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.