The Master Lai Qingguo
The Master Lai Qingguo
By Li Xilin Photographs by Meng Zhigang and the interviewees
As one of the two national art and craft masters in Yunnan today, Lai Qingguo is called the Master by the local people. Ever since the 1980s, Lai has been studying and creating tin and metal artworks, and has devoted himself to the inheritance and promotion of tin culture and traditional tin craft. We met this “Tin Master” in “Gejiu Tin Culture Creative Industry Park”, an industrial park built by himself. Dressed in a traditional Chinese suit, he was bald with long and white whiskers on his face. He was wearing a pair of glasses, with square lenses that seemed to be hung on the frame. He is a person of noble aspiration in Gejiu City, Honghe Hani and Yi Autonmous Prefecture Yunnan Province.
“Tin complex” of Gejiu people
Located in Datun Town, Gejiu City, Honghe Gejiu Tin Culture Creative Industry Park, consisting of Gejiu Tin craft ware zone, bronze handiwork zone and Chinese craftsman studio, is an essential part of Honghe Industrial Park. It was drizzling when we visited the park, and the buildings and designs in the Park looked exceptionally clean in the rainy weather. The European-style buildings have attracted young people to shoot wedding pictures here and the craftsmen working in the Tin-making workshops are also drawing visitors from various places.
We met Lai in a quiet place he called “Danlu”, and had a tea-sipping chat.
Tin ores abound in Yunnan where tin-mining can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty(25—220). As one of the regions with the richest deposit and highest production of tin in China, Gejiu started a tradition of tinwork making since the Qing Dynasty(1644—1921), and tin craftsmen from all over the country gathered in Gejiu which helps to preserve this traditional craft here.
Lai, a Gejiu native, developed an interest in painting when he was in Yunxi Third Primary School. “I love arts when I was young. And I aspired to be a painter. After high school, I wanted to learn painting but my family couldn’t afford it . When I was recruited by the local enterprise bureau, I picked up tin-processing and learned the techniques from skilled masters in the local Arts and Craft Society, Lai told us.
The tin industry once was revitalized in the 1970s. A group of skilled old-school tin craftsmen gathered and established the Art and Craft Society dedicated to tin ware production. And Lai became fascinated by the tin crafting techniques after learning from Mr. Li Zongze, the renowned Chinese tin-making master, and Mr. Xie Yugong, a famous painter.
Lai began to realize in his practice of tin-crafting that he was not quite ready for his aspiration. “I wanted to do something different but felt a lack of potential.” Lai told us. He decided to seek further education in Yunnan Arts University when it happened to open an advanced class on painting. In 1984, Lai shifted to arts and crafts major immediately when the program was offered in Yunnan Arts University.
Lai didn’t engage himself in the practice of making tin wares after graduation. Instead, he became a teacher of arts and crafts. On the 30th anniversary of the founding of Honghe prefecture, Lai was selected to participate in the a survey of the folk culture in the Prefecture. He visited villages and counties with his team members, covering every inch of Honghe Prefecture, obtaining insight into diversified ethnic cultures.
A “Spotted Tin” enthusiast
“What a beautiful ware! It’s amazing that such a valuable artwork can be made from the metal of tin.” Lai exclaimed on the first sight of “Spotted Tin”.
Researched and developed by Kunming Precious Metal Research Institute, “Spotted Tin”, a special technique, became known to the public in the late 1980s. It is a physical transformation occurred on the surface of tin of high purity. During the processing, the crystals of tin get damaged. New crystals are formed on the surface after re-cystallization and spotting treatment. Black, white and grey spots, in varied brightness and layers, become visible on the surface, giving the otherwise monotonous tin ware elegant and classic colors.
“Spotted Tin demonstrates a substantial improvement of the traditional tin-making craft. Spotted Tin is formed by complex physical and chemical process instead of traditional techniques. It is superior to traditional techniques from both aesthetic and practical perspectives.” Lai told us. Amazed by this technique, he purchased the patented technology at a high price and later co-funded Gejiu Spotted Tin Craft Factory with friends.
“We have abundant resources and diversified ethnic cultures admired by many people in other places. What we lack is inheritance and innovation.” Lai said.
To promote and popularize “Spotted Tin”, Lai began to display some trial products on the streets of Gejiu based on intellectual property. Whenever Lai went on a business trip, he would visit local antique markets and bring home with tin artworks with traditional features. After careful research into these products, Lai realized that “it’s not possible to make path-breaking innovation on tin artworks and make tin wares both as a collectible and for practical use without harmoniously combining traditional Chinese culture with local Yunnan ethnic cultures.” As a result of continuous effort of Lai and his colleagues, Gejiu Spotted Tin Technique Art Company made Spotted Tin marketable.
But in the 1990s, tin artworks from Malaysia and other countries flooded into domestic market. The exquisite tin craftworks from abroad in quantities totally dwarfed their Gejiu counterparts which were made in small quantity with coarse casting molds. “Our company had a debt of RMB one million yuan. Normally, a company is classified as a science and technology company when its R&D fund accounts for 3% of the total capital. Our investment was far more than that. We even had to borrow money to pay for staff’s salaries during the hardest time.” Lai recalled and added, “We didn’t know which equipment and tools were suitable for processing and how to process since there were no techniques or equipment available and no example to follow.” Therefore, Lai and his team visited Shanghai, Dongguan and Malaysia for learning purpose.
Beauty of tin artworks
In the tin artworks exhibition hall of Gejiu Tin Culture Creative Park, an epitome of decades of Lai’s painstaking effort, one can see a variety of traditional tin artworks Lai has collected over the years in the display cases: tin candlestick of the Ming and the Qing Dynasties, tableware and tea sets in the Republic of China (1912-1949 ) as well as many other ornaments and furnishings. And the typical works and products of Lai and Gejiu Spotted Tin Art and Craft Company are the highlights in the hall, including traditional standard tin cans hailed as “silver-white and mirror-like bright craftworks”, self-developed micro-relief tin artworks, sand-blasted tin artworks, and spotted tin artworks and other products designed especially for major events and distinguished guests. As we were walking around, some businessmen arrived for inquiries and purchases.
“We have established this open park based on the idea of co-creativity where different cultures meet and mix in harmony. People appreciate the beauty of tin artworks, and also sense the ‘warmth’ of culture.” Lai believed that although traditional Yunnan ethnic crafts are impressive for their long history and native culture, it still needs to be improved with modern art design to win over more customers. Over the years, Lai led his technical group to conquer the techniques for Spotted Tin processing , refined mould relief cold pressing, and combination of tin with multi-materials with tin-making technique. They made breakthroughs in century-old stagnant traditional tin techniques in China and ushers in a new age for this old technique in terms of technology and art expression.
The workshops of Tin Culture Creative Park are open to the public, and the entire tin-processing procedures are displayed here. Workers polish the artworks with due care while pieces of small tin products are being collected in the warehouse. In the nearby workshops, drawings are hanging on the wall with handiwork wares scattering on the working tables. Some teenagers, seemingly college students, are taking photos of the tin artworks. As Lai came over, he noticed a student putting a green plant into a tin vessel. “Let me find you a better one,” said Lai, while walking out of the door. He soon returned with a few flowers and grasses and instructed the student to make new modeling for the vessel.
Almost everyone we met in Gejiu referred to Lai as the “Master” or “Master Lai”, which is as significant as the fame of tin-making technique itself in Gejiu. “Gejiu is developing based on tin culture and tin-making techniques. And our Spotted Tin industry is an inheritance and innovation of traditional intangible cultural heritage, a major improvement of the traditional techniques. In addition to inheriting and protecting tin-making techniques, our Tin Culture Creative Industry Park is also a base for innovative R&D, which allows traditional techniques to achieve industrialized development. What else do we have other than tin-making techniques in Gejiu’s cultural industry?” said Lai. “Only a few of our excellent techniques are well-preserved and developed. They are in fact not only techniques but the heritage of ethnic cultures. We seek to promote and develop traditional techniques by combining local physical resources with ethnic cultures. This is also my responsibility as a craftsman,” he added.