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More young people like Li Jingyi (pictured) are turning to making traditional Chinese handicrafts and clothing for a living and promoting their country’s culture on social media to a global audience. Photo: Li Jingyi

From silk fan painter to hanfu clothes designer, artisan youth in China discover they can make a career promoting traditional culture

  • A growing number of young people in China are making traditional Chinese artworks, handicrafts and fashion items for a living and posting about it online
  • One makes hand-painted fans and hairpins, another uploaded a video of himself making a replica of a 3,000-year-old gold mask. It racked up over 11 million views

Li Jingyi never imagined, when he began selling hand-painted paper fans from a street stall two years ago, that they would be so popular – or that he would become a full-time handicrafts maker as a result.

“I painted the fans on the spot, attracting onlookers,” Li recalls of the stall in Dali, in China’s Yunnan province. Many visitors told him they “love traditional Chinese culture” and bought them as souvenirs.

Encouraged by the overwhelming response, the 24-year-old university graduate from Hebei province in northern China now makes Chinese silk fans and hairpins as a full-time endeavour.

Li is among a growing number of young people in China who make traditional artwork, handicrafts and fashion items for a living. They create videos of the process and post them on social media, earning tens of thousands of views for each upload.

Li now makes Chinese silk fans and hairpins as a full-time endeavour. Photo: Li Jingyi

Li, who lives in Dali, in southwest China, says he visits antique markets to buy raw materials such as jade and agate from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1912) dynasties in Chinese history.

“Having been passed down through many generations, they are usually damaged or fragmented,” he says. “But their look makes them ideal for making hairpins. I have also bought many books on the jewellery collections of imperial wives.

Li’s favourite work is a flower hairpin with a small butterfly made up of tiny pearls. Photo: Li Jingyi

“For my hand-painted fans, I studied drawing techniques from traditional Chinese paintings. I will enrol in formal classes in the future to learn more … skills.”

Earlier this year, he says, South Korean beauty influencer Park Hye-min, who goes by the name Pony, told fans a hairpin she wore in a video came from Korea, which raised the ire of Chinese internet users, as the pin in question was a traditional Chinese one.

“I want to promote my works on international platforms to let people understand that this art form comes from China,” Li says.

One of Li’s hand-painted fans. Photo: Li Jingyi

“My favourite piece is a flower hairpin with a small butterfly made of tiny pearls. The antennae of the butterfly are made of silver springs that jiggle when the hairpin-wearer moves. It’s a design filled with vitality. I spent two to three days making it.”

The piece was sold to a young woman who told him it was so beautiful that she would keep it as a collectible.

Li and his fellow artisans see themselves as promoters of traditional Chinese culture like Li Ziqi – a Chinese video blogger and internet celebrity with 16.3 million subscribers on YouTube, whose videos of rural farm life and craft-making have made her a multimillionaire.

One likely successor to Li Ziqi is 25-year-old Cai Qian. A 12-minute video on online platform Bilibili of Cai making a golden mask resembling an artefact found at an archaeological site in Sichuan province, southwest China, has racked up over 11 million views since it was posted in April.

Cai spent 15 days and 200,000 yuan (US$31,000) on 500 grams (1.1 pound) of gold to recreate the mask. He spent another 250,000 yuan to buy 600 grams of gold to recreate a gold staff from the same 3,000-year-old Sanxingdui site. It took him four months to make.

The video, posted in August, of Cai making the staff has been viewed over 7 million times. He pays meticulous attention to detail, practising for a month on copper before working on the final article, for which he mixes gold with 15 per cent silver.

Cai Qian recreated a golden mask unearthed at an archaeological site. Photo: Cai Qian

The Sanxingdui Museum in Sichuan told Chinese media that Cai had largely reconstructed the ways the artefacts were made thousands of years ago.

Before creating the replicas, Cai had made swords based on the weapons used by his favourite characters in anime and video games.

In his videos, Cai says he copied the Sanxingdui pieces to better understand the artistic spirit of the ancient Chinese people. He has since been invited to the museum and on to national broadcasting channel CCTV to talk about his work.

The video Cai Qian posted of the making of the golden mask has racked up over 11 million views since it was posted in April. Photo: Cai Qian

Li Xiang, too, prefers ancient designs – her work includes Chinese motifs such as dragons and red-crowned cranes. The 21-year-old from Tianjin, northeast China, has been a full-time designer of traditional hanfu clothes since she graduated from the Tianjin Conservatory of Music in June.

Her designs are featured in a hanfu exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

Clothing modelled on that of the Tang dynasty (618-906) is popular now because the theme for this year’s hanfu festival at the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou, eastern China, is Tang dynasty garments, she says, and the festival sets the trend for the hanfu community every year.
Li Xiang’s hanfu designs are featured in an exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Photo: Li Xiang

“I have made some designs mixing Tang-styled fabric and Lolita [style],” she says.

Li Xiang says she sells her work to hanfu retailers and individual customers via Tencent’s instant messaging software service, web portal QQ and Taobao – an online marketplace launched by Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

“There are many QQ groups set up by hanfu enthusiasts,” she adds. “I met many designers and retailers there. Some of my designs can sell 8,000 pieces within two to three days of the product launch.”

Cai Qian spent 250,000 yuan on 600 grams of gold to recreate a gold staff. Photo: Cai Qian
Li Xiang believes her work will increase awareness of China’s heritage. “I hope modern people can see how beautiful ancient Chinese clothing is through my work,” she says. “Chang Shuhong, the former chief of the Dunhuang Research Academy, who dedicated his whole life to preserving cave art [ at the Mogao Caves in Gansu province, northwest China], is my role model. As I still have many things to learn about making hanfu, I see this as my lifelong pursuit.”

Fashion featuring guochao – a term that means “national trend” or “national hip” that encompasses any Chinese aesthetic that counters Western style – is increasingly popular with young people in China.

According to a report released in July by Chinese business analysis firm iiMedia Research, there were over 1,500 hanfu retailers in China by the end of 2020. The report said the value of sales in the hanfu market in China rose from 190 million yuan to 6.36 billion yuan from 2015 to 2020. There are around seven million hanfu enthusiasts in China now.

Li Xiang believes her work will increase awareness of China’s heritage. Photo: Li Xiang

Crystal Abidin, an associate professor on social media and internet studies at Curtin University in Australia, says the work of people like social media star Li Ziqi have given videos about traditional Chinese culture global reach and a new audience.

“Young people want to emulate her and showcase how to make handicrafts in the traditional Chinese way,” she says.

Abidin says the careers of many young influencers are managed by agencies that put their content on popular Chinese short-video platform Douyin and on its international counterpart TikTok to reach a global audience.
Murong Yi has made more than 200 items over the past few years. Photo: Murong Yi

“The handicraft-makers are able to turn it into a full-time job as they can sell their work online,” she says. “Their online fans are also willing to pay them in the form of tips for consuming their content.”

One young artisan, 20-year-old university student Murong Yi from Xinjiang province, has made more than 200 items over the past few years, including hairpins and make-up boxes, and her videos have been viewed millions of times.
She likes to recreate fashion items worn by famous women in ancient China, such as Emperor Qianlong’s first queen, Empress Fucha (1712–1748) whose life was dramatised in hit television dramas including the Story of Yanxi Palace (2018) and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace (2018).
A still from Murong’s video of the dyeing of silk into different colours. Photo: Murong Yi
A hairpin made by Murong based on a piece worn by Emperor Qianlong’s first queen, Empress Fucha. Photo: Murong Yi

Videos posted on Bilibili show Murong making velvet flower hairpins from dyeing silk to attaching the finished velvet flowers to a copper pin. She says she learned the ancient methods from documentaries on China’s cultural heritage and on her visits to handicraft-making factories in Beijing.

“It took a long time for me to get the hang of the manufacturing,” Murong says. “As making them from scratch is quite complicated, I only make one piece for each design. Most of them are not for sale. They are for my personal collection.”