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Friday, August 10, 2018, 15:40
Papermakers set to write new survival story
By Zhu Lixin
Friday, August 10, 2018, 15:40 By Zhu Lixin

A worker gets a piece of paper from the pulp in a village of Hangzhou, Zhejiang..JPG

In February, Yang Hongwei posted a video on his WeChat Moments feed that showed his grandfather leading a group of papermakers, including Yang, in singing a traditional song to help maintain energy levels as they pulped bamboo to make paper.

Jiajiang's handmade paper industry is struggling as an increasing number of workshop owners embrace machinery and new business models

In 2006, Yang's grandfather was recognized as the sole national inheritor of a traditional method of making paper from bamboo that was developed in Jiajiang, Sichuan province, centuries ago.

Official recognition meant the Yang family, from Jiajiang's Macun township in the mountainous southwestern province, became the best-known of the county's hundreds of papermakers.

The same year saw the Jiajiang technique listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Yang was still in college when his father died in 2015, and in February, when he shot the video, his grandfather's heath was deteriorating.

A female worker checks sheets of Xuan paper at a paper mill in Jingxian county, Anhui province. (ZHU LIXIN / CHINA DAILY)

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The elderly man died in March, and Yang, as the family's only child, became the 14th-generation inheritor of the ancient handicraft.

The 23-year-old is now struggling to maintain the family business.

Jiajiang's handmade paper industry is also struggling as an increasing number of workshop owners embrace machinery and new business models, such as selling, not making, paper.

"The situation is no better in the rest of the country, which is the birthplace of papermaking," said Tang Shukun, director of the Handmade Paper Institute at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, capital of Anhui province, who has been monitoring the handmade paper sector for 20 years.

Tradition and technology

Yang, described as a "paper farmer" on his household registration certificate, said: "When I was a child, I never thought papermaking was special. Almost every family in the village worked in the industry. They owned workshops or worked for other villagers."

Now, he is dedicated to maintaining his family's traditions. Most of the younger villagers have migrated to work in cities, so Yang employs 12 seniors. He displayed photos he had taken of them turning green bamboo and grass into yellowish paper as if by magic.

"They are just like my family," he said.

A villager works on newly produced paper in a workshop in Hangzhou. (ZHU LIXIN / CHINA DAILY)

According to Tang, the traditional craft is still held in high regard. "Paper holds many of our nation's cultural memories. It used to be inseparable from people's daily lives. For example, it was used to make lanterns, umbrellas, windows-when glass was not popular-and even clothing," he said.

"Unlike in the West, traditional Chinese arts, such as painting and calligraphy, were done on paper. Paper shaped our artistic tastes."

Jiajiang is one of the few surviving types of paper regarded as a perfect medium for calligraphy and painting, which dominate the use of handmade paper.

However, different types of paper are required for different creations, according to Tang, who has been cooperating with papermakers to recover several vanished brands.

"Once a technique dies out, it can be very hard to revive," he said.

Since 2008, his team has been recording as many paper production processes as possible, not only through written articles but also videos and laboratory research data. He will collate the information in a book

"It will be like a gene bank for different types of handmade paper," he said, adding that the final published work-focusing on production processes, the history of papermakers, their current status and laboratory data about their products-will comprise 18 million Chinese characters. The first half is almost complete.

Greater efficiency

Not everyone wants to retain the old methods, though.

Li Wei, who inherited his family's workshop in Macun in 2008, said: "The traditional papermaking process is too long-it can last months or even years. Fewer and fewer young people are willing to stay in their hometowns and make paper."

Production of Jiajiang paper involves 72 steps. "You can work all year round, but end up with little reward," the 33-year-old said.

In contrast to Yang, Li introduced machinery in 2010.

Zhu Zhonghua, whose family has been making paper from bamboo by hand for 13 generations in Datong village, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said that although modern production methods can improve the quality of the finished product in many industries, the reverse is true with paper.

The traditional method uses lime to process the raw materials because the weak alkali does not harm the fiber, meaning the paper can last hundreds of years.

"Modern workshops use strong alkalis and machines to make the pulp, which are harmful to the fiber and greatly reduce the durability of the paper," Zhu said.

Since handmade paper is usually more expensive than its machine-made counterpart, few people can afford to use it all the time, especially if they are only practicing calligraphy and painting techniques.

Papermaker Zhu Zhonghua transports strips of bamboo to his paper mill in Datong village, Hangzhou. (XU JIANHUA / CHINA DAILY)

"Though paper prices have risen somewhat in recent years, the costs of raw materials and human resources have surged," Zhu said.

He noted that the exodus of rural residents to cities has made it harder for traditional manufacturers to find workers with sufficient experience.

By contrast, the use of machinery has made it easier for manufacturers such as Li because he not only produces his paper more quickly, but is also able to employ less-experienced workers. Even so, he is still experiencing problems.

"There are so many machinery-driven workshops and factories. How can I compete with them, given that costs are high but profits are low?" he said.

Zhu, who refuses to use machinery, said, "Handmade paper is known to be of higher quality, so we should always compete by emphasizing quality not price or production capacity."

Moreover, while machine-produced paper looks similar to the handmade product, it deteriorates quickly, so calligraphers and painters don't use it for serious work.

Both Yang and Zhu's workshops produce about 50,000 sheets of paper a year, while Li's workshop, which employs about 30 workers to operate machinery, has annual output of about 50 million sheets.

However, while Li's business generates annual sales revenue of 20 million yuan ($3 million), he rarely makes a profit because he sells wholesale at low prices and the cost of raw materials has soared.

By contrast, Zhu's workshop has annual sales revenue of 600,000 yuan but he makes a net profit of about 150,000 yuan because his operating costs are low and his handmade paper sells for a high price.

As a result, Li has been considering reintroducing manual production methods.

"As people get richer, students of calligraphy and painting will not care so much about the price," he said, adding that he anticipates a rise in demand for handmade paper.

The move may not be as easy or profitable as Li imagines, though.

"It could just be hard for him. Financial strength, connections with renowned artists-who are key to branding-and production skills are some of the major challenges he would face," Tang said.

"The market for machine-produced paper will be further dominated by major companies who are more effective at reducing costs and improving efficiency."

He suggested that producers of handmade paper should maintain their traditions whenever possible because demand for the high-end product may rise again-he cited the example of expert renovators of ancient books and documents who have been searching for high-quality paper in recent years.

Moreover, many types of handmade paper have died out recently, mostly due to declining demand.

Workers take a break outside a paper plant in Jinhua, a village in Jiajiang county, Sichuan province. (YANG HONGWEI / CHINA DAILY)

"Some of the demand should have been nurtured, such as use of paper for packaging," said Tang, adding that too much plastic is used in packaging nowadays.

Fresh ideas

This summer, Yang and Li participated in a month-long training program that Tang's institute organized for papermakers and traders from Jiajiang. One of the lecturers was Wang Xingze, who runs a gallery in Hangzhou where he exhibits hundreds of different materials collected from craftsmen across the country.

"I used to pity traditional craftsmen because many of their techniques are dying out. They need fresh ideas to promote their business," he said.

However, his opinion has changed, and he now sees new uses for traditional materials and skills, as he explained during one of the summer seminars: "Take the papermaking industry, for example; why do papermakers only use pulp to make paper?"

Wang has cooperated with a number of manufacturers, including Zhu, and used paper pulp to make other items, such as chairs. "It is how you use the pulp that matters," he said.

He hopes some of the craftsmen will adapt and begin making original goods, while others can provide materials for artists and designers.

In the hope of keeping his business in operation, Yang has been cooperating with local primary and middle schools, and more than 30,000 students visited his workshop last year to learn how to make paper the traditional way.

"It is clear proof that many people are interested in this traditional craft," he said, adding that having majored in Chinese language and literature, he often feels sad that people have abandoned the old traditions to earn more money.

"I miss the scenes of my childhood, when the villagers were busy making paper and the houses were filled with the fresh scent of bamboo and paper," he said.

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As for Li, he is happy, even though his profits are poor. "At least I can feed my more than 30 workers and keep them in the village," he said.

Contact the writer at zhulixin@chinadaily.com.cn

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