Old Version

Crafting a Narrative

A documentary on China’s endangered handicrafts that was rejected by a dozen television stations has gained a cult following online

By NewsChina Updated Dec.1

All they had were two secondhand cameras, two low-end lenses, a secondhand recorder and a battered-up old jeep. But the three documentary filmmakers – one professional and two amateurs – covered 35,000 kilometers across 23 provinces and regions in 129 days, visiting 88 villages, filming 199 local artisans and exploring 144 traditional handicrafts.
It was Zhang Jing’s first documentary. Zhang, 43, formerly a writer and director for China Central Television (CCTV), wanted to make a film about dying artisan crafts in China. With no actors, no shooting schedules, and no scheduled interviews, Zhang’s team wandered the vast nation to find unknown craftspeople and skills that risked being lost forever for their new documentary, Discover Traditional Crafts. 
Through their lens they documented wood carving, cotton cloth weaving, embroidery, the sculpting of Buddha statues, Thangka painting and the making of goatskin rafts, oiled paper umbrellas, ornamental knives, swords, rice paper, felt blankets, plucked string instruments, compasses, Puer tea, and more.
The reception was ugly. Unlike the crafts themselves, the documentary was derided as “poorly made,” “low quality,” and “extremely unprofessional” by the television stations that rejected it. But the five-episode series, which the director finally uploaded to a video streaming website, has struck a chord with young netizens and surprised the team by going viral. Boldly adopting first and second person narratives, this atypical documentary, with no affected language, staged photography or embellishment, has been praised online for its simplicity and sincerity.  

‘Quixotic Attempt’ 

“Imagine that you live in Beijing, have two houses, two cars, and two lovely daughters, and earn nearly 400,000 yuan (US$60,000) a year – could that be called a perfect life?” Zhang Jing begins the narration of Discover Traditional Crafts with the story of his own life.
“But what you truly feel is that you are gradually becoming a used slipper, worn out by the pressures of life and the frictions of reality. Only in dreams in the middle of the night can you take a brief moment to revisit your childhood memories, those happy years accompanied by artisans and crafts – are they still there?” 
As a CCTV employee, Zhang felt like a cog in the machine, tired and defeated. He described his longtime dream of being a real documentary director as a “tumor” – “It always grows in me. Feels odd,” he said.
Inspired by the acclaimed CCTV documentary A Bite of China, about Chinese food culture, Zhang planned to make a film cataloging the traditional skills that might be lost to China’s rapid industrialization. 
“I grew up in the countryside. Since childhood, artisans were the people I respected most. They were always the wisest people in a village,” Zhang told NewsChina. 
He sold one of his two houses in Beijing to support the trip, a dramatic move that shocked his friends. To find partners, he shared his grand dream with dozens, yet he was mocked by most. 
Only two friends took him seriously – He Sigeng (Zhang’s best friend) and Yu Pan. He Sigeng initially acted as Zhang’s driver, but when the team’s professional cameraman quit early in production he stepped into the role, despite having never filmed anything. Yu, a young man who had worked as a hotel manager in Shangri-La, Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, joined the team as the sound engineer and liaison. He learned how to record sound one week before they set off.
To prepare, Zhang bought stacks of old magazines like Chinese National Geographic from a recycling station. He used these to narrow down a list of around 300 potential subjects.  

The Fading Past 

In 2014, Zhang and his friends spent four months traveling China in a counterclockwise direction. They first drove west from Beijing to Xinjiang and Tibet, then south to Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, Hainan, and then up to Zhejiang, Shandong, and back to Beijing. 
The Northwest proved the right place to start. On the bank of the Yellow River, Zhang’s team found a craftsman making a raft out of a whole piece of goatskin; in Akqi county of Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, they filmed as two Khalkha women produced a felt blanket; in Yengisar county in the Tarim Basin, they recorded as young men carved ornamental knives, which are renowned across China. 

On the trip’s 21st day they reached Qira county, the south end of the Taklamakan Desert. Guided by a local Uyghur villager named Mehmetijan, the three of them walked 20 kilometers into the desolate desert to an old hut. There they found Hudaberdi Mehmet Toxti, a 64-year-old shepherd who was one of the few men left able to make a balaman, a rare reed-based wind instrument.
The tall, grey-bearded shepherd was reticent at first, but he shifted gears when performing powerful songs on the balaman, as well as on the rawap, a plucked stringed instrument, and a suona, a high-pitched wind instrument.
“At first sight, he looked no different from an ordinary old farmer, honest, simple and shy. But when the melody came out from the balaman in his hands, it seemed that the whole desert became his world,” Zhang told NewsChina.
They spent the night with the shepherd and filmed as he made the balaman out of a reed. The man broke out two dozen of eggs kept as emergency food to accommodate his guests from afar.
In Dagzê district, Tibet, they met a Buddha statue sculpting master named Thubten. Thubten and his brother do not seek profit from their skills but donate Buddha statues to temples every year, along with money and gold. In Dege county, Zhang’s team documented 12 young craftspeople who spent years carving printing blocks for Buddhist classics. They cut every block slowly and diligently, refusing to compromise their beliefs by speeding up or mass-producing the items to make more money.
These artisans’ piety and dedication astonished Zhang’s team and drove them to re-examine their own lives. 
The team also recorded the dying fate of some old skills.
At Xiaohuang village in Congjiang county, Guizhou, they visited two elderly Dong women, the last people in the area capable of making paper using the bark of a rare tree. Due to a dwindling market, the two women decided to use up all the bark they had left and produced their last ever stack of paper on the day of filming, before quitting the trade.
In a village in Menghai, near the China-Myanmar border in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, they met Kanwen, a man of nearly 80, the last oiled paper umbrella maker in his community. Having spent all his life making the umbrellas, Kanwen knew every detail of the process, but when the camera was rolling an incident occurred: a piece of yarn broke when he was creating the umbrella frame.
The old artisan tried once, twice, but failed. Frowning, he let out a deep sigh and tried again. He finally fixed it on the eighth attempt.
Kanwen’s grandson told the team that only the village elders used the umbrellas anymore, and they were even buried with them when they died. 
Three years later in February 2017, Zhang was told that Kanwen had died. With his death went the craft of making oiled paper umbrellas in the region. 

A Silver Lining 

Zhang later realized the most difficult challenge was not the four months of shooting, but the fight to get his documentary on screen.
He spent 26 months editing the film, polished the script 50 times and dubbed it 10 times. But after all that, the film was declined by a dozen television stations.
“Extremely poorly made,” is how a friend working in advertising summed it up. “He told me every aspect of my work was of no quality. The narrative language was too basic. He said any of the young staff at his company could have done a better job of filming than me, even a teenage intern,” Zhang recalled.
The negative feedback Zhang received from professionals thwarted his hopes and dented his confidence. “In China, there is no chance to profit from making a documentary,” Zhang told our reporter. He gave up his hopes of earning back the money from the film and was willing to play it for free for the sake of the elder artisans they interviewed.
Zhang uploaded the series on video streaming site Bilibili, a platform that is insanely popular among teens and youths, particularly among fans of animation, comics, and games. To his surprise, the work was lauded by young Internet users. 

By mid-November 2017, the film had gained 792,000 views on Bilibili and 1.27 million on iQIYI, another popular video streaming website. It was featured on Bilibili’s documentary page as the most recommended film and scored 8.7/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review site. The documentary also stirred up a discussion among young viewers about craftsmanship.
“I’ve never seen a film like this that’s so warm and true to life. Everyone in it has their own adorable qualities. The filmmakers deepened their understanding of culture and life on the journey, and we deepen ours bit by bit from watching it,” read a featured comment on Bilibili written by the user Lezhengxi.
“Many old skills have been lost in the digital age. To keep them alive is to remind us of how diverse, rich and splendid culture can be. How to make a raft out of goatskin? How to create an instrument with a fine tone? How to use a needle to perform acupuncture treatment to heal disease? Behind these seemingly shabby, somewhat weird methods lies the wisdom and experience passed from generation to generation,” commented a user named Xiaocutui.
How could a piece of work derided by industry insiders gain so much acclaim from young netizens? Chen Rui, Chairman of Bilibili, told news site The Paper that young people, especially those born after 1995, are drawn to the “spirit of craftsmanship” and lifelong devotion to one particular profession. In addition to Discover Traditional Crafts, another documentary, Masters in the Forbidden City, about the lives of people who restore cultural relics, also enjoys wide popularity, with more than 2.72 million watching it on Bilibili.
“People aged 25 and above account for less than 10 percent of our 100 million active users,” Chen said.
“Many older people think the new generation only cares about entertainment. That’s a big mistake. In fact, compared to their elders, young people are the ones who truly have confidence in our own culture. They have received a good education and have a better understanding of culture. Their openness and acceptance far exceed their elders’ imagination,” Chen said.
The three documentary-makers agreed that their four-month journey cast a bright light in their otherwise mundane lives. The young hotel manager Yu Pan, now back in Shangri-La, hopes to set off on a new journey soon. The driver-turned-cameraman He Sigeng believes he has accomplished something he will be proud of for life. Zhang is thinking about his next documentary.
Zhang now plans to crowdfund the second season of Discover Traditional Crafts. “I’ve already gone through the toughest period. The next one can’t be worse, right?” he said, smiling.