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Carrying on a Craft Tradition: the Qin Huai Lantern-Makers


The Huadeng brothers in their workshop, Nanjing, 1950s.


Interviewing lantern-maker Mr Li, at his workshop, 2006.

MR HUADENG, born in 1934 of a poor lantern-making family and now owner of the Qin Huai lantern workshop, and Li Guisheng, aged ninety, master lantern-maker, and his former apprentice, Gu Yeliang, interviewed in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu in eastern China by the Yangtze River. It is said that the first lantern fair was held here in 1372 when Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered a spring lantern festival to celebrate both the coming New Year and the prosperity of the country. This tradition was passed down from generation to generation for centuries, but declined in the early twentieth century. In 1985 the lantern festival was revived. Mr Li is the oldest proponent of lantern-making and he and Mr Huadeng want to inspire a new generation to carry on this ancienttradition.

In the Chinese world, there are many who are hostile to the way film director Zhang Yimou has presented China to overseas audiences in films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero. They feel that Zhang Yimou is feeding a Western appetite for the exotic with uncouth Chinese folk customs which are a relic from the past. He is pandering to the developed world by presenting to them the humiliatingly backward face of China. In other words, he's using our warm Chinese faces to cosy up to foreigners' cold bums!

I do not know if these critics have any notion of the level of understanding of China in the rest of world.

In my ten years of wanderings outside China, I have read the English-language press every day. I have conducted impromptu surveys and asked questions about things which concerned me during visits to scores of countries. It has taught me something which I dared not believe before and am unwilling to believe now: that perceptions of China in the world today are like those of a tiny baby's first impressions – limited to mother's milk. They know this mother's milk exists but, not being capable of enlightened reflection, they cannot envisage its form. As for the sound and the way it grabs their attention, well, they have practice in distinguishing it and reacting to it, but cannot differentiate between the classic and the popular versions.

Among the world's total population of 6.6 billion, China's 1.3 billion is a huge "unknown quantity". Knowledge about China is so small, it is a decimal fraction many positions after the decimal point.

Some misconceptions about China: people in the developed world do not believe that we have had international airports for over half a century and swimming pools for more than a century; people in developing countries mistakenly feel that for us, as for them, military domination is necessary to achieve peace; undeveloped countries are grateful for the fresh milk we give them, but are not convinced that it is as fresh as it could be.

As people all over the world learn to understand China, Zhang Yimou's films have made them aware of Chinese history and displayed to them the brilliant colours of its folk traditions. These films have also given audiences a taste of a 5,000-year-old cultural tradition, albeit on a level with mother's milk.

So many foreigners with whom I have broached the subject have told me that their first impression of China was Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern. The majestic Qiao family compound, the refined elegance of its furnishings, the fascinating costumes of the women, the ceremonies and rules which governed the life of the family and the social class to which it belonged – everything in the film is so very different from anything else in the world. What foreigners say they find hardest to understand is the appalling jealous hatred between clan members; easiest to understand is the red lantern which symbolises their passions!

Foreigners are amazed that Chinese people still use folk art in their daily lives, and confess shamefacedly that, to them, preserving folk art and customs means sticking them in a museum so that people can go and look at them. The Chinese, on the other hand, make folk art a part of living, a tradition which is preserved through family life.

I remember, during the discussion after a lecture I had given, an Australian professor, overcome with emotion, standing up and responding to a journalist who had accused modern China of being confused about its identity and culturally reckless. He said: "I teach history in a university. National culture and folk customs will never disappear in a country which has a film director like Zhang Yimou, who can see folk culture as world culture. As people adopt an international language to interpret the world, they will see Chinese folk culture as a part of the spirit of the Chinese people, and it will also play an important part in convincing them that the world needs China, needs to respect and coexist with China."

I completely agree with him. Thank you, Zhang Yimou!

This is also why I chose Qin Huai lanterns, from among countless folk art forms, as one of the chapters for China Witness. Amid the ups and downs of Chinese cultural history, these lanterns stand out as a beacon of colour.

As agricultural civilisations evolve into modern civilisations, many traditional ways of life and folk art forms are neglected and disappear. People always wake up to this fact when it is painfully obvious that it should not have happened, but by then it is too late to do anything about it.

In recent years in China, calls to rescue old buildings and preserve old customs have grown louder by the day. "Worn-out old things" which survived the excited rush, in the last century, to tear down the old and replace it with the new and modern, are now respected by scholars and art experts as cultural relics of old China. Folk arts which bear witness to our past have been reclaimed from "silly old fools". Bright colours are no longer seen by the educated as peasant rubbish, and village-style flowered bedspreads have become fashion items for city people. Traditional red mandarin-style jackets are popular wedding gear, and time-honoured snacks and "big-bowl tea" for communal drinking can be seen again on the avenues and in the lanes of every city at dawn and dusk. What are generally called peasant-style lanterns once more hang decoratively in cities where their ancestors were born.

The reappearance and growth in popularity of the Qin Huai lanterns of Nanjing is one of the signs of this trend.

The Yuan Xiao Lantern Festival originated in the Southern dynasty (ad 420–589) in ancient Nanjing, capital of the Jiangsu province, on the south bank of the Yangtze River. From the middle of the Tang dynasty, which succeeded it, the lantern-makers settled in the area around the Da Bridge at the north end of Pingshi Street, forming the original "Yuan Xiao lantern city". The first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, who established his capital in Nanjing, was a huge lantern enthusiast. He gathered together rich merchants to build his new capital, and enhanced its splendour by decorating it with lanterns. At the 1372 Yuan Xiao Festival, 10,000 water lanterns were lit, at his orders, on Nanjing's Qin Huai River. He commanded that the annual lantern festival be extended to ten nights, making it the longest such festival in Chinese history. Mentions of Qin Huai and Nanjing lanterns in plays and novels can give us a glimpse of how spectacular they were then.

Lanterns have always been popular among ordinary people because they are inexpensive, make good gifts when visiting friends and are symbols of good luck. With the political turbulence which followed the end of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic in 1911, the destitution of Nanjing's population brought a decline in lantern festivals. They almost came to a complete end during the period of the Cultural Revolution, and it was only in 1985 that the annual Qin Huai Lantern Festival was revived by the city government. Even though history had blown out Qin Huai lanterns several times, they were a traditional custom which the people of Nanjing refused to give up. Like a torch passed down through the generations, they enable this part of our cultural heritage to survive to the present day.

There is a popular saying in Nanjing: "You haven't had New Year if you don't see the lanterns at the Confucian Temple; and if you don't buy one, then you haven't had a good New Year."

With the aid of my old colleagues at Jiangsu Broadcasting, I tracked down some of those people who gave Nanjing people a good New Year – a group of old Qin Huai lantern-makers. We spent a few months doing phone interviews and then settled on four people. Two of these were the Huadeng brothers, who had at first worked together to carry on the family tradition of lantern-making, although, after making a name for themselves, they had chosen to go their separate ways. The other two, Master Li and his apprentice Gu, had been introduced and paired up by "government edict", but in the course of their work became friends and today are more like father and son to each other.

The older Mr Huadeng politely but firmly said no to an interview in the end, so we could only visit the lantern workshop of the younger brother.

On 24 August 2006, early in the morning on our way to the lantern workshop, our driver treated us to a tirade about the speed at which Nanjing's roads were being rebuilt. "You can see how hard it's making life for us drivers! You wouldn't believe it, I've been driving in Nanjing for twenty years and I don't know how to get you there! I tell you, I knew the way a week ago, but now I'm not sure! I heard on the radio that a small flyover that was being repaired over there hasn't been reopened yet, and the big flyover next to it is going to be rebuilt, starting this week, so it's shut to traffic. How are drivers supposed to choose a route, tell me that? You gave me an address which any Nanjinger knows, but how am I supposed to know which roads are up for repair, and which are open to traffic? Buy a street map? You must be joking! Street maps can't keep up with road repairs! Go to the city planning office and check their road-works programme for an up-to-date transport map? That's a bit naive. You really don't know anything about China today, do you?! The city planners keep being made to change things by their bosses. Haven't you seen it on the TV and in the papers, the way the planners just hand over the drawings for the politicians, who think they know it all, to draw in what they want? If it's a politician with a bit of brains, then Nanjingers might get some city planning which preserves those features which are typical of the Jiangnan region; but if they're just some dogsbody, you might end up living in a rubbish bin!"

None of us dared argue with him, because it would have been adding fuel to the flames, and besides, what he was saying had a lot of truth in it. I thought that probably anyone who's driven a car in China would agree with him.

Strictly speaking, the younger Mr Huadeng's Jiangnan Dragon Lantern Factory was not really a factory, more of a workshop. It looked like an abandoned warehouse compound, or a car breaker's yard, with all available space filled with lanterns in the process of being brought to life. From the smallest – the rabbit lantern, about the palm width of a two-year-old child's hands in size – to the biggest dragon lanterns, they filled the compound's two hundred square metres. Half a dozen workers were absorbed in the painstaking task of making lanterns, and nodded to us by way of a greeting. Mr Huadeng led us into a cramped cubbyhole which served as his "office". Seven or eight documents which looked like report forms hung in a row from small clips at the bottom of the window above the desk. On the desk stood a telephone covered with a piece of embroidery, an electric fan noisy enough to stop us talking, and some old-fashioned photo albums with corner mounts that had been put out ready for us. Apart from these, the desk held almost no other office equipment. A display cabinet stuffed full of sample lanterns stood behind Mr Huadeng's office chair, and a dilapidated sofa, obviously intended for guests, faced the window, squeezed in next to the display cabinet. In the whole factory, this was the only place for guests to sit.

The weather that day was forecast to reach a very hot forty-one degrees – the electric fan roared as if it was on fire. Because we needed to record and film, there was no option but to turn it off. Very soon we all began to pour with sweat, and Mr Huadeng looked like he was being interviewed in a shower of rain.


XINRAN: Mr Huadeng, when did you start learning about lanterns?

HUADENG: I was born in 1934, and all I remember is our home being made up of lanterns. The men of the family, my father and grandfather, when they weren't out selling vegetables, made lanterns; and the women, my grandmother and mother, did the cooking and the laundry, and then made lanterns too. Every corner of the house was full of lanterns. At festivals, they were what we played with, hung up, even what we talked about when guests came. Before I was ten years old, I probably thought everybody made their living from lanterns. It was only later that I realised the lantern business was seasonal. You couldn't sell them all year round, although they were my family's main source of income. For the rest of the time, we scraped by on the money my father earned from buying vegetables wholesale and selling them in the market. But it was the money from the lanterns which paid for clothes or things for the house or things for the old folks. So every Chinese New Year, the adults in the family would take the lanterns they'd been making all year to the Confucian Temple to sell. When I was ten years old, my father began teaching me how to make them. I started from the most popular kinds, rabbit and water-lily lanterns. Between the age of ten and now, I haven't stopped once.

XINRAN: And when did your father start making them?

HUADENG: I don't know. We children weren't allowed to ask grownups questions like that. I only know my father learned from my grandfather. As they used to say, we were a lantern family, we sold lanterns for money. All arts and crafts workers were considered lower than the smallest officials, along with beggars, and other artists, singers, acrobats, martial artists and suchlike. Of course, that's the old way of speaking. When I was ten, to give the family a bit more of an income, my father took me and my older brother in hand and taught us how to make them. He told us how the skills had been passed down through the generations. I still remember him saying, if you sell vegetables, you eat gruel; if you sell lanterns, you eat rice; and if you sell good lanterns, and lots of them, you can eat pork and duck.

XINRAN: Did he tell you stories about your family and lanterns?

HUADENG: Mostly what he talked about was how to make good lanterns. What we wanted to know was how to make lots, and make good ones, so we could eat pork and duck. Eating duck was what we dreamed of in those days. It's our most delicious Nanjing speciality! People nowadays would say: "How much can a ten-year-old understand?" But at ten, I was wise for my age. Isn't there a saying: "Poor children soon learn to be head of the family"? As we were learning, my father used to tell us how strict my grandfather had been when he taught him. My father said, if you don't follow the rules, you won't be able to do something well.

XINRAN: Did he beat you?

HUADENG: All the time, really, all the time. There were very few times when he didn't beat us. When we bound together the frame of the lantern, we used bark paper, not string. You took a long, long twist of paper and pressed it around the central part which was made of bamboo, like this. There was a rule about how many times the bark strips had to go around the frame but I sometimes cheated. I went round it ten times, and it should have been twelve. Then you put on dabs of starch to glue the lantern together. When my father came to check, he would pull the starch apart and count the layers. "I told you to do twelve turns, and you did ten, you lazy little git!" he would swear as he beat me. The other children would all shout: "Little Two's eating bamboo roast pork again!" (He beat our bottoms with bamboo slats.) My father often said: "To do a handicraft well means tempering both your hand and your will." In the old man's words: "Other people may sell one for 1 yuan, but if you make a good lantern you can sell yours for 1.5 yuan. Your lanterns have got to be made in the proper way." We used to make fan lanterns before aeroplane lanterns, and he said: "If the other sellers can't spin their fans and you can, you can sell yours for five fen more." So now, I've entered lantern competitions, I've even represented Nanjing in a national paper arts championship – because kites and lanterns, and paper cuts too, all of them count as paper arts – and my commemorative lantern got onto a national special issue of postage stamps. The reason why I've had such outstanding success with my lanterns is bound up with my father's strict teachings back then. And it's also because I've tempered my skills for so many years. It's not like I just got lucky one day.

XINRAN: You've achieved unprecedented status as a great master of Chinese folk lanterns. Have you passed your skills on to anyone in your family?

HUADENG: I don't know whether to laugh or cry when you ask me that. I'm passionate about lanterns, I set up this lantern workshop six years ago, but I haven't made a cent from it. I've retired now. I get my 1,000-yuan pension every month. I just want to make sure that this factory doesn't go bust, so I struggle along. When I was trying to find someone to take over from me, I talked to my daughter and son-in-law. I said to them: "You shouldn't go and work for other people, or sit in front of computers in other people's offices. If you do that, you're not as good as me. Only folk traditions are world traditions. My lantern-making is an art which foreigners would like to do but don't know how to. It's a world-class skill. Our folk arts are so outstanding that you should get foreigners to come and learn from us, we shouldn't be running after them." My daughter listened and then she just asked me one thing: "Dad, have you got rich? Do you live better than ordinary people?" There was nothing I could say to this. All these years, come rain or shine, through good times and bad, I've just pursued my love of folk art. It's also because I wanted to do something for my country, and to hand on the skills of my ancestors, but what have I got to show for it? Nothing at all. Even my children don't understand. Sometimes I think, times have changed – children have the right to run their own lives, life is modernised too. But traditional culture can't just be chucked into history books and forgotten. Sometimes I feel we've let down our ancestors, let down all those ancestors who've bequeathed thousands of years of folk culture to us.

XINRAN: As I understand it, the government has tried to rescue these Jiangnan folk arts which were being lost, like lantern-making. For example, in 1985, they started up the Qin Huai Lantern Festival again after a long gap. In your experience, are these just slogans, or has there been any real action?

HUADENG: What can I say? It's hard to explain. City officials have come to me and said: "Old Huadeng, we're delighted that you've set up this lantern workshop, we hope that when it's going well, you'll dig up some even older traditions and use modern techniques to make even more beautiful and artistic lanterns." I've done what they said for six years, put my whole body and soul into it, but what return have I had? My lantern design has got onto national stamps, and the Chinese Post Office sent me 500 yuan. They deducted fifteen yuan for postage, so I just got 485 yuan. When people heard my lantern had got onto a stamp, they said to me: "Huadeng, old man, you've really made good now!" But no one knows I only got 500 yuan, less money than those cadres spend on a dinner. But those stamps were sent all over the world, and I think that that's an honour that can't be bought with money. If I had 200,000 yuan, I might buy a house with it and move out of our place, which is too small to swing a cat in. I might use it to buy a car, so I don't have to queue up for buses in all weathers to get to work and back. I haven't asked central government for money, or the local government. Why not? The lanterns I've devoted my whole life to, the Confucian Temple lanterns, have gone out to the whole world printed on our postage stamps. It's not just me that made them possible. They're the result of the years of hard graft put in by all those artists who make Nanjing lanterns. Why should I care about 20,000 yuan? My assets are not material things. They've been handed down to me by my ancestors.

XINRAN: All your life, you've sweated blood to carry on this wonderful folk art, yet your daughter asks you how much you've earned from all that work. You don't know whether to laugh or cry, and all this has caused you real pain, a pain which you can't get rid of. Do you think all Nanjing's lantern-makers, all Chinese lantern-makers, feel the same way as you?

HUADENG: I don't know about other places in China, and there are only a couple of others in Nanjing who've spent half a century making lanterns like I have. We don't have either the right or the power to make other people study this art – they've got to eat, and bring up their children, and nowadays people play mah-jong and go dancing too. There's practically no one willing to spend hours sweating away in a hole like this fiddling about with an ancient folk art. There are a few older people who are out of work, have no education and can't do any other job, who might work with us to earn a bit of money. It's a lonely business, what I do. People don't respect you, or even understand you. In 1984, for the Sino-Japanese Youth Congress, a lantern display was planned in Nanjing, and the City Cultural Department gave me the task of designing it. They wanted me to turn the traditional water-lily lanterns into more elaborate lotus lanterns. I went to Xuanwu Lake Park to see the lotus flowers because I wanted to give them a natural shape. At that time I couldn't afford a camera. It's not like now, with digital cameras you can take a few shots and bring them back to look at. We didn't have them then. I just had to go and look at the lotus ponds in the park, and once I nearly fell in the lake trying to get a good look at a flower bud. I got nabbed by the park keepers. They tried to fine me, but I said I wasn't messing around, I was designing lanterns, and where would I get the money to pay a fine? They said if the government had asked me to do the design, weren't they paying me for it? I said no, it was my patriotic duty. I just got a bit of money to buy materials at the beginning, but no fees while I was making the lanterns. And no one believed I was such a fool! Things like this have happened far too often, and I've suffered far too much grief over them, far too much. Sometimes when something like this has happened, I like to have a smoke and think about it, and sometimes I'm so deep in thought that the cigarette burns right down, and I don't realise it until it burns my hand.

XINRAN: What's brought you most hardship in life? And what's brought you most pleasure?

HUADENG: The hardest thing is dreaming up new lantern shapes. Design is the hardest thing. Making a water-lily or a lotus-flower lantern, or a dragon lantern or a lion, none of that is hard. What's hard is thinking up the shapes. If you don't design it properly, then the lantern won't work. Before we make any new lantern shape, we have to draw a simple diagram and write in the measurements. You can't start making it until you've sketched it all out. You can't eat or sleep when you're designing something new, because if you get it wrong, you've wasted all that labour and materials. Another hard thing is not being understood. People don't understand the way we work, especially the younger generation. If you've made a bit of a name for yourself, then you're even worse off. Once your family and friends get to hear of it, they ask you where you're making your money now. I tell them I'm doing this and that. They say: "But you've been doing that for years! Are you still at it? China's completely changed! How come you haven't changed at all?" It really hurts when people don't understand because then you don't get any support. The third thing I find very painful is a situation like now; I'm running a small workshop, employing ten people, and suddenly it gets busy – like the 2008 Olympics. Nanjing is planning a big dragon 2,008 metres long, and the city government wants us to find twenty or thirty craftspeople for it. Where am I going to find all these craftspeople? I told them, I can't afford to keep spare workers. If you get people in, and don't have the money to pay them, are they just expected not to eat for a couple of weeks? The government doesn't give me a subsidy to train craftspeople or to keep them on, I don't get any help at all, and that often makes me feel sad. I'm not complaining but the city officials come along and say to me: "Now then, old Huadeng, you do such-and-such, and we'll support you in such-and-such a way, we'll get the administration onto it. My goodness, your premises are too small, we'll call cadres at all levels together for a meeting to discuss it. After all, you're a 'name card' for the Qin Huai district, you've been on a Chinese postage stamp, and that hasn't happened in Nanjing for hundreds of years! So we all want to support old Huadeng!" You've seen how we work – it's like a craft workshop of a hundred years ago, isn't it? It might even be worse than a hundred years ago. And another thing – they're pulling this place down, so soon we're going to be evicted. No one has been round to take a look. You don't get any help at all. People will hold celebration parties for you but no one will help you in your work. I feel a bit lonely. In fact, I'm very lonely.

XINRAN: It's all very well for the Qin Huai district, for the city of Nanjing, for the whole country – but when your design was chosen for the postage stamp, you only got paid 500 yuan, and they made deductions from that. So if the Qin Huai local authority or Nanjing city government want to use, or commission, your lanterns, or if they ask you to put on a lantern display to make the city look festive, do they pay you for it?

HUADENG: Yes, if they need props for a performance, or if they want the lanterns for a municipal event, then they pay expenses.

XINRAN: And does what they pay you cover your expenses?

HUADENG: Of course not! For instance, I sometimes make a pair of water-lily lanterns when a young couple get married. It's quite delicate work, but I only charge them fifty yuan for each, or a hundred yuan the pair. If it's the Qin Huai local authority who ask us to make lanterns, we have to drop the price a bit, because although they don't look after us directly, overall you could say that they're on the next rung up administratively, and we can't afford to put a foot wrong. All the same, they don't support us when we really need it. You have to stand on your own feet, and you're very isolated. Don't laugh at me if I say this. Sometimes I don't do any business for three months and don't earn a penny, but you've still got to pay the workers, and you can't not pay the rent, the electricity and the water, can you? Sometimes it's all so hard. I still hope, though, that one day our folk art will get proper public recognition.

XINRAN: Why don't you think you're getting public recognition? When we were doing our research and contacted Jiangsu Radio and got information on folk crafts from national organisations, the first people they recommended in Nanjing were Li Guisheng, and you and your brother, so surely this must imply public recognition? When you talked just now about feeling isolated, I could see how you felt by looking in your eyes. The art of Qin Huai lanterns has been handed down to you by your father and grandfather, so it has a vitality which has survived down the years, doesn't it? So how come, when more people than ever before have been to school, and life is more civilised and modernised, people nowadays have no respect for a tradition which goes back more than a thousand years, and have abandoned it? Why is it ignored by the public, and even by the government?

HUADENG: "Flowers grow in the garden, but you smell them outside it" – that's the kind of recognition you're talking about. Let me put it more simply: China's folk crafts are all exported. In China, the government only start to take a bit of interest if you are famous and you're someone putting your talents to good use. But it's not easy for poor craftspeople to make a difference. The Qin Huai local authority only sat up and took notice of me after my lantern won the national competition and appeared on a postage stamp. It's not like we artists can't agree, and can't make even better lanterns.

It's not like that at all. Since the 1980s, CCTV have come every year to film the lanterns, dubbing us "delightfully rustic". We weren't too happy with being called "rustic", but we laughed at the "delightfully". In the Jiangnan region, that's the kind of atmosphere at the Spring Festival among ordinary folk; they're full of delight at our local pleasures.

Lanterns are seasonal, but the craft isn't seasonal. No one supports your business needs for three seasons of the year – you have to wait till the Spring Festival, when the government has to create a festive atmosphere, and then there's too much business. So we have to get through the year, and we can't make the workers go out begging for food for nine months of it. There's another thing – the markets all had their own regulations in the past, and space for the crafts stalls was always free. But now space is like gold dust – you get a stall but you get charged for it, and we have to do a lot of business before we cover the rent and make some profit.

When we're selling lanterns in the Confucian Temple market, the high-ups from the city government and the local authority always come and see me. "How are things this year, old Huadeng?" "Fine! Thank you for your help and concern!" "How's it going this year?" "Oh, fine, fine! Thank you so much for asking!" But that's just putting a good front on it. The thing that most makes you feel warm, but also leaves you feeling desolate, is: "If you have any problems, come and see me!" Got problems? Go and see you? And where would I find you? I'm about to be evicted from these premises, and I don't have anywhere to go. I said to the local authority, if they're really going to evict me and I don't have anywhere to go, I'll have to shut this workshop. After all, I can get by on my pension. I'll stay at home and do what I want, and I won't worry any more about how Nanjing's festivities look!

XINRAN: You've got such a burning desire to do this, such a strong will, how many young people are studying lantern-making with you now?

HUADENG: None, not a single one!

XINRAN: Are you worried? Are you worried that your art, your knowledge, and your faith in it, might just disappear?

HUADENG: I'll tell you the truth. I used to worry, but since I set up the workshop, I stopped worrying. I might be wrong to say this, though.

Qin Huai lanterns have existed for thousands of years, and other people, the government, the country are not bothered, so why should I bother? You could say that the course my life takes is in my hands, but the course that Qin Huai lanterns take is not in the hands of us makers. It's down to the policymakers. Qin Huai lantern-making represents the "name card" of Nanjing's history, the "name card" of the art of the People's Republic of China. If they value that "name card", then Qin Huai lanterns can carry on going, even rise to new heights. But if they neglect it, then it means our time is up.

Years ago, I told cultural affairs officials that there were ten different series of Qin Huai lanterns. The most common ten are aeroplane lanterns, rabbit lanterns, water-lily lanterns, lion lanterns and so on, but now a lot of them are a lost tradition, and no one knows how to make them any more. The lion lantern, for instance, there's no one left in Nanjing who can make those. There were a few old artists who could, but they've died now. I still want to do my bit to keep Qin Huai lanterns going, but then I think, after I'm dead the tradition may die out, and I don't feel like bothering!

XINRAN: Doesn't that distress you?

HUADENG: There's no point in getting distressed. When I cross over to the Underworld, the King of the Underworld won't say to me, you didn't get it sorted out up there so you'd better come and make lanterns for me. He can't say that, so that's not what I get bothered about. Never mind that I'm old, I really feel I've reached my peak now. Just look at my lantern-making. I've never been as good as I am now, and if at this time I can bring a bit of happiness to ordinary people's lives with my two hands, then that's even better. As for where Qin Huai lantern-making will end up, that's not something we makers can sort out with a complaint here or a few harsh words there, do you understand what I'm saying?

XINRAN: If you had the chance, would you be willing to take on a few foreign students?

HUADENG: Of course. Anyone who wants to learn, I can teach them!

XINRAN: But wouldn't you be concerned that a traditional folk art handed down to you by your forefathers might be lost to other countries?

HUADENG: There's no reason why Chinese art shouldn't cross national boundaries. But sweet dreams and idle chat won't keep us alive! I'm on my own in this, and all I can do is run a workshop employing a dozen or so workers and keep on at people about folk art. This is a "small national business" I'm running. I pay all the taxes I'm supposed to and don't cheat my clients, and just make a living out of my art.

I don't have wild ambitions. If I can just carry on the lantern-making tradition, and help my country by taking on a few unemployed workers, then I'm well satisfied. I do my best, and that's all I can do. Of course I'd love to have a factory employing two hundred workers, divided into ten workshops, each one devoted to studying one of the ten series of lanterns, and recording them, so that the next generation can learn how to make them. I'd like to set up a training workshop so a few people could develop new designs, and bring the science and technology of ancient lantern-making up to date, and make the display period longer, which would give a clearer expression of Jiangnan art. I'd better shut up, or my workers will tell me I'm dreaming again! Anyway, as I was saying, I'd be just as happy to pass these things on to foreigners and see Chinese Qin Huai lanterns take root and flourish in other countries. Why not? No one's come to me and told me, "Old Huadeng, you're only allowed to teach Chinese people, you can't teach foreigners." No one's told me that, so I'm free to do what I want. I'm a "liberal" now, running a private enterprise. Apart from paying my taxes, I'm a "liberal", and if I want to do something, I can do it.

XINRAN: You've been through so many ups and downs in your life, I'd like to ask you, if you had your life over again, would you choose to follow the same path?

HUADENG: If I could have my life over again, I'd say to the King of the Underworld, in my last life I was a lantern-maker, can I please apply to be a lantern-maker in my next life on earth? Why? Because I think lanterns are beautiful! Just look at them, they're all the work of our own hands, the water lily standing gracefully erect, the bunny all cute and lively, the spirit of that dragon! I feel so good, looking at those lanterns . . .

XINRAN: But what about all your grievances? Your children don't want to learn from you, the government doesn't want to support you, you're not very well off. Don't you have regrets?

HUADENG: No, none. I feel I've worked hard for more than sixty years, and I've finally tamed the lotus lantern; plus I've represented the country with my stamp and told the world about Qin Huai lanterns, so I feel honoured, happy and proud.

XINRAN: How did your daughter and son-in-law react when they heard the news?

HUADENG: They were happy, very happy, though they still remind me that I haven't made any money. But I've achieved things that billions of people who are rolling in wealth haven't been able to do. You can't pay the Chinese Post Office to have your product printed on their stamps, can you? I didn't pay them money. I got there through my own efforts.

XINRAN: And what do your children say to that?

HUADENG: Nothing! I'd really like to seize the moment and shout at them to come and learn lantern-making from me, take advantage of the fact that I'm at the height of my powers and could teach them.

XINRAN: Apart from the fact that lantern-making hasn't made you any money, and has shown your children that it isn't a good way to earn a living, have you thought what other reasons they might have for not wanting to succeed you?

HUADENG: Of course it's to do with what today's young people want to do with their lives. They pursue money rather than art. That's a common problem in China. I was ten when I started to learn from my father. Nowadays, no ten-year-old, or even a twenty-year-old, will listen when you try and teach them right from wrong!

When young people come to my workshop looking for a job, I say to them: "No, my young friend, you've got it wrong. We don't do manual work here; we learn an art. If you come, you come as a pupil. I can't pay you thousands of yuan, because I haven't taken a fen out of the business myself yet, but you can learn the art of lantern-making." When they hear me say that, they turn on their heel and go.

I've had this business for six years and I still haven't bought any decent clothes or nice shoes. My mobile is someone else's cast-off, and I'm scarcely scraping a basic living in other people's eyes, but I have no regrets. I feel that what I've achieved is beyond anyone's expectations. My work's been featured on Chinese postage stamps!

XINRAN: Is there any difference between the way the Chinese cared about and appreciated the art of Qin Huai lanterns when you were young and nowadays?

HUADENG: Between when I learned lantern-making from my father and the Great Leap Forward in 1958, we went to the Confucian Temple market to sell lanterns every year. Especially after Liberation, you went and registered with the Qin Huai local chamber of commerce, and the government sent people to put up strings for you to hang the lanterns from on Jinling Road, and put up the stands for you. So my dad got Stall 1, someone else got Stall 2, and they didn't charge you a fen, do you see what I mean? The government put people and effort into supporting you.

The Confucian Temple lantern market goes right back to the Ming dynasty. It's famous all over China. Just like the way small traders in Shanghai who wanted to make money used to flock to the Town God Temple, so the Confucian Temple market was the place where people collected in Nanjing. We sold lanterns there for years and years, and the local government never charged us. Nowadays, I can't count on help from any department. They just issue an instruction that lantern-makers should be charged 1,000 yuan per stall. After the lantern festival restarted in 1985, our factory used to go and sell every year, but two tables end to end, that's 2,000 yuan in stall fees alone! Then there's the workers' wages and lunches, and you have to rent storage space and pay to get the lanterns there. It all adds up to too much, so for the last two years I haven't been.

Let me work out for you the costs for an ordinary small water-lily lantern, the sort that a new worker starts learning on and that sell for ten yuan each. If a worker starts making lanterns in August, he or she will have only made three hundred by the Spring Festival. If none are spoiled, three hundred lanterns at ten yuan each can bring in 3,000 yuan. The stall fees are 1,000 yuan, so after that's been paid, you're left with 2,000. My workshop expenses, water and electricity, business rates all have to come out of that 2,000. Each person gets at least 100 yuan a month, so that's 500 yuan over five months. Then we have to buy in all the materials from outside, rulers, paper, starch, rubber solution, et cetera. That's at the very least 50 yuan a month, and then there's at least 50 yuan for travel. That's another 250 yuan. You want lunch? The very cheapest will come to 50 yuan a month, won't it? August to December is five months of wages. That's on average only 200 yuan a month! That's not even 50 yuan for a five-day week! Ten yuan a day, less than two yuan an hour! Who's willing to work for that? I think that's an important factor in the current decline of Qin Huai lanterns. Artists have got to consider their own lives and their abilities, haven't they?

XINRAN: I remember you said that your wife supported your enterprise, is that right?


XINRAN: When did you get to know her and how?

HUADENG: After Liberation, we were both working in a printer's for a time. Everything was simple then or, as young people would put it now, we were pretty dumb. We saw a lot of each other and our feelings developed.

She'd had a hard life, and people who knew her told me her mother had bled to death giving birth to her, so her father gave the baby away and ignored her after that. The people who brought her up were very poor too. They just had two pairs of thin trousers worn one over the other to keep them warm in winter. She still hates the New Year, because when she was little, on New Year's Eve when it got dark, she regularly had to go out and pick up other people's discarded rotten vegetable roots to make the New Year's dinner with. One year she got bitten by a wild dog. What she got most enjoyment from in those days was standing outside someone else's house sniffing the good smell of their dinner. And still she's trying to find out what her mother's name was.

Well, my mother had died young – both being motherless drew us together too – so there were no old people or children for me to look after at home. In those days we earned hardly anything, but as I had no family responsibilities, I could help her out a bit. We didn't get any wedding photographs done, and we didn't do a banquet. Getting married meant we each just got a new outfit, got the marriage certificate, went to the factory to distribute sweeties, and that was it, we were married.

XINRAN: So did she learn the art of lantern-making from you?

HUADENG: I did have some influence on her. Actually, she learned it from me on the quiet during the Cultural Revolution. In those days, lanterns belonged to the category of the "Four Olds" which had to be "eliminated" because they were part of a feudal way of life, but we still made lanterns in secret. At New Year, we would take a few small lanterns and sell them in the little alleyways around the Confucian Temple, and no sooner had we gone out with them than the old folks would have every single one off us.

We weren't allowed to make or sell lanterns during the Cultural Revolution, but I never stopped. Everyone knew how poor my father was and that we had a proper "red" family background, so I wasn't worried anyone was going to "make revolution" against me. When my work unit found out, they just said: "Young Huadeng, how come you're still making lanterns? They're one of the Four Olds, you know, and everyone's smashing the Four Olds and bringing in the Four News. If you're still making lanterns and selling them in the Confucian Temple market, that's dangerous, isn't it?"

In my lifetime, we've been through so many political movements. All national ones which were no concern of ours, like the 1954 Suppress the Counter-Revolutionaries, the 1957 Anti-Rightist movement, the Cultural Revolution, sending intellectual youth to remote country areas, stuff like that. But I never stopped making lanterns. I never thought that making revolution meant getting rid of festival traditions! I always thought the reason I was brave enough to carry on with my craft in secret was because I wasn't educated, and had no idea what feudalism, capitalism and revisionism meant. I didn't know about Party principles, or what the revolutionary Four News were meant to be. I wasn't the only one who didn't understand that. Most ordinary people had about as little education as I did. In fact, how many of those anti-everything revolutionaries with their movements for this and that understood what it was all about? Making revolution was just a pretext for people to settle private scores. If those movements really had been good for China, then we wouldn't have been poor for so many years. People today wouldn't be so fixated on money, and wouldn't ignore traditional arts like they do. And there wouldn't be people like me, with just my daughter-in-law learning lantern-making from me!

XINRAN: Do you often have arguments with your wife about the lanterns?

HUADENG: Yes, often.

XINRAN: Who wins these arguments?

HUADENG: She does, of course! Why? Because a man comrade has to give in a bit, otherwise you won't have a good marriage. Because when a woman comrade's temper is up, she's obstinate, she won't back down. I take charge of the technology and the design, and she's responsible for the production. We often have spats, and she sometimes says to me: "We've worked really hard for six years in this workshop, and I've never taken a fen home. If I was your employee, I'd get 500 yuan a month, that's 6,000 a year, and in six years I'd have taken 30,000 yuan home, and you haven't given me a fen!" She's right, you know. At every Dragon Boat Festival, we buy something for each of the workers, even if I'm making a loss and we're not doing any business or earning a fen. At holidays I always buy a gift for everyone, but never buy anything to take home. Why not? Because if I buy something for the workers, it's to win them over, to communicate with them . . . What I'm saying with that keg of oil or those duck eggs is they have a duty to love me! I treat every fen as if it were a yuan, and every 100 yuan as if it were 10,000, but I do spend money where it matters. We can't depend on the government for our future, or princes or court officials. Our only insurance is ourselves.

XINRAN: Can I ask you another couple of questions? You can choose whether or not to answer. Since we arrived in China, we've been from Beijing to Guiyang, then to Chengdu, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qingdao, Anhui, now we're in Nanjing, and then we're off to Henan, Beijing, Shanghai, to the area between the Yellow River and the Yangtze, from west to east, and we've heard so many different opinions about this, I'd like to know how you feel. One, are you quite confident about the way society is developing now, or do you have misgivings? And the second question is, what do you personally feel about Chairman Mao? Because we've all seen the rapid pace of urban development in China, the wonderful public buildings, the increasing glamour of China and the rise in the standard of living, but we have also seen how people are worried that our most basic cultural traditions are being neglected. How do you feel about all this?

HUADENG: We're getting into politics with questions like that, and I don't really want to say anything about it. We're popular artists – that's people's term of respect for us. In fact, we're just lantern-makers, pretty much like beggars. I just make a bit of money with my handicraft. If you're going to talk politics, I don't want to get involved. Who's good, who's bad, I don't want to comment. I feel in my heart that we must take the greatest precautions to protect the traditional art of lantern-making and keep it going. That's the only way it will blossom and produce fruit. If we don't nurture it with enough care, if we neglect it, then it might die out completely.

XINRAN: So about Chairman Mao, and what he did, what do you personally feel about that? Sometimes, you see, it seems to me that with lots of people now, some will be negative and some will be positive about him. But I feel the reason why he made the kind of mark that he did on Chinese history is that he was shaped by his times. I also feel that we are younger though not as dynamic as you are, so our impressions of him will not be as incisive as yours. What do you feel the generally accepted view of Mao is?

HUADENG: I'll just say one thing: Chairman Mao was good, and that's all I'm going to say, no more than that. Because that's politics, and we popular artists have our own views on some things. I'm an old man now, so of course there's a lot that I know, but we shouldn't express too many opinions on that sort of thing. the qin huai lantern-makers

XINRAN: Why do you think Chairman Mao was good?

HUADENG: When he was alive, there was not so much of a gap between rich and poor, and this was the biggest advantage for ordinary people. There was poverty then, but we lived comfortably. If a worker in a Communist Party enterprise got sick, the trade union had to send them some fruit. Nowadays, there are no Party enterprises. They're all contracted out, here, there and everywhere, and everything's all topsy-turvy. Of course, there are differences in principle between state-run and private enterprises, but state-run enterprises are not the same as they were ten years ago. There are some things that have been swept under the carpet. I'm not going to say anything else about that today, just that and no more. After all, I still want to carry on working! You big reporters should pay no attention to us ignorant people, we just talk rubbish!

XINRAN: No, what you've said is really sharp and to the point. I think we all ought to start telling the truth and make the government listen. If no one tells the truth, and no one listens to it, then we Chinese will just carry on being bamboozled by lies, and our society will never improve. I believe that we, the younger generation, need elders like you to tell us where we're going wrong. We need to learn about the past from you, to understand tradition and learn about folk arts from you. That's the only way that we can walk towards the rest of the world without losing our respect for our own culture and national traditions. Don't you agree?

HUADENG: All young Chinese nowadays think that it's OK to think like you. But just thinking is useless. Soon all those who understand the old culture and arts will be gone, and then if someone wants to study, who will they learn from? Almost all the old artists learned their skills from family members – there are no books and no written records. When they die they'll take everything with them, and then all the traditional culture will go to the grave too. Who's worried about that now? Who cares about it being too late? No one!

XINRAN: Master Huadeng, I honestly believe that there are other Chinese who feel the same way as you. Otherwise there would be no hope for our national traditions, would there? Among officials, there are quite a few who love our folk culture too. Together we can help the rest get educated in these folk arts. They just need to be pointed in the right direction. They're not gods – they grew up in an era of all politics and no culture – but they're still Chinese and folk arts are an integral part of their lives, they just don't realise it. It's like older people are very sensitive to changes in the weather, the way their joints ache in response to it. But when we're young, we don't care about changes in the weather.

HUADENG: You're quite right in what you say, I'm just afraid it may be too late. Time doesn't wait for anyone, and old artists can't wait until they're a hundred! Now come and see how we make lanterns!


After I left Huadeng, I felt, once again, quite emotional about what I had heard and seen. After touring China's Yangtze River region, I realised that almost every single Chinese person we met was as dedicated as Mr Huadeng, fought like this, and felt this kind of sorrow. Like many Chinese, Huadeng had heard too many lies, too much boasting and empty talk to believe that there was hope for his culture. That is what hurts me most. As a Chinese person, the hardest thing to accept is that we do not believe each other.

While we were investigating Qin Huai lanterns, we also interviewed the master lantern-maker and his pupil who had been brought together by local government cadres: Li Guisheng and Gu Yeliang.

The interviews were conducted at their premises, an artisan-built courtyard in a typical period style. We made our way through a lane full of washing hung out to dry, suddenly emerging into a small courtyard of about a hundred square metres, flanked by buildings on three sides and a wall on the fourth. The buildings were of the squat and rudimentary construction traditional for craftsmen's workshops. From the main gateway it was impossible to make out anything in the darkened interiors, and it was only the roar of the electric grinder and the fan, and the chatter and laughter of women, that told us that there were people at work in there. Under a hundred-year-old tree in the centre of the courtyard a small mountain of half-finished water-lily lanterns reposed in the shade. We set up our interview equipment in front of the eaves from which hung the finished lanterns, where the blazing sunshine not only provided us with sufficient light but also proved such an effective "sweat producer" that after a few hours we were all drenched in sweat again. Even our interviewee, sitting before the camera's lens, was too preoccupied with constantly mopping the sweat trickling into his eyes to bother about his "media image". Li Guisheng was a very correct old man, with a very correct way of sitting and speaking, and an even more "correct" way of expressing his views. The huge generational differences in the feelings of master and pupil about lantern-making were very clear from their answers to our questions – not so much a contrast as an indication that they came from two different eras.

We were concerned that Mr Li, who was nearly ninety, would find the sweltering heat unbearable, so we limited our questions to him to checking historical facts we had turned up in our research and to oral traditions of lantern-making in the Jiangnan region. On the current state of lantern-making, the old man did not beat about the bush.


LI: Earlier generations, and that includes us, always treated lantern-making as a way of keeping body and soul together, a skill to be respected, and a technique which we competed to perfect and the next generation would take that forward. Not like today when lanterns have been made so ostentatious. Now, if a craft is treated as technology then it can be helped by science and won't be divorced from its time. Ostentation is a matter of "face", and craftsmanship and tradition can be destroyed by "face". Haven't we already destroyed so much? But now people without skills are using "face" to put on a pretence that they've got skills.

So many young people now look down on tradition, and regard crafts as the minnows of the business world. In my view, it would be truer to say that they just don't understand tradition. It's scary to think that a people don't understand their own cultural heritage. If someone has spent their whole life working at something they don't like, it's as if they've been living in a prison, isn't it? Even if you earn money from it, you've just been using it – in today's smart phrase – to build yourself a gilded cage.

I don't understand computers, I can't drive a car, and I've never been in a plane, but I haven't allowed the art of my forebears to be destroyed. I've carried on doing what my elders passed down to me. I've shown the age-old tradition of lantern-making to all those people who understand computers, can drive cars and are always hopping on and off planes.

I don't have the money to buy myself a gold coffin, but others can go to heaven taking with them memories of lanterns which I made for them!


Listening to old Mr Li's words, I reflected that as children we had all been educated by the Communist Party and "tamed" into sacrificing ourselves for our nation. Why had this education never produced the tenacity of this man's love for his country and his people? Why had the young generation, brought up to put the public good before private profit and others before themselves, turned out so selfish? Surely five thousand years of popular culture could withstand fifty years of brainwashing and a few hundred years of Western gods?

Li Guisheng's "officially arranged" pupil, Gu Yeliang, had apparently bucked the current trend for money worship. Gu, a man in his forties, told us his story.


GU: I started to learn lantern-making with another master at the age of eight. At the Chinese New Year, I would go with my family to set up a stall and sell the lanterns. At the beginning of the eighties, when the Confucian Temple lantern market first reopened, traders gathered on one street to sell them. The stall spaces were not fixed, so everyone arrived the night before to grab a space for their stall the next day. On New Year's Eve I took it in turns with the family to do my stint. I could see other people having family parties while I spent all night looking after the stall in the market. But that year, our family made 500 or 600 yuan from selling lanterns.

My grandfather taught me a nursery rhyme that was popular then: "Come out and play with a lantern, kid. Never mind your red and green party clothes, just come with a red candle! " My father also used to say that when he was little, children got just as much pleasure out of lanterns as they did from firecrackers, new clothes and new hats. Every year, the excitement of those dazzling lanterns made them happy for ages. But nowadays, old Nanjingers sigh sadly: "Every year the different varieties of lanterns get fewer!"

People don't realise that there are twenty-one different steps in making even a simple water-lily lantern. You work for a whole year, and you don't earn much from it. I come from a lantern-making family, and I started to learn at a very young age, but now it's got to my son's generation, and they don't want to learn! A few years ago, most of the paper lantern-makers lived in the area to the east and west of the Confucian Temple main gate. There were about 260 of us. We all worked together, and were friends, and met up socially. We were moved on because of redevelopment, and now we're all scattered. Who's going to spend thirty or forty minutes on a bus carrying their bags and packages to meet up? In the whole of Nanjing there are still 110 or so people who can make lanterns, most of them in their forties, but there are fewer and fewer lanterns made with traditional bamboo strips and paper and paste. The market is full of blown plastic, factory-made lanterns. There used to be more than three hundred kinds of lanterns, but now there are only around twenty or so left. Only artists in their eighties and nineties know how to make lion, aeroplane and unicorn lanterns. We've known for a long time that the skills might die out. I only employ twenty or so lantern-makers here.


But Mr Gu, who is also a People's Congress representative, is like millions of Chinese of his generation in that he doesn't spend his time complaining that things are not what they used to be. He thinks anything is possible, and he doesn't believe it's too late. He wants to set up a museum to showcase the whole range of Qin Huai lantern art and to have a big lantern festival to nurture the tradition of folk lanterns. He also wants to provide training in lantern-making. "If there are people out of work, they just need to be willing to learn, and we would be happy to teach them the secrets of making lanterns."

I wanted to find out more about the generational differences between master and pupil lantern-maker.


XINRAN: Mr Gu, how well do you understand your teacher, Master Li Guisheng?

GU: How should I put this? When I became his pupil, I was not related to him, and I didn't go cap in hand asking to study under him. Instead, government officials were kind enough to bring us together. After the Gang of Four were smashed in 1976, the city government permitted some of us artists to make and sell lanterns for ourselves at the Confucian Temple market. In 1984, a lantern-makers association was set up in Nanjing, and Mr Li was its head. There were twenty-four members, and I was the only young one. That year we had no idea whether there would be a second or a third festival for Qin Huai or Jin Ling lanterns. I designed and made up some new lanterns and when the head of the Cultural Office saw them, he asked: "Who made those lanterns?" He was told: "Young Gu made them." "Call him here." Then he said to me: "You're an able young man, go and present yourself to Master Li Guisheng as his pupil and learn everything you can from him."

XINRAN: Did he first ask Master Li if this was agreeable to him?

GU: No, he didn't. A cadre's word was law – we all knew that! Besides, my teacher was worried about not having a successor. I could tell he was really pleased at this sort of "government interference".

XINRAN: So I suppose you know a lot more about Li Guisheng's life story than anyone else?

GU: Well, yes – a bit more than most people anyway. Actually he's always been very reluctant to talk about it, because he says people always put a modern interpretation on things which happened in the past, and that's miles from the truth. He's always said that the only reason he learned lantern-making was because his family was poor, and it was just a way of keeping body and soul together. When he was learning, no one talked about it as an art form or anything. Learning the craft the old folks in his family passed on to him was just as natural to him as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. In those days, he says, no one thought about it. It was just a matter of having some craftsmanship and some skill, and using them to earn a bit of money. As for "folk culture" and "folk art", carrying forward and developing cultural traditions and all that, he was clueless. He only read about it later in articles written on him. Yet I know he takes such pains with the artistic side of lantern-making, and he's such a good guide that when we make something new, we run it past him.

XINRAN: So what made you take up lantern-making?

GU: It was because my father made lanterns too. Our house used to be piled high inside and out with lanterns we had made during the year, waiting to be sold at the New Year festival. We had all kinds of lanterns, but I never got excited about them until one day when I heard that the city government of Nanjing had taken a Li Guisheng unicorn lantern with them on a visit to Japan and received two colour televisions in exchange for that one lantern! I thought that certainly had more of a future than peddling lanterns in the market! I may have been little but I had big ideas.

XINRAN: Just now your teacher told me how worried he was about the art of lantern-making dying out. What do you feel about that?

GU: He's right to an extent. Very few people are taking it up these days. The way I look at it is this: to ensure the continuation of Qin Huai lanterns, we first have to preserve the craftsmanship used in their manufacture, and record the way the old people did it. I've already proposed that the government should set up a lantern museum, to display the craftsmanship and allow an exchange of academic knowledge. We could attract public attention and engage people's interest by means of hands-on workshops and other things. We could divide up the 1,700 years of lantern-making history into separate chunks – from the Western Han dynasty through the Tang dynasty, the Mongols, the Ming and the Qing, to the Republic of 1911, and finally our People's Republic – and display to everyone examples of work from each period, as well as the lantern-making tools. Second, there should be a training school attached, providing a sort of patriotic education, and giving children the chance to understand this folk craft. International academic exchanges could be organised to link up lantern-making with folk customs overseas. We've been to Germany to teach classes, and we're off to England soon. Then we'll be going to other European countries to link up with folk artists there. In Nanjing we ought to develop the lantern festivals more, so as to attract Chinese and overseas visitors to the home of lantern-making.

XINRAN: I believe that the art of lantern-making is extremely precious – to Nanjing, to China, indeed to the entire world. But how do you envisage the transition from the primitive workshops in which they are currently made to the scenario you've just described to me? Who do you think will pave the way to the future? Is this something you lantern-makers will fight for on your own? Or do you need the government's help? Or international support?

GU: Ordinary artists don't have the financial resources to fight this battle on their own. A museum like this would need 3,000 square metres of space, and would cost at the very least 2 to 3 million yuan. Who's going to stump up that amount? It needs to be the government, or it could be a joint investment by businesses. The government could own the building, investors could fit it all out, and we artists could contribute the materials we have collected down the years and our techniques. We could share the profits, as we would share the risks. The thing is we mustn't lose sight of the popular characteristics and traditional style of lantern-making. Otherwise it would be meaningless.

And if we could publish some books describing exactly how lanterns are made, with illustrations, introducing each separate technique – for instance the twenty-one steps needed to make a water-lily lantern – then when we're dead and gone, at least we can give these books to the next generation as a permanent record, as a way of handing on the Qin Huai folk culture. That's the way I see it.

XINRAN: You spoke just now about your hopes of building on the techniques and craftsmanship of the older generation as you develop the art of lantern-making. Can you tell us what you feel are the main differences between you and them?

GU: I would say there are a few differences. Back then, they made lanterns in order to keep body and soul together, whereas we do it more out of interest in and enjoyment of a cultural tradition.

Qin Huai lanterns are a form of festival folk art. Festival folk art can be divided into the static and the dynamic, and Qin Huai lanterns are a static form.

If we compare the materials used now with thirty years ago, there have been major changes and innovations: wire has replaced bamboo strips, and silk has replaced coloured paper. In the old days, all lanterns were made of paper. If you hang a paper lantern outside, it's useless as soon as it rains. We use modern materials and modern techniques – what we're making are the same as traditional Qin Huai lanterns, but you can hang them outside for four or five years and they're still fine. Old-style lantern shapes like aeroplane and lion lanterns play a less important role, and recently dip-dyeing has become popular, so that lanterns in new water-lily and lotus shapes, and pineapples and so on, have gradually become the main decorative lanterns at festivals and on holidays.

There are administrative changes as well. With the older generation it was usually the head of the family who ran the business. Lantern-making has always been run as a single-family craft, and working methods are still very primitive. But now we're experimenting with cooperative production methods, with a production line. This should increase our output and improve the quality of the lanterns too.

And now I have a few questions, but I don't know if I can ask them.

XINRAN: For the future of lanterns, ask away!

GU: You live and work abroad. In your view, do foreigners like Qin Huai lanterns? Are young overseas Chinese interested in learning this folk art?

XINRAN: At the moment, I don't know what answer they would give to those questions. But I believe that many foreigners really like Chinese folk culture. Just like you said, folk culture belongs to the world. My book will take your questions to my readers, my listeners and my friends. I hope that more and more visitors to Nanjing will provide the answers to your questions through their interest in Qin Huai lanterns.

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