Suzhou was once such a bustling hub of traditional arts that the guild had to institute a quota system forbidding artisans from taking on too many apprentices lest they generate a monopoly. Times are now very different and such businesses often have trouble recruiting young people willing to learn traditional crafts or are even in a sense reluctant to do so knowing that their industry is in decline and those entering it now may never be able to support themselves fully on an artisan’s earnings alone. 

Sun Zengtian’s documentary The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, tiān gōng sū zuō) is however a little more hopeful than some of its subjects examining the still thriving local culture along with some of the efforts and perhaps compromises of those trying to ensure the traditional arts survive. A lantern maker laments that his industry has become so straitened that his small team often have to work to incredibly tight schedules with little time for rest yet he refuses to compromise on quality and is determined not to damage his hard-won reputation as a master of the art. The demand may be more limited than it might have been in the past but is still very much there as the crowds of visitors at a local festival marvel at the spectacle of light illuminating the darkness through the beautiful lantern designs. In any case, he takes pride in showing his daughter some of his work safely installed in a local museum while giving talks in local schools to ensure the next generation is at least familiar with the art of lantern making.

Meanwhile, another man’s business carving intricate designs into olive stones continues to grow while he takes on pupils to pass on his knowledge. Others meticulously craft traditional furniture and aim to reintroduce an element of serenity through simplicity in an increasingly chaotic modern society. A chair can be whipped up in as little as eight minutes by a skilled carpenter, but the wood requires two years of seasoning and a seasoned craftsman to understand the process. Many believe that only a handmade piece can perfectly match the spirituality of the natural materials rather than the soulless mass produced furniture of a similar design. 

For the carpenters, their craft is almost a ritual and for that reason largely unchangeable save for the use of modern sandpaper in place of the leaves their ancestors may have used with a kind of tenderness to protect the wood. Yet for the craft itself may be less important that the end result such as it is for a local architect who sometimes butts heads with his father trying to explain that things cannot always be done like the old days given modern building and employment regulations. Their problem is that many of the craftsmen are now elderly and few are keen to learn their skills while the veterans often find it difficult to follow the plans constructed by young and inexperienced architects sometimes choosing to disregard them in favour of their well honed professional judgement. Yet the young architect feels compromise is the way to go, building traditionally but with the assistance of modern technology while preserving the aesthetic charm of traditional buildings. 

Others look to the international market drawing inspiration from global fashion trends and making innovations of their own such as an embroidery master who has patented her own style and firmly believes her craft to be an art rather than a simple means to support oneself as it had been for her mother and grandmother. She worries about taking on apprentices knowing that there is little scope for them to earn a decent living through handmade embroidery, but there is a poignant moment as she discusses options with a young woman wanting to learn as she sews the needle and the potential apprentice pulls it through. Meanwhile, a pair of female visitors from overseas ask how they might be able to learn traditional weaving. The woman running the store just laughs while the narrator explains that it’s easy to learn but difficult to master and many give up halfway. She is trying to modernise by building an online platform for practitioners in her field but finds it difficult to get the older artists on board. In any case, it seems that the traditional arts are very much alive in Suzhou, not fossilised or stuck in the past but constantly evolving as they fight for their survival along with the pleasures of a simpler existence in a fast moving culture. 


The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (English subtitles)

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