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The craftsman Qin Yonglin


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The craftsman Qin Yonglin

良工覃永林


明代周嘉胄在《装潢志》中有言:“不遇良工,宁存故物。”对于古旧字画来说,如若没有技艺精湛的装裱大师,其经久保存便不是件容易的事。位于昆明市华山西路的文古堂创立于清末,是云南为数不多的老字号装裱店之一。覃永林是其第四代传人。他从上世纪开始,坚守着百年老店,秉承祖训,让传统手工装裱从未远去。

 

There¡¯s a saying in the Records of Decoration written by Zhou Jiayou during the Ming Dynasty: ¡°If there¡¯s no good craftsman, there¡¯s no heritage to be maintained.¡± For ancient calligraphy and painting, mounting masters with excellent skills are necessary for long-term maintenance. Wengu Hall, located on Huashan West Road in Kunming, was founded in the late Qing Dynasty(1644-1911). It is one of the very few remaining old and famous mounting stores in Yunnan. Qin Yonglin is a fourth generation inheritor. Since the last century, Qin has been living with this hundred-year-old store and inheriting his ancestors¡¯ traditions, keeping traditional manual mounting skills alive.

 

A Memory of 142 Years

Qin Yonglin calls himself a ¡°mounting craftsman¡± all the time.

Qin¡¯s great grandfather was from Pengzhou of Sichuan Province. To avoid the war, he carried eight sets of inscription planks handed down from his ancestors to Kunming during the reign of  Tongzhi in the Qing Dynasty. He re-established Wengu Hall in Xilang (Wengu Hall was first founded in Chengdu), which is in the southern part of Maixian Street (Huashan West Road). There, he started the business of mounting. It is said the eight sets of inscription planks include authentic works of the greatest calligraphers, including Liu Gongquan and Wang Xizhi. However, they were lost somewhere and have never been found since.

In Wengu Hall, which is an old and famous mounting store with a history of 142 years, Qin Yonglin is a fourth generation inheritor.

His mother Peng Yiquan and aunt Peng Yihua insisted to keep Wengu Hall even in the hardest of times. Qin told the reporter, ¡°Our family shut this store down in the 1960s. At that time, some painting collections were burned up gradually. We didn¡¯t dare to burn them at daytime. All the burning was done secretly at night. ¡±

During the Anti-Japanese War period, the wooden building of Qin¡¯s family was bombed twice by Japanese aircraft.

Before Wengu Hall resumed business, Qin Yonglin worked in the municipal party committee. He did some simple painting mounting work with his mother during his leisure time. ¡°At that time, our relatives and friends, or calligraphers and painters we knew, would send  paintings to us. It was a time when only a few people were in need of mounting, and few stores ran mounting business. But we still had a great workload and kept working late every day,¡± Qin Yonlgin said.

No giving up in hard times

Qin Yonglin re-opened Wengu Hall on Huashan West Road in Kunming. He was 19 years old and the hall was 117 years old at that year.

Although he was familiar with mounting since childhood, Qin Yonglin started to learn the skills by himself after the store was rebuilt. Qin recalled,  ¡°When my great grandfather was alive, at the age of 70 years old or beyond,  he kept me learning with him. He had a very short temper and would scold me hard if I didn¡¯t learn well. There was no beating, but scolding was a must. Although he was old, he was still in good condition. For example, if you want to hold a painting up, he would directly come to push you away and hold it up by himself if he saw you were slow.¡±

During the initial stages, the mounting business was not good. In order to keep the store, Qin Yonglin had a clothes business and even drove a taxi. Recalling the past, Qin teased, ¡°I can still remember when I was a taxi driver, I used to drink water with big coffee cup in hot days. I usually had four full cups and there was no need to go to the washroom as all the water evaporated.¡± One day with high temperatures, the cigarette lighter in Qin¡¯s trouses pocket even exploded on his leg. 

There were almost no customers while facing SARS. Even in this situation, Qin Yonglin spent most of his time mounting while also doing different jobs. He said, ¡°I¡¯ve insisted on it all the way. After all, mounting is the ancestral property of my family. I¡¯m unwilling to give up on it.¡±

A-week-long mounting of a masterpiece

¡°I especially like Chinese calligraphy and paintings. Since my childhood, I began to appreciate paintings and beautiful writing. ¡± Qin¡¯s love for calligraphy and paintings is one of the major reasons why he continues mounting. He laughed at himself that even though he cannot write or paint he can tell the quality. He laughed and said, ¡°I¡¯ve kept saying I will practice calligraphy for over a decade. However, not a single character has been practiced till now. Ink, writing brushes, I¡¯ve bought everything. Still, nothing has been written. I mount paintings and have the chance to appreciate calligraphy every day. Although I have good taste in calligraphy, my writing looks like a kid¡¯s work.¡±

One day, a company brought some pieces of calligraphy written by a calligrapher in Beijing. The company praised one piece a lot. However, Qin Yonglin thought it was just ok. Instead, another piece with ¡°Self-Discipline and Social Commitment¡± on it surprised him. ¡°Same as sword practice, our Chinese writing tends to look like a kid¡¯s work after reaching the top level. The highest state is to remember what you practice by heart, instead of the external form.¡± Qin Yonglin told the reporter that it is hard to practice epigraphy calligraphy. The masters who can reach the level of being unsophisticated usually are older than 80.

He Shaoji, a poet in the late Qing Dynasty, was a master in epigraphy calligraphy and painting. The first famous calligraphy piece mounted by Qin Yonglin was written by He.

 ¡°The piece was in quite bad condition. It was my first time to meet the piece of such a master. I felt excited and nervous.¡± Qin can still remember the scene at that time. ¡°I especially remember that I bought a piece of glass bigger than art paper to mount it. As the art paper was seriously damaged, a piece of glass helped people see the back clearly.¡± The mounting fee was just 1,000 yuan, but cost Qin a week to finish the work.  There is a large-scale private museum called ¡°Hanrong Pavilion¡± on the bank of Dianchi lake in Kunming. The museum cost 60 million yuan and collected more than ten thousand precious art works, among which over 300 pieces of ancient calligraphy and painting were restored and mounted by Qin Yonglin and his family. During his 20-year mounting life, Qin has mounted almost 50 masterpieces by Zheng Banqiao, Tang Ying, Shen Zhou and Xu Beihong.

20 years¡¯ collection of old paper

Around the 1990s, there was an earthquake in Yunnan. Liao Jingwen, wife of Xu Beihong (1895-1953,a famous modern artist in China), donated a piece of Xu¡¯s painting to the Yunnan Civil Administration Department, so as to sell it and establish a primary school in the earthquake hit area. Without mounting, the painting was directly delivered to Kunming and stored in a vault for safety. Related personnel in charge of the painting visited all of the mounting stores in Kunming. However, no one was able to mount a painting.

Then, they found Wengu Hall. Qin Yonglin said sportingly, ¡°They asked me to mount the painting. However, there was one condition: they must be there watching me mounting. I didn¡¯t care so much about it.¡± In order to avoid damage or replacement on Xu¡¯s work, they kept watching Qin Yonglin until he finished the mounting. 

The painting, according to Qin¡¯s memory, was sold for five million yuan at auction.

A piece of calligraphy or painting without mounting cannot be called a complete art work. As the old saying goes, ¡°30% relies on painting, while the other 70% relies on mounting.¡± The importance of high-quality mounting to calligraphy and painting is much more than that of new clothes. Mounting can make calligraphy and painting even better. Mounting must highlight artistic styles. Selection of materials and colors are both very important. Mounting should bring out the best in calligraphy and painting without damaging their beauty.

On the day of the interview, Qin Yonglin¡¯s wife was demounting an old painting (uncovering the core from the original mounting). She had put the old  and yellowed painting on a worktable. She sprayed water on the painting and used her hand to uncover the original mounting little by little. When she found the reporter was curious, Qin pointed at two old paintings posted in a corner on the  wall and said they were in the worst condition when delivered to him. They were basically debris on arrival. Now, if you get closer to the paintings, you can see they are complete. Subtle damage traces can only be found from a really close distance. 

Restoration of damaged calligraphy and paintings is particular about ¡°restoring the old as the old¡±. Silk paper that is similar to the original silk paper must be used. Depth of paper, thickness of silk, or even the fabric of the paper fibers should all be the same.

 ¡°Over twenty years, I¡¯ve collected old paper from various ages. Now, there are several bags of it. I started the collection when the store opened. Although the collection isn¡¯t worth much, it must be done.¡± Qin Yonglin told the reporter.


What makes Qin Yonglin proud the most is he has restored four silk paintings of Miao Jiahui. The paintings were ¡°dirty with drapes, very easy to break¡±. ¡°It took me a whole week to wash the paintings¡±. Qin Yonglin held a magnifying lens in one hand and tweezers in another to connect the fibers one by one. ¡°I didn¡¯t even dare to breathe hard, worrying that a little wind might be able to mess the connected fibers up¡±. One of the four paintings had a damaged half. In order to find the most similar thin silk, Qin Yonglin visited all the mounting stores in Kunming. It took Qin Yonlgin almost half a year to restore the four damaged paintings. By Qin¡¯s work, the paintings regained their glory as masterpieces. Several years ago, Qin Yonglin was named the inheritor of Dian School calligraphy and painting restoring and mounting crafts in Wuhua District of Kunming.

In August 2008, Qin Yonglin submitted a non-material cultural heritage declaration to the cultural center of Wuhua District in Kunming. In 2011, Wengu Hall was listed as one of 25 ¡°Yunnan Old Stores¡± of the first batch assessed and officially published by the Department of Commerce of Yunnan province.

Wengu Hall was hidden under the tree shade of Huashan West Road. It is not a big store, and thus it¡¯s hard to find.

Inheritance of crafts

The mounting market in Kunming is full of machine mounting. However, Qin Yonlgin has always insisted on manual mounting. There are only two machines in his store. One is for sawing wooden sticks and the other is for electric drilling. ¡°I make surface layer pulp all by myself, and the mounting is only done by hand.¡± Different from the ¡°immediate completion¡± of machine mounting, manual mounting has 17 working steps. Burrs can be removed and polishing can be done after five days of stereotyping. According to Qin Yonglin¡¯s introduction, it usually takes a week to manually mount a painting of normal size, however, if it is an emergency situation, machine mounting can finish the work within half an hour.

The famous Ercuan Rubbing Piece in Yunnan was originally mounted in Wengu Hall with rice paper and self-made pine ink rubbing. ¡°Our families took a carriage from the old Wengu Hall to Qujing, and spent more than a month to do the rubbing, day and night,¡± Qin Yonglin recalled.

In the rubbing book market, all the books with the stamp of Wengu Hall, a little calabash, are not cheap. This is because the experienced rubbing and mounting skills of Wengu Hall can make rubbing books even better. Besides, the rubbing books from Wengu Hall have a long history. Qin Yonglin explained,  ¡°many rubbing books are not complete. For example, some folk doctor can make a prescription and ask a patient to rub some stone from the Cuan steles as an ingredient of their medicine. It can cause really serious damage to the Cuan steles. Therefore, the earlier a rubbing book is, the more complete it can be.¡±

As an inheritor of rubbing steles, Qin Yongling seldom has a chance to rub a stele now. It is not only because there are very few steles for rubbing, but also due to the replacement of printing technology. ¡°We can¡¯t say which one is better. It¡¯s the same as we can¡¯t tell whether it¡¯s better to write with a writing brush or type with a computer,¡± Qin Yonglin signed.

In his leisure time, Qin always sits in front of a computer or takes a walk outside. On the day of the interview, he wore a Polo shirt and looked less like the owner of a century-old store. He pointed to a photo of him in a book and said, ¡°Look, this bumpkin is me.¡± His wife remarked, ¡°Glad to hear you know yourself so well.¡±

During our conversation with Qin Yonglin, we surprisingly found that he knows more about fashion. His hobbies share little with mounting. There¡¯s a pair of tall sound boxes opposite to the gate in Wengu Hall. For those who know little about acoustics, they may think the boxes look weird. In fact, they are sound boxes modified by Qin Yonglin himself. He used to listen to Wang Fei and Chen Feiping, and gradually changed his interest in the  sound boxes. Even his car sound was resembled by himself.

Qin Yonglin places many of his calligraphy and painting collections in a cabinet. He only takes them out when there are customers. Several years ago, Qin also opened a gallery close to Wengu Hall. For some reason, it is in another owner¡¯s hands right now.

 ¡°We are already preparing to open another time-honored store, part of it doing mounting and another part selling paintings¡±, Qin Yonglin said.

 


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