At the age of 13, Cao Wentao followed his family to visit the Forbidden City. The majestic and ancient architecture stunned the teenager, and aroused his love and longing for the ancient buildings. At that time, Cao Wentao did not know that the Forbidden City was a “collective show” by craftsmen from his hometown of Xiangshan in Suzhou.
“All Jiangnan’s excellent woodworkers and craftsmen come from Xiangshan”. In 1417, Zhu Di, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, moved the capital to Beijing. The craftsmen from Xiangshan, Suzhou, headed by Kuai Xiang, went north in advance to participate in the construction of the imperial palace. Kuai Xiang became the “Carpenter’s head” of the Ming Dynasty. Emperor Yongle called it “Kuai Luban”. As a result, the world-famous “Xiangshan School” evolved. For thousands of years, from building walls and tiles to building blocks and brick carvings, mountains and rivers, the “Xiangshan School” craftsmen have created countless masterpieces with their hands. However, with the change of the times, the traditional construction techniques of the “Xiangshan School” are also facing the dilemma of lack of successors.
In April of this year, Suzhou Garden Development Co.,Ltd. launched the “Xiangshan Talent Program”. Many post-90s college graduates, such as Cao Wentao and Li Jiayin, have become the new generation of “Xiangshan School”, marked their career as “Xiangshan School”. It will be a lifelong career for these apprentices to build ancient buildings, containing the unique intangible cultural treasures of generations, which will be continued and inherited by them.
Sow the seeds of hope
Sun xiaoqing, a master of tile, began to learn art at the age of 17. For 38 years, traditional architecture has become his lifelong love. Now he is over 50 years old, he thinks that he is still full of energy. However, every time he sees the other craftsmen with whitening hair are still on the roof, he feels sad and is more aware of the urgency of the inheritance of skills.
“Xiangshan ancient architecture is a profound skill. It takes more effort to bring an apprentice than a graduate student. In addition to basic theory and more practical operation, it needs at least three years to learn skills and three years to be an assistant. Completing the study is difficult, it’s harder to be a master. If there were no more young people to join the team, the world-famous traditional crafts and national culture will be lost. “Six months ago, the implementation of the “Xiangshan Talent Plan” gave Sun Xiaoqing hope. a data clerk of Xiangshan Ancient Construction Company (an enterprise under the Suzhou Garden Group), found Sun Xiaoqing and hoped to learn Xiangshan tile work from him.
The “School” of “Xiangshan School” is a large-scale craft group and a comprehensive composition of multiple types of fine work. Cao Wentao chose the “tile work” which is the head of “the eight major works” of Xiangshan School, because the most intuitive appearance of the ancient buildings is the roof ridge, the shape of the roof ridge determines the momentum of the building, these are from the tile work, he was fascinated.
As an undergraduate, the choice to become a “bricklayer” and start from scratch, this is not very understandable to outsiders. But Cao Wentao said he was interested in traditional crafts since he was young, and after graduation, he devoted himself to ancient architecture related work. “Not only are the gardens and ancient buildings in Suzhou, but also many well-known ancient and famous places at home and abroad, such as the American Mingxuan, the UNESCO Yi Garden, Chongqing Lishui Wind and Rain Covered Bridge, and Shanghai Yuyuan Garden. The famous ancient buildings, such as the Potala Palace and the Forbidden City, are also maintained and repaired by the Xiangshan team. I especially want to be one of them.” Cao Wentao visited Sun Xiaoqing four times, which made Sun Xiaoqing feel the sincerity of the young man. After understanding his parents’ strong support, Sun Xiaoqing agreed to his request.
“After all, it takes a long time to study and the return is slow. Young people are reluctant to learn, and some give up at halfway. Cao Wentao graduated from Nanjing Forestry University, he has theoretical knowledge and is willing to concentrate on learning. I will teach him well with all my heart,” Sun Xiaoqing said.
On April 18 of this year, the Suzhou Garden Group organized a ceremony for the “Xiangshan School” traditional building construction skills inheritance. 28 young apprentices stood in a row to pay tribute to 10 Xiangshan School masters including Lu Yaozu, Xue Linggen, and Zhong Jinde.
“The inheritance and protection of Xiangshan School’s traditional architectural skills must attract the attention of the whole society. Now, many ancient constructions are not original traditional crafts, and the things they make are beginning to look different.” Lu Yaozu, the world-class inheritor of Xiangshan School’s traditional construction skills, said with emotion, “Suzhou Garden Group led the effort with great merit. As a retired employee of the group, I feel honored and fulfilled to participate in this program.”
Build a pyramid of talent
Among the 28 students in the first batch of “Xiangshan Talent Program”, 10 students are already famous masters of JiangSu province or Suzhou city. At the ceremony, they paid tribute to Lu Yaozu, Xue Linggen, Zhong Jinde and other national masters, and will walk towards the hall of masters.
“Inheritance of intangible cultural heritage attaches great importance to the relationship between teachers and students,” said Shen Weimin, Secretary of the Party committee and chairman of Suzhou garden group. “Our group is the main body of inheritance of Xiangshan School. We are speeding up the cultivation of pyramid shaped talent echelon, realizing the living inheritance of traditional construction skills, ensuring that traditional skills have market and have influence, so as to make the way of inheritance of intangible cultural heritage go more and more wide.”
In addition to the three national masters, Suzhou Garden Group also requires Zhang Xiping, Sun Xiaoqing, Gu Shuigen, Tang Pangen，the in-service masters to bring apprentices and teach skills. Li jia-yin is the youngest of the apprentices in the ceremony. He is only 21 years old. Last year, he stayed with Suzhou Landscape Architecture Group after graduating from the ancient construction class, which was co-founded by Suzhou Landscape Architecture Group and Suzhou Vocational and Technical School Of Tourism And Finance. This time，he heard about the “Xiangshan Talent Program”, he signed up for it as soon as possible and became the apprentice of Tang Pangen, the master of wood.
After the establishment of the mentoring relationship, efforts should be made in the inheritance. The group has arranged special studios and training bases for the masters, and tailor-made courses for the apprentices according to the types of work and the characteristics of the apprentices. Sun Xiaoqing, who takes up management position in the company, has not formally accepted an apprenticeship for 14 years. This year, he not only have his apprentices, but also instructe him on the job site almost every day.
Hard is normal, but if the income is low, some young students may not be able to stick with it. In order to encourage young people to devote themselves to learning, in addition to the basic salary, the Group gives each student an additional 30,000 yuan learning allowance, if the students obtain the technician or senior technician certificate, according to the actual contribution，they can enjoy the treatment of the middle level and senior executives, these let the young people on the road of skills feel “have the goal”.
According to the Group’s plan, we will strive to cultivate a team of Xiangshan craftsmen and a team of Xiangshan designers who are leading in the industry within five years, including 10 national masters, 20 provincial masters and 30 municipal masters.
“As the only state-owned enterprise in the landscape industry in suzhou, we have the responsibility, determination and ability to truly cultivate a team of young and knowledgeable craftsmen in the new era for Xiangshan School’s skills. Although this is a big investment, long cycle, slow results, but this is not only the internal requirements of high-quality development of enterprises, but also the concentrated embodiment of cultural confidence, technological confidence,” Shen Weimin said.
The flame of inheritance
After the ceremony, the apprentices’ life quietly changed. They used to use computers every day, but now become a variety of traditional tools. Cao Wentao is glad that he catches up with the good times and receives unreserved teaching from Master Sun Xiaoqing.
This summer, a Qing Dynasty building in the ancient city of Suzhou started construction and repair. Cao Wentao followed Sun Xiaoqing on the roof tiling for the first time. As soon as he climbed the roof, Cao Wentao trembled to maintain his balance. Sun Xiaoqing helped him put a tile on the soles of his feet and patiently taught him the trick: “Take your body’s center of gravity forward, you will be easier to stand, and your left foot will be forward for your right hand operation.” The teacher’s charm was gradually released in the hand-in-hand teaching. He laid out the tools and materials one by one, and then demonstrated the laying of the roof tiles compactly and neatly. Cao Wentao watched as Master put his hands up and down between words and deeds, and decades of experience spread on this roof.
Intangible cultural heritage, inherits not only the craft, but also the feelings and persistence. Once, Sun Xiaoqing stood on the ground and looked up after laying the roof, and found that there was a tile on the roof ridge that seemed to be broken. In the midday sun he climbed back to the roof, replaced it immediately after confirmation, and re-laid the whole row of tiles. Although the heat was still around Cao Wentao, he suddenly felt cool and calm in his heart. Regardless of learning skills or being a person, it is important to be responsible and patient. There are precious qualities in plain conduct. “In fact, a piece of tile does not affect the overall situation, but master’s meticulousness and rigorousness, let me feel the reason for his success.”
Like other apprentices, Li Jiayin cherishes the hard-won learning opportunity. He is an apprentice to Tang Pangen who is a master of carpenter, but at the construction site, other older workers also become his teachers. “Learning with the masters every day, repair a partition board today, do a flower window tomorrow, the system of knowledge will established eventually.”
Now, the post-80s and post-90s generation gradually add more “fresh blood” to the Xiangshan School, which has a history of more than 600 years, and the intergenerational inheritance system has begun to take shape. The new generation of craftsmen are distributed in gardens and ancient construction sites around the country and world. In the new era of traditional cultural innovation, Xiangshan School traditional architecture is conquering the world’s aesthetics with unique charm and becoming a beautiful scenery to decorate the beautiful life.
Author: Su Yuan