Crafty Couple: Disability Sparks a Lifetime of Artistry
Huang Xueyu, 72, lives nearby the Dongjiang River surrounded by a beautiful scene of willows growing around a clear pond, but for an entire life he has scarcely stepped away from this small area. An accident paralyzed his lower limbs after falling out of a tree at the age of 6. Though his setback is blamed for keeping him grounded in a small Chinese town, his talent and determination have sent his craftworks around the world.
Huang’s physical handicap is hard to notice when seeing him weave bamboo baskets in his home in Qishi Town’s Jiangbian Village. With a hacking, crosscut blade in his right hand, Huang, sitting recumbent on his stool, quickly slices a bamboo into threads and removes the knots. He neatly switches to another small knife to plane the surface. With much tenderness and carefulness, Huang and his wife Mo Youmei, 65, also disabled after polio crippled her limbs, have mastered the art of weaving bamboo baskets, a craftwork normally ordered for the bride to carry her dowry.
The couple injects the handicraft with their artistic gifts—not only making the shape exquisite and solid, but also weaving Chinese characters into the lids. A common character found on these lids is double happiness, 囍, but Mo said that two patterns, 金玉满堂 (Treasures fill the home) and 美丽祖国 (beautiful Motherland), require special techniques invented by Huang and he has never seen anybody else weave the patterns for sale in Dongguan’s markets.
At 14, he dropped out of school to apprentice in bamboo weaving under a neighboring craftsman. “I wanted to make a living by weaving, but I had only learned a couple of basic skills from him, with the rest conceived on my own,” he said. Though his master had never taught him to weave Chinese characters, Huang attempted to do it through experimentation, trial and error. From then on, Huang’s life was entwined with his weaving. At first, his physical inability hindered improvement. His drive for perfection nurtured his creative talents and skills, especially in making wedding baskets.
Huang’s craftwork won him popularity far and wide, even a girl’s heart. In 1969, Huang married his wife Mo, a then 21-year-old girl. The courtship gifts that Huang sent included a pair of well-weaved wedding baskets. “It did impress me at the moment when I got it. I was amazed, ”Mo said. Now those baskets, symbols of their 44 years of marriage, are still protected, preserved on the top of the cupboard near her bed.
In Dongguan’s traditional weddings, the baskets, normally including a pair of big ones and a small one, not only serve as the engagement gift or an indispensable ceremonial wedding symbol, but at the heart of it, an important souvenir for celebrating a couple’s marriage. On the traditional wedding, the bride will carry a small basket on her arm, with the other two bearing stuff with auspicious meaning, such as clothes, rice and candy.
The sound of basket in Chinese, Lánzi, is similar to the word for man, Nánzǐ (In Cantonese, the sound is homophonic), and implies the coming of a baby boy. On the third day, after the wedding, the wife will visit her parent’s home, carrying the small basket filled with goodwill.
At one point weaving supported their entire family. Mo spent four years studying the art from her husband, her hands troubling her the whole time. She said, “My husband was very helpful in teaching me to weave, besides I never gave up.” Mo said that at first she went through a hard time learning the skill. Her hands ached after constant weaving. So did her mouth as she used her teeth to stabilize the knife and thread. Finally her persistence won her excellence in craftsmanship. “There was no choice. Weaving was the only way for us to survive.” Mo said that they were too poor to support their kids, a boy and a girl, to finish their junior studies. After their children dropped out, the whole family worked together to weave around 20 pairs a month. Every time when Mo took the baskets to the market, she was the first one to sell out all the products. “A few decades ago, it was only RMB 20 for a pair, but still comparatively a higher price than other weavers.” Mo emphasizes that their craft is well recognized by the customers.
“No one can do like us. The covers we make for the baskets leak no water,” he said. Huang put some water on a cover as proof, and not a drop of water leaked out of it. Huang developed a sophisticated procedure to seal up the cracks—十锤九晒 ( Shí chuí jiǔ shài), which means he will set the cover in the sun nine times, hammering the cover each time with a mallet, to make it tighter and tighter and then one final beating to make it ten times.
Besides the special techniques of weaving some Chinese characters, Huang also dyed the color of the baskets with utmost care, “We are not painting directly on the cover. We dye them by machinery in a garment factory so it won’t fade at all,” Huang said. For the whole process, the most difficult part is slicing the pieces into smaller pieces, “The knife is so sharp that I cannot remember how many times that it injured my hands.” Huang said. Like many other craftsmen, Huang’s hand is callused and his wrists have big joints.
Now the family has weathered through the hardships. Their children grew up and settled in other occupations. “They are not willing to engage in this kind of painstaking work, even I am a little worn from it,” Mo said. Her reluctance grows from hardships in finding satisfactory bamboo. “Now as the wild lands are being increasingly developed, growing bamboo has become so rare. It always takes me a long time to pick bamboo that meets our standards. The age, the shape and the joints can’t be too many,” Mo said. Every time that she appears in the bamboo market, her high standards are unwelcomed by the vendors.
“Now we are old and clumsy. We can only weave a pair in a month, but there are still many people coming for orders. Now we can sell them for at least RMB 1,000,” she said. Mo said that a pair of custom ordered baskets can sell for several thousands of renminbi. “We have even sold our baskets abroad,” Mo said with pride. In 1998, a foreigner bought ten pairs. In 2008, an American woman happened to pass by and caught sight of their craftwork, and the allure from those works prompted her to order four pairs with four different Chinese characters.
Today as this traditional craft, like many in China, faces extinction, the couple worries about their grandchildren’s wedding. “We don’t know what exact day that they will get married, but we have prepared two pairs of wedding baskets in advance,” Huang said. With grandparently love they are well kept in the attic. The craft might vanish in time, but the permanent love conveyed will be everlasting.