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17 February 2023, 12:10

Ancient craft blooms again


BEIJING, 17 February (BelTA - China Daily). - Velvet flowers attract a new generation of admirers, Li Yingxue reports.

A puzzle was presented by a miniature mountainous landscape with velvet flowers, birds and rabbits in a recent episode of CCTV's Chinese Poetry Conference, a show that gathered enthusiasts of ancient poems.

The scene brought to life Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Wang Wei's composition that describes a leisurely and comfortable night in a peaceful valley with flowers falling quietly.

The delicate velvet flowers are made by Cai Zhiwei, 52, the sixth-generation inheritor of velvet bird and flower making, a Beijing intangible cultural heritage.

Having devoted himself to the skill for two decades, Cai is inheriting, innovating and promoting velvet flowers in his own way.

"In brief, the velvet flower is a craft that uses mulberry silk to make the surface details with wire as the framework," Cai explains. "The skill can be used to make many things besides figures including birds, flowers, insects and landscapes."

The skill of making velvet flowers originated in Jiangsu province's Yangzhou city and spread to Beijing during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Cai says that one theory about the origin of the art is that people in ancient times loved beauty, and they would wear real flowers in their hair in the summer and in winter, decorated with colorful ribbons.

"Some smart maid found a way to make handmade flowers for their mistress," Cai says, adding that an early form of velvet flowers can be found in Tang Dynasty murals.

Cai grew up in the former Chongwen district which merged into Dongcheng in 2010. "Chongwen district was known as a hotbed of craft skills. It was home to many handicraft workshops and each family made things," Cai recalls.

In Chongwen, there is an area named Huashi (flower market) and four streets spreading in four directions are named after the area. According to Cai, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it used to be a market and production area for all kinds of artificial flowers, including those made with velvet, silk and paper.

According to Cai, at that time, the craftsmen making handmade flowers founded an association and had a custom that, on the 20th day of the third lunar month, all of them would bathe, change their clothes and offer the flowers they made to the gods to ensure their lives and business prospered in the coming year.

Cai explains that in 1960, in Beijing's Huashi area, a velvet bird factory was founded, which mostly catered to overseas customers celebrating Easter and Christmas. Consequently, the velvet bird became synonymous with velvet products made in Beijing.

In 2002, Cai started to learn the skill of making velvet flowers from Gao Zhenxing, a master of the art.

Cai was originally in the construction material business, and his sudden career change was not understood, nor supported, by his family.

Cai recalls when he was a child, at school there was a handicraft lesson, in which he learned how to make a kite or mold clay figurines. "I had a childhood interest in it, and in my 30s, I decided to make a career change into velvet flowers," he says.

He drove Gao to his home each Monday morning and drove him back on Friday night. Each work day, he sat next to Gao to learn.

The process of making a velvet flower is monotonous, yet Cai found his passion in this skill. "The feeling of accomplishment when finishing a piece is so good," he says.

"Learning one skill needs patience and time. My master Gao told me if he teaches me one thing a week, there would be something new for him to teach me for more than two decades," he says.

One key step of making the velvet flower is to use copper wire to shape the skeleton. Cai has to crush and rub the copper wire on the fingertips and each time as the wire bites into his hand, it leaves a mark.

"Once your fingerprints are rubbed out, then you are ready to let the copper wire follow your lead," Cai says. The calluses on the thumb and index finger on both his hands are testament to his decades of hard work.

Cai believes that, as time passes, his skill will become more refined and mature, and his works more vivid.

In 2018, when TV drama Story of Yanxi Palace became a hit show, the velvet flowers on the costumes of the actors grabbed the attention of the public.

Cai says his team has made velvet items for movies and TV series and that it's one of the ways for audiences to learn about this traditional culture.

Cai founded his velvet flower studio in the capital's Huairou district and started to hire and teach local villagers in 2020.

They gradually started receiving orders from companies to provide customized velvet products for special events.

As this year marks the Year of the Rabbit, Cai recently made a batch of velvet rabbits.

During the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games, the red and blue velvet flowers that decorated the hats of the medal presenters were made by Cai's studio.

According to Cai, the design was inspired by composite flower patterns from Tang Dynasty murals, which have an auspicious meaning.

He thinks the Olympics was a good opportunity to put velvet flower making on the world stage. "It was an honor, as an inheritor of this craft, which has a history of more than 300 years, to present the skill to the world," he says.

Liu Lihua, 37, a local villager, signed up to Cai's training courses when he was preparing to open his studio. Liu found her interest in the craft and ended up joining the studio's staff.

"Making velvet flowers looks easy, but it's not. It needs patience and care to learn the skills," Liu says. "Luckily, unlike other teachers, who are usually tough, Cai has always been encouraging."

Liu admits that she had occasionally thought of giving up, as the skills are difficult to master, but Cai's encouragement, and the sense of achievement after seeing her first finished work, prompted her to continue.

"Now, I can see myself improving step by step, and I'd like to continue to work on this traditional skill," she says.

The Beijing-style velvet bird (flower) making skill was enlisted as an intangible cultural heritage of Beijing in 2009. As a sixth-generation inheritor, Cai has always been thinking how to better pass on and develop the 300-year-old skill.

He believes that, as well as inventing new tools to increase efficiency, he needs to develop new products with innovative styling and coloring that fits with modern aesthetics.

"Unlike some machines, which help jade carvers to cut the jade, there is not some tool that can help make velvet flower making easier," Cai says.

He is planning on combining velvet products with modern decoration or small furniture items, so that his new products can be both pleasing to the eye and functional.

One of his ideas is to make a velvet butterfly orchid and change the pistil into a bulb so that it could be used as a night light.

Cai is also harnessing the power of social media to help popularize Beijing velvet flowers making.

From the history of the skill to the detailed steps of making a velvet flower, Cai posts on short video platforms like Bilibili and Douyin, as well as lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, and has so far garnered more than 320,000 likes in total.

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