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Once neglected, oilpaper umbrella gets back its shine

By MA ZHENHUAN in Hangzhou| China Daily| Updated: October 26, 2022 L M S


Wen promotes his oilpaper umbrellas at the event in Hangzhou. CHINA DAILY

Inheritor hopes to revive its fortunes internationally

Wen Shishan has been making oilpaper umbrellas for more than 30 years.

As an intangible cultural heritage inheritor of the art in Fuyang district in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Wen has made 10 umbrellas to celebrate the 19th Asian Games Hangzhou 2022, which have been postponed as a result of the pandemic until Sept 23, 2023.

"Hangzhou will be the main host city of the Asian Games. I am very proud of my hometown, and it occurred to me to combine traditional culture with the Asian Games when I heard the news," the 59-year-old told China Daily, explaining his decision to make Asian Games-themed oilpaper umbrellas.

The umbrellas are made using hand-cut bamboo strips for the pole and ribs and lint paper coated with tung oil, a natural waterproofing material, for the canopy.

In use for over 1,000 years, the oilpaper umbrella is one of the earliest forms of umbrella in the world.

Both ceremonial and practical, they were used on rainy days, as well as during weddings and religious ceremonies, and are traditionally associated with wishes for swift promotion, happiness and beauty.

Often exquisitely patterned and now more decorative than functional, they are found for sale at tourist sites or used in hotels as decorations.


Wen's oilpaper umbrellas are on display in a public event in Hangzhou. CHINA DAILY

Wen teaches the art of making oilpaper umbrellas at Hangzhou Vocational& Technical College.

"I asked my students what they thought about making Asian Games umbrellas. They told me they liked the look of the sporting venues and mascots the best, so I chose elements such as the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center Stadium, which is called the Big Lotus, the tennis finals hall, which is called the Small Lotus, and the Games' three mascots," he said.

Fuyang venues will also host some of the competitions next year. For example, the shooting, archery and modern pentathlon events will be held at the Fuyang Yinhu Sports Center, which was inspired by Chinese landscape paintings, while rowing and kayaking will take place at the Fuyang Water Sports Center.

"The Asian Games is a prominent event in Asia. I hope to use the opportunity to boost the international popularity of oilpaper umbrellas. I also hope to promote oilpaper umbrella culture during the Games," Wen said.

Production involves 106 individual steps, from selecting and cutting the bamboo, to pasting it onto the paper shade, drying it in the sun and brushing it with oil. The process usually takes about 15 days.

Wen added that the bamboo used should be at least 6 years old and should be soaked for a month to remove sugars to stave off decay.

"We often hold activities to attract young people. For example, we went to Xixi Wetland during the last National Day holiday to display umbrellas. I also displayed oilpaper umbrellas by the West Lake to demonstrate their beauty every afternoon during the holiday," Wen said.

"I have been to Greece before to promote Chinese umbrella culture. They are very popular among overseas Chinese, and I hope to go abroad for more exchanges in the future," he said, expressing his hope of popularizing oilpaper umbrellas all over the world.

In 2012, the Zhejiang Fuyang oilpaper umbrella was listed as an intangible culture heritage, drawing increasing attention to the handicraft.

"The earliest Chinese umbrellas appeared during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). After the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and the invention of paper, the oilpaper umbrella came into being, and then during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it spread to North Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia," Wen said.


One of Wen Shishan's students makes an oilpaper umbrella at Wen's workshop in Fuyang district of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. CHINA DAILY

When nylon and steel frame umbrellas appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, the oilpaper umbrella began to die out, and Fuyang's oilpaper umbrella industry stagnated for nearly 20 years.

In 1989, the Party secretary of Wen's hometown of Jinzhu village approached Wen and asked him to restart the production of oilpaper umbrellas.

Faced with dying craftsmanship and the village's dwindling economy, Wen took up his father's profession and embarked on a project to revive the art.

He has visited numerous masters over the years to hone his umbrella-making skills, and during the process he has created his own style of making, which expanded the crafting process from 70 to 106 steps.

"The Japanese and Thais have also done a good job in the development and innovation of oilpaper umbrellas," Wen said.

"So, as the inheritor of this intangible culture in Zhejiang province, I have a responsibility and obligation to make oilpaper umbrella-making shine again. We need to work with the government to make more efforts, and I hope that one day, the oilpaper umbrella will become a national gift."