District works to preserve skills of city's last remaining blacksmiths

Aug 7, 2018

Fengxian District government plans to help preserve the traditional skills of its senior blacksmiths who can hardly find apprentice due to tiny profit from the gloomy handicraft business.

The blacksmiths, being over 50 years old, in the city's outskirt towns in Fengxian are dubbed the "last blacksmiths of Shanghai."

The district's intangible cultural heritage office will organize experts to evaluate whether the traditional blacksmithing skill in Fengxian can be listed and under protection status, the district government said yesterday (Monday).

Once listed as an "intangible cultural heritage" skill, those blacksmiths, or cultural heritage inheritors can receive subsidies to open training centers to better protect and promote the skills.

"Even if the blacksmithing, which was a common business to make a living, could not be listed, the authority will still help to preserve the traditional skill and culture," said an official with the office.

The traditional blacksmithing work involves numerous times of hammering and tempering which makes the iron products strong but flexible.

A handmade iron kitchen knife and cooking pot were once a necessities to every Chinese household several decades ago, but the traditional products were later replaced by mass produced stainless steel kitchen tools from assembly lines.

The industry remained popular in agricultural towns like those in Fengxian as farmers need durable and efficient iron tools, but the profit was too tiny to woo the younger generation to learn the arduous skill.

"Every candidate would firstly ask how much they can earn per month and leave after being told the business can barely make the ends meet nowadays," said Fang Ruihua, a renowned blacksmith in Tairi Community of Jinhui Town in Fengxian.

His once popular blacksmith workshop will be demolished soon under the township government's ongoing revamping campaign.

As part of the protective measures, the neighborhood committee has promised to find a new site to for him continue his business, but Fang concerns more about how to pass on his traditional skills.

The 56-year-old craftsman said he had become the youngest blacksmith in the town because no younger generation was willing to learn the skill.

Fang inherited the skills from his father and grandfather. He began swinging the hammer when he was 12 years ago and open the workshop two decades ago.

His workshop covering about 60-square-meters once produced hoes, sickles and other agricultural tools for almost every household, but people seldom use these tools nowadays under the rapid urbanization even in the rural towns.

Most of his customers today come to ask for a handmade kitchen knife. Some enthusiasts drive afar from downtown or northern districts for Fang's reputation.

When make a kitchen knife, Fang heat an iron brick in a stove with temperature being over 1,000 degrees Celsius until the metal becomes soft enough to be shaped. Fang now uses an electric air hammer to replace the hand tools to save effort.

With the help the automatic hammer, he can make about 10 knives a day. Each was sold at about 50 yuan (US$7.3).

A customer surnamed Xu from northern Baoshan District said he bought a kitchen knife from Fang's father two decades ago and it is as sharp as a new one. He came to purchase another knife for his son who will get married soon.

Fang said he had been accustomed to the scorching temperature and hardships in the workshop, but few young people are willing to follow this path. His arms are covered with scars burnt by sparks.

The township government and neighborhood committee will help the senior blacksmith to find a suitable apprentice, according to the Fengxian government.

The recruitment notice will be stuck on the notice board across the town as well as publicized through the official Wechat account of the town and district governments.

The Huqiao neighborhood committee of Zhelin Town, for instance, which is famous for the rolling lamp, a listed city-level cultural heritage dating back to over 700 years ago, has launched a campaign to help Zhu Atao, another senior blacksmith in Fengxian to find a apprentice.

His wishes have been widely publicized through the "Dream Market," which was initiated in 2016 by the Fengxian government, to encourage individuals, social organizations and enterprises to offer their help and support.

The 71-year-old Zhu made qualification quite simple: anyone who can bear hardships and be interested to blacksmithing, after his two sons have refused to take over the family business.

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