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Artistic Lecture: “Design for Traditional Handicrafts“

NOV . 19 2011

Peking University, Nov. 17, 2011: On November 11, the lecture “Design for Traditional Handicrafts” was held in Aesthetics Building, Tsinghua University (THU). Organized by Peking University (PKU) SIFE Club, this lecture was the opening activity of an on-going cooperative project between PKU SIFE and THU School of Art, focusing on the protection and innovation of traditional handicrafts.



PKU SIFE Club had invited five artists from Beijing “Bai Gong Fang”, a workshop for over 100 kinds of handicrafts. Referred to as “living museums”, they specialized in dough modeling, board graphics, glassware, hairy monkeys, fire burnt and painted gourds. In the lecture, the five masters exhibited their works, and shared with the students their experiences and skills, as well as their creativity in innovating handicrafts.


One of the five masters


Chen Nan, vice professor of THU School of Art and one of the designers the “Friendlies” mascots of 2008 Beijing Olympics, delivered the opening speech. He first expressed his gratitude to the five masters of Chinese handicrafts, and hoped the communication between the masters and students of art would help them inspire each other. Chen Nan then argued that the boundary between tradition and modernity is not absolute. Living in the computer age, our dexterity has declined. However, producing artifacts with one’s own hands is a part of human nature. For this reason, traditional handicrafts will never go out of date. 


You Dongtao, master of dough modeling, affirmed this view. In designing a piece of work, he always takes current trends and events into consideration. For example he conceived, The Flight of Chang'e to the Moon , one of the exhibited works in the lecture, upon the launching of China’s first lunar satellite Chang’e. “I always put my heart into my work. Artists can only touch others when they themselves have been touched.,” said You Dongtao, “Artists should not shut themselves off from their surroundings.”


Of the five handicrafts, the “hairy monkeys” were perhaps the most interesting, arousing the students’ curiosity. Made from four kinds of traditional Chinese medicines, the hairy monkeys displayed great vitality with their mini figures and burlesque imitations of human behavior. Xiao Jing,  a fifth generation master of the handicraft, agreed that the university campus could offer inspiring resources for artists. Traditional handicrafts posse a rich cultural significance. “Therefore, to be a master of a traditional handicraft, more than artistic skill is needed. Rich life experiences and a thorough background knowledge are also indispensible.” Xiao Jing observed.


Masterpieces of the lecturers


The lecture was not only about the designing and production of specific handicrafts, but also included a serious discussion on fashion and tradition. The questions raised by the students mainly concerned the conflict between traditional aesthetics and modern fashion. To these questions, Zhang Xinchao, vice-general manager of Beijing Bai-Gong-Fang, gave thoughtful answers. “Nowadays practical skills and artistic skills are developing separately without much interaction. What Bai-Gong-Fang tries to do is create a platform for dialogue between tradition and fashion, practical stills and artistic skills.” he stated. In this commercial society, the only sustainable approach to promoting the traditional is to infuse its design and production with modern aesthetics, otherwise it is easily marginalized. “It is noteworthy that the biggest challenge facing the transmission of traditional handicrafts is how to combine it with a humanistic spirit,” Zhang Xinchao shared Xiao Jing’s belief in the rich cultural significance of traditional handicrafts.


The students proposed many innovative ideas for the forms and content of artistic works. For example, as most of the exhibited works of You Dongtao followed the coloring and style of traditional New Year pictures, one student suggested that more modern elements be added into dough modeling to help it appeal to young people. Master You heartily accepted this suggestion, as he himself also felt it necessary to keep up with the times.


As the manifestation of spiritual civilization, handicrafts are certainly supposed to advance with the times. Modern aesthetics does not reject technological development, neither do traditional handicraft artists. New technology can instill new energy into tradition. As long as the design holds the cultural essence, its forms can well be diverse and flexible.


Reported by: Yan Binghan

Edited by: Arthars