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Brushing up on Tradition|
Bu Zhen'e, 62, works on brush tips in a studio in Shanlian Township of Huzhou, Zhejiang Province
In 1856, Lady Yehenara was confronted with the question of what to give Qing Emperor Xianfeng for his 25th birthday. So, the learned and ambitious concubine, who would later be known as Empress Dowager Cixi, ordered the creation of a top-quality writing brush.
Emperor Xianfeng, an enthusiast of calligraphic arts, received piles of birthday gifts. But the special present from Lady Yehenara grabbed his attention most.
It turned out that the elegant writing brush, inscribed with the auspicious words "soaring dragon, dancing phoenix", boosted the intimacy between the concubine and the emperor.
The satisfied concubine then awarded a plaque to the brush's creator He Lianqing for his excellent craftsmanship.
This very writing brush remains a Grade-2 cultural relic under State protection in the Palace Museum, according to Zu E, a researcher of traditional Chinese art with the museum.
He Lianqing crafted about half of the more than 200 writing brushes in the museum's depository , Zu says.
He was a native of Shanlian Township, in Huzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, which is about 160 kilometers west of Shanghai. In the 1820s, He ran the largest writing brush workshop in Beijing.
This month, top-quality Helianqing writing brushes, named after the genre's creator but modified in design and packaging, attracted much attention at the 2007 Luxuries Global Carnival, which ran at the New National Agriculture Exhibition Center in Beijing from July 5 to 8.
Sponsored by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council and organized by China Luxuries magazine, the expo featured luxury items such as yachts, sports cars, watches and jewelry.
The Helianqing writing brushes, priced from 30,000 yuan to 60,000 yuan ($3,950-7,890) apiece, "are stand-alone exhibits featuring a strong flavor of traditional Chinese culture", says Lin Zhenyu, who rallied some of the country's top craftsmen, artists, designers and cultural heritage experts to inject new life into the writing brushes.
On current markets, the most expensive writing brushes are sold for no more than 20,000 yuan ($2,630) apiece, Lin says.
In the 1950s, He Lianqing's descendants were frequently commissioned by master painter Li Kuchan, renowned calligrapher Qi Gong - also a scholar of Chinese classics - and Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong, two of the most influential traditional Chinese painters of the last century.
But in 1956, most private writing brush studios, including the Beijing branch of the Helianqing Writing Brush Studio at today's East Liulichang Antique Street, were merged into the State-owned Beijing Writing Brush Factory.
Likewise, Shanlian studios, among others, were absorbed by State-run factories, "where the traditional working procedure was simplified, and technological requirements were compromised", recalls Yu Peifang, 76. Yu is the fourth-generation inheritor of the Helianqing writing-brush tradition.
So, Yu made up her mind to carry on the traditions of her ancestors by practicing the difficult craft in her spare time.
"It seems that traditional handicrafts and craftsmanship have again become fashionable, so people are calling for the preservation of Chinese cultural heritage," says Yu, who has been working with Lin during the past four years to revive the brush's power.
"I think it is high time we created the best quality Helianqing writing brushes for today's users and collectors," Yu adds.
But realizing such a glamorous comeback was not easy. Despite the brand's fame, Yu and Lin found they have to innovate to meet the demands of modern consumers.
Wu Zhengyi, a folk artist in Shanlian Township, has 25 years' experience engraving patterns, portraits or words on the bamboo or wooden holders of writing brushes. But Lin and his advisors rejected Wu's first batch of containers last year.
"I had tried my utmost, and could not go further," recalls Wu, who flew from Zhejiang Province to meet Lin in Beijing.
"I came to understand that I must meet the strict technical and artistic requirements with new ideas and continue to improve my skills," Wu says.
The most critical component of the writing brush is the tip. Traditionally, there were 72 steps involved in creating such a brush. Today, the procedure has been expanded to 150 steps, with improved results, Lin says.
"Everyone involved in this mission has to be open-minded and ready to make adjustments so that he or she can better accomplish this demanding task," Lin says.
To revive the ancient art, Lin and his advisors traveled far and wide to find talented craftsmen to produce the writing brushes, copyrighted designs and packaging.
Lang Sen, an art professor with the Beijing Fashion and Design College, eagerly joined Lin and Yu three years ago. The reputable calligrapher and birds-and-flowers painter gained support from artists such as Fan Zeng and Aisin-gioro Pu Ren, as well as experts from the Palace Museum.
Because the selected artists live in locations scattered across the country, Lin makes monthly travels to collect materials for the brushes before putting final touches on the handicrafts at his workshop in Shunyi, in suburban Beijing.
Because the raw materials for top-quality brushes are so rare, Lin and his team have created only about 2,000 top-quality Helianqing writing brushes.
Last month, the Palace Museum inked a deal with Lin to develop a series of writing brushes that are high-fidelity imitations of the brushes created for emperors.
Lin has great confidence in the high-end market demand for his wares. "China's economy grows so fast," he says. "More and more Chinese and foreigners are showing a strong interest in traditional Chinese artworks and exquisite handicrafts."
http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/e ... ontent_101977_3.htm