Wang Jian (above) and Li Jing have each earned acclaim for their work in crafting traditional fans. Fans that have good craftsmanship and intricate designs are highly sought after by collectors and can cost tens of thousands of yuan.[Photo by Gao Erqiang/ China Daily]
Once used as a status symbol and luxury accessory in China, traditional fans are now making a comeback in the world of antique collection, thanks to a group of craftsmen from Suzhou XU JUNQIAN/BO YIMENG It is the middle of June in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and the temperature is at a stifling 32 C.
Inside his two-story studio, large beads of sweat trickle down Wang Jian's wrinkled forehead. Within this cozy space, dozens of folding fans lie around, some in their unfinished state. But the Suzhou native is not using any of them to get some reprieve from the heat.
Made using paper and bamboo, these fans cost at least 15,000 yuan ($2,244) a piece, about five times the price of a standard air-conditioning unit in China. There is no upper limit to the cost of these delicate handicrafts, each of which takes approximately a month to craft.
Arguably China's most well-known maker of folding fans, Wang thinks that his creations are actually underpriced considering people's average incomes these days. Back during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the time when folding fans peaked in terms of popularity and diversity in China, such creations were considered treasures.
Local fan retailers, tour guides and avid fan collectors have lavished praise on Wang throughout the years. The 51-year-old's creations are so sought after that some even say that it is serendipity, and not money, that gets you one of his fans.
The history of folding fans
According to historical records, it was the Japanese and Koreans who invented the folding fan. The item later found its way to China when it was given as a tribute to the royal family during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) before gaining popularity early in the 15th century. Unlike in the countries of its origin where it was made for everyday use, folding fans in China were seen as a status symbol and as an objet d'art.
Known as a cradle of literary figures and men of letters, Suzhou has unsurprisingly become a hotbed for the production of exquisite folding fans. There are generally three types of fans available in Suzhou－moon-shaped ones made of silk, those crafted using sandalwood and those folding fans that come with a blank paper cover. The last type is meant exclusively for people to paint or write calligraphy on them. As such, it is often referred to as the "literati's fan" among collectors.
"It's one of the few gadgets in China, if not the world, that requires both skillful craftsmanship and skill in painting, calligraphy and literature. It's not a complete folding fan without either one of the two elements," says Wang of the literati version.