about my work and came all the way to see it,” he said.

The monk said he had seen the skills in ancient books but never thought it could be accomplished in the modern world.

“There were many precious jade sculptures on the site, but the monk only fixed his eyes on my work,” said Zhang.

Though his creations often take years, adding layers and layers of jewelry and lacquer, the final product might be just a few centimeters in depth, as thin as a few pieces of paper.

The surface artwork appears to be rough and stereoscopic at the first sight, but smooth to the touch. Multi-layers of minerals, shell powders and gold foils add depth to the work. Owing to the speckled patterns on the finished surface, it’s also called “pineapple lacquer” or “tiger skin lacquer.”

Zhang designs each item with different materials. Sometimes a sculpture needs more than eight minerals such as crystals, turquoise and mica. He also collects natural sea shells. One abalone shell he uses is over 500 years old. All minerals are hand ground by Zhang to create different shapes and are spread using specific movements. Then, with a layer of raw lacquer, Zhang polishes the surface until it is smooth.

Liu Kuili, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, highly praised Zhang’s work, even leaving a comment that the real skill of making rhino skin lacquer was in Shanghai.

Despite such fluent skills, Zhang keeps a low profile. He doesn’t publicize his work on social media. Customers find him by word of mouth or pure chance.

Over the decades, applying for recognition of inheritor of intangible cultural relic was his first and only attempt at promoting himself.

“I don’t know how to promote works and I don’t like it,” he said. “All I should do is just focus on how to make the best piece of work.”

But as he gets older, Zhang feels an urgency to let more people know about the art and to find a successor to pass his skills down to.

“I don’t know how to promote works and I don’t like it. All I should do is just focus on how to make the best piece of work,

he added.

Techniques used in the creation of “pineapple lacquer” were once nearly lost in the early 20th century. Since Zhang has introduced innovation to the traditional skills, he definitely wants to see a revitalization of the art.

Though many people have visited Zhang and expressed the will to learn from him, Zhang has only accepted one student.

“I can teach you all the tricks but how to use them and create magic depends on the individual, so one requires gifts, ” he said. “And I don’t teach people whose motive is to make money.

“With government efforts these years, I can feel more people have a growing awareness of national  treasures,” Zhang added.

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