The air and light had a special quality that filled your inner core. The Gaoligong mountains created a protective spine around the area. Bamboo, mulberry and pine trees covered the ground and the remaining land was cultivated. The morning mist had risen from the lower terraces as we stepped foot in a unique place in the county of Tengchong, almost touching distance to Myanmar.
This had been our marker in China. We had read an article on an architectural award winning building that was in the village of Xinzhuang (30 min walk from Jietou town) which had been commissioned (Trace Architects, Beijing) to create a handicraft paper museum. The numerous online photographs of the building where inviting and had a warmth to them, the materials used seemed to echo the local environment. We had looked forward to the visit for a long time and it has taken sometime to reach here.
We had arrived in Dali (24.11.17) but due to 2 factors we decided to make our way to the museum by public transport (1. We would had to backtrack to Dali & 2. My health was still bad due to the virus/bacteria I had over 2 weeks ago). 2 buses and a short lift we arrived (400km from Dali). Kankan Lui and her team greeted us at the museum. We had been previously warned that both, the museum building and the village road were under repairs, we weren’t sure what to expect. Glossy magazines and awards can give many expectations than can often not be met.
The building was in a upside down state and we were surprised to see the museum team still working amongst the dust, rubble and noise. Kankan gave us a tour of the site and explained the museums purpose, the buildings attraction and it’s few down points. 5+ years since the building was complete and some repairs were now taking place due to materials and design not withstanding the rainy season! The interior optimised the narrative of paper by using this to line the walls. (There is a link at the end of the blog with detailed design, construction and review information).
“Why has the museum been built here?”, was one burning question. Within a short time and tour of the village everything fitted like a glove. Papermaking was everywhere! 12 families out of approximately 50 in the village were involved in papermaking. We were besides ourselves with excitement and I think this showed. Kankan guided us to the main papermakers. One of them had the whole family involved in the production of paper, which is their main source of income and profession, were all the others families used it as a supplement to agriculture. What struck us with joy was that the papermakers we saw were all women.
We shared a fabulous lunch of fresh vegetarian dishes with the museum team in the cook’s house. The team returned to their work and Barbara and I went in search of the other 10 papermakers. Paper was left drying outside on the floor, or you would get glimpses of bark, pulp buckets, or stone baths in the entrances of these homes. Poking your head into a courtyard to see any action would normally prompt the papermaker to invite you in and sit to watch them. Women were the master craft papermakers here and this was a truly inspiring thing to witness. Some papermakers were not working as it was market day however, we must have seen 5-6 different workshops in operation.
The craftswoman who worked for the guesthouse/papermaker where we were staying was a young woman and had been making paper for 14 years already and she normally makes approx 1200 sheets of paper a day. Her technique was mesmerising and her skills were seamless. If she was dissatisfied with a sheet she’d place it back into the vat and form another.
It’s not a romantic craft, hands are in cold water all day and the body is bent over and your upper body is doing repetitive movements for up 10hours a day. “So why are women the papermakers”, we asked? Several factors; the men may be working in the fields or elsewhere making other income. It’s clear to see that women are used as the papermaking labour force as well as doing many other jobs. The art, craft and recipes have been kept in the families and passed down to generations for the past 500 years within the village. Incredible to witness the history of papermaking lasting the time and very little had changed except for a few introductions of more modern tools (Hollander beater and drying systems in some cases).
Our evening was shared with more good food but this time we ate in the paper shop/store room which was very fitting. We retired to the guesthouse and sat around the fire and conversed with the mother in law who never stopped working. She was either making vegetable pickle or doing a papermaking task. Paper and pulp was running through her veins.
The next morning we returned to the paperworkshop where the young woman had already made approx 100 sheets. A fire in a metal bowl sat behind her, warming her back and thankfully she was wearing rubber gloves to protect from the cold morning water temperature.
Soon 6 of us were sat around the table and fire eating a rich and delicious breakfast, which was a substantial meal as this family had serious work to do. We laughed, smiled and shared a meal with this warm hearted and hard working family of papermakers. Language was no major hurdle as we shared a common respect and warmth (plus we had google translator). These women rocked!
The whole experience has surpassed our expectations. We now see the museum (in what ever state of repair it is in) as the ‘mother ship’ of the village. It may look like an outsider at first with its contemporary design but it is the centre that draws in visitors, shares, educates and hopefully preserves this incredible and unique history of paper-making that is very much alive and breathing today in Yunnan, China. Our visit to the museum and village would not have been as rewarding without the museum manager, Kankan Lui who’s passion and communication enabled us to observe this creative village – thank you.
As we walked out of the village, we both felt that we would be back one day.
Details on papermaking process observed via short clip:
Materials: Mulberry bark (locally called ‘gulpy’, cost 10/11RMB per kilo, sourced locally and from nearby villages), Bamboo mat/mesh / Wooden frame / Wooden batons / Stone vat/bath.
Museum (bilingual coming soon): http://www.papermuseum.cn