The Heshui White Paper Workshop Ensemble: The Art of Paper Making

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The Heshui White Paper Workshop Ensemble: The Art of Paper Making
Processed paper mulberry tree bark goes to flattening process.

GUIZHOU.- In an age where smart phones and laptops have practically replaced the daily use of handwriting, the process of traditional paper making – still being practiced in some parts of the world – is a remarkable creation. One such facility is The Heshui White Paper Workshop Ensemble, situated at the foot to the famous Fanjing Mountain and along the banks of the Yinjiang River in the province of Guizhou, China. Crafts such as this belong to a country’s intangible heritage and also includes music, language & dialect, crafts, theatre and cuisine.

The Heshui White Paper Workshop Ensemble is a testimony to the socio-economic development of the Guizhou region spanning centuries, producing high-quality paper that has been popular amongst artists and calligraphers.

Historical documentation suggests that residents of nearby Xingwang village began making paper during Mid Ming Dynasty (AD1488-1505) by using the local Mulberry tree bark as the raw material and building the facilities - including workshops, water mills, and kilns - with assorted river rocks along the river.

The ancient paper making skill invented by Cai Lun and was brought to the region by the immigrants from Jiangxi Province where it became widely popular and established. According to legend, the Cai families that still inhabit Xingwang Village in Heshui Town are descendants of Cai Lun and have always been professional paper makers.

The Heshui White Paper Workshop Ensemble is a classic example of traditional handmade paper workshop; a “living fossil” of ancient Chinese paper making technique that provides rare physical evidence towards studying the traditional Chinese paper making technique and its dissemination and evolution.

The traditional papermaking craft is still being practiced by the villagers and workshop structures include 36 huts, 11 kilns, 3 watermills, 24 water-powered stone hammers, 83 stone jars and large amount of traditional paper making tools.

In 2011, the Guizhou Provincial Party Committee, having realized the intrinsic linkage between culture and development, adopted the paper - “Promotion of Ethnic Culture Development and Prosperity” - which includes a province-wide “One Hundred Village Program” that aims at piloting a rural development model based on rational utilization of village-based cultural heritage and local ecological resources.

The Heshui ancient paper making technique has been submitted to qualify for national intangible heritage and has been well documented. The local municipality took great care to preserve and promote the traditional trade and listed the workshop facility as a protected cultural heritage site where a protection zone has already been established.

The Guizhou Administration of Cultural Heritage (GACH) is planning to build a paper museum in Heshui, donated and designed by Shanghai Tongji University. The museum will not only serve to display traditional paper making techniques from around Guizhou, but also serve as a research and development facility for traditional handmade paper.

Despite the changes they had to endure, the local residents managed to preserve this trade for centuries, developing a self-sustainable agricultural-based economic model - a classic example of its kind that served rural communities for hundreds of years, yet rare in the face of rapid development today.

Along with Global Heritage Fund, the preservation of traditional arts & crafts to drive community development will be pursued in each village with local partner You-Cheng, The China Social Entrepreneur Foundation. Intangible heritage such as traditional song and dance will be promoted through education and training programs; crafts such as ancient papermaking and traditional agricultural practices will be supported through product innovation, design and business development training.

GACH will be responsible for managing and implementing the conservation and development project. Technical support will be provided by some of the best research and academic institutions in China, including Peking University and Shanghai Tongji University.

The Tongren Municipality is developing a tourist circuit focusing around Fanjing Mountain and the Heshui paper making workshops will be included as one of the main attractions on this tourist circuit for domestic and international visitors.

The conservation of these workshops and the surrounding cultural and natural environments will raise public awareness on cultural heritage conservation at a time when changing lifestyles are not only altering the face of historic vernacular landscapes but also the use of local dialects and the practice of traditional crafts among young generations.

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