Luzhou Oil Paper Umbrella-Through Four Decades’
Misty Rain and Sunlight
Watershed in Luzhou, Sichuan boasts a tradition of hand making oil paper umbrella.
In a spring morning, the sixth generation of oil paper maker, 52-year-old Bi Liufu, like all his fathers do, has already been busy in making oil paper umbrella in the middle of the hall. With his hands, flexibly and rapidly sticking red patterned oil paper to the ribs of umbrella, an red umbrella begins to take shape after a while. Then he lifted up the umbrella and observed it under the sunlight and surprisingly find that the patterns on the paper form an auspicious sign of two phoenixes flying to the sun. The round-plate-like umbrella cover shines in the sunlight like burning rosy clouds and the two phoenixes on the paper are fluttering through the clouds to the eye of the sky as if they were alive.
Bi Liufu says that watershed of southern Sichuan province had a history of more than 400 years of umbrella making, which made me think of how many people have gone through rain and wind of their life with the blessing of the land and the auspicious patterns on the umbrella.
According to historical records, the first umbrella was invented by people in the Youdeng tribal at the reign of Huangdi, the earliest emperor of the ancient China (2717 B.C.-2599 B.C.). Some ancient texts writes: “ When Huangdi was battling with Chiyou, the leader ofJiuli tribal and the most brave warrior at that time, in the wild of Zhulu, he found five-colored clouds floating over him like the canopy of a tree with golden branches and jade leave and named it Huagai.”Then he ordered Youdeng tribal to craft a shelter according to the Huagai. The canopy-like shelter which can not be folded and closed actually is the original model of umbrella, and people called it Deng. During the Spring and Autumn Period, Mrs.Yun, the wife of Lu Ban, the father of Chinese craftsmanship, improved the technique of umbrella-making: “split bamboos to make a ribs of the umbrella, cover it with skins and then fix a pole to make it open and close”. The only difference between Yun’s umbrellas with oil paperumbrella is that Yun’s is covered with skins. But the appearance of oil paper umbrella must be after the invention of paper-making. Though we cannot certify the specific time of it, it was not until the Ming Dynasty that the oil paper umbrella was used as apractical and convenient tool for common people.
Because Luzhou was the transportation hub with the Old Salt Road and the Ancient Tea Horse Road meeting here at that time, the umbrella-making industry in Luzhou was famous to the whole country when the oil paper umbrella began to popularize. The Records of Luzhou writes: “Luzhou umbrella is quite well-known with more than twenty craftsmen engaged in umbrella-making.” However, the oil paper umbrella can seldom be found on the streets now, what remains is just the reputation of generations of craftsmen. For example, when I visit Watershed and asked about the history of umbrella-making, all old people told me that the umbrellas made by Xu Tongsheng, a very famous craftsman in the Republic of China era, were the best in all. Almost every local girl would hold an umbrella made by him in her wedding and even some noble families bought his umbrella as decorations of their house.
BiLiufu’s umbrella also has its reputation for local people. Bi said that his ancestral craftsmanship was passed down by the grandfather of his grandfather, Bi Xianglu who learned skills from Xu Tongsheng’ s father, Xu Shaokai and opened his own umbrella studio. He also said that he mastered the skills of umbrella-making in his tens for the reason that almost every family had its own umbrella maker in 1970s in drainage and umbrella-making was not regarded as a craftsmanship but just a work for living. Under the influence of his father and his neighbors, Bi gradually mastered the complicated craftsmanship of making oil paper umbrellas. But lashed by the emergence of nylon folding umbrella, many umbrella studios were forced to close and many craftsmen changed their career and Bi family became the only craftsman of Drainage oil paper umbrella.
During my visit, I went to the ancestral house of Bi family that was used as the umbrella-making studio. People scattered in the wing hall, the wing room or the back room busy with their own tasks, some knitting the strings, some making the poles, some doing pattern rubbings and others gluing and oiling the paper. Bi accompanied with me to introduce the processes of making a traditional oil paper umbrella inherited from Master Xu. He took up an unprocessed ribs of umbrella and said: “The raw material we use to make it is mature Phyllostachyspubescence grown in Naxi Mountains, tenacious and tough so that our umbrellas are mildew proof and mothproof. Besides, the umbrella pole is made of paulownia wood, the framework id covered with special tissue paper imported from Guizhou province.
Except for the selective raw materials, the processing of oil paper umbrella is extremely complicated. As mall umbrella requires hundreds of processing steps by hundreds of tools and more than half a month to craft. The craftsman has to number the bamboos, make the framework, glue the paper, print on the paper as well as lacquer and oil it. Just one part of the umbrella, the pole, needs eight processes to make and each one demands a high standard. The most difficult process is to oil the paper with wood oil since you have to ensure the same thickness of the oil, or the umbrella will be less durable and beautiful. All of these are the accumulated experience and product standards passed down by generations of masters, which guarantee that Drainage oil paper umbrella can maintain normal use after being opened and folded for more than 3000 times, soak in water for 24 hours with no adhesive failure and keep its shape when you walk in fresh breeze. What Bi is most proud of is Bi family’ sunique skill of Full Intertwined Umbrella - to make the umbrella more stable, the framework in intertwined with colorful strings. A full intertwined umbrella even has more than 2000 stitches and a special bamboo switch propping up the umbrella.
To my surprise, the umbrella-making has to be accorded with the weather conditions for it may influence the framework of the umbrella and the smoothness of the paper. Therefore, Bi watches weather broadcasteveryday to make sure that his umbrellas will not be ruined by bad weather
Actually, umbrella is not only a tool for preventing sunlight and rain but also an image used by literati. In The Legend of the White Snake, the red umbrella is the matchmaker of Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen when they meet on the Broken Bridge; in the poem The Rainy Lane written by Dai Wangshu, the umbrella tells the melancholy and loneliness of the girl with the sweetness of lilac. That is the umbrella under the pen of literati, while it is also rich and colorful in folk culture.
Among Chinese characters, “paper” and “son” have the same sound, which endow “paper” with the connotation of “May you soon have a son”; “umbrella” contains five “people” in its font, meaning that “more sons, more blessings” and “five sons pass the civil examinations”; the framework of the umbrella is made of bamboo, which implies “May you reach at a higher position”; the shape of the umbrella is round, which means happiness and unity. Therefore, till now, an umbrella is a must dowry for girls in many places. Many folklores regard red and wood oil can help people get rid of disasters and evils so that the red oil paper umbrella is often considered an auspicious good and used as a gift in others’ birthday, wedding, promotion, housewarming and having a new-born child. For the Ke nationalities, an oil paper umbrella is an indispensable good in the funeral when they pick up the bones of their family numbers. The custom derives from that the emperors in ancient China always had their servants holding bright yellow umbrella for them to show their noble blood the supreme power. So Ke people think their family members can gain peace in the hell and quickly go into the life hereafter if they are laid in the coffin under an oil umbrella.
Above all, that is why I see various umbrellas in Bi’s studio. The patterns of umbrellas for wedding are often “prosperity brought by the dragon and the phoenix”, “marriage of the fairy princess” or “ the love story of Niu Lang and ZhiNv”; those for new birth “two dragons fighting for a pearl”, “lotus lantern”, “magpies twittering on plum trees”, or “goddess scattering flowers; those for birthday, “hundreds of birds paying homage to the phoenix”, “eternal pine, “eight Immortals crossing the sea”, “Immortal Pengzu” and so on.
All these delicate and festive patterns are printed by a 200-year-old lithographic machine. Guided by Bi Liufu, I finally saw the machine in a one-window room of his ancestral house. It is no more than a marble slate. Then Bi asked a master to show me how to use it. He spread a piece of paper with pattern and greasy ink on the slate so that it was printed with patterns. Next, he coated the slate with acid and then began to print the pattern on the covering paper of umbrellas.
Bi said that he used to be afraid of that others may laugh at him for his using such an ancient and backward machine. But now, as the craftsmanship of the oil paper umbrella is one of the national intangible cultural heritages, he often proudly introduces it to visitors for it’s maybe the last lithographic machine in China.
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