Folk Arts in Wenzhou
The long history of Wenzhou is accompanied with a splendid culture, especially in the city’s folk arts. The most well-known folk arts in Wenzhou include the Southern Opera, Guci, Yongjia Kunqu Opera, Jiaxie technique, papermaking, Ou embroidery, wooden movable type printing, rice flour molding, boxwood carving, fine paper cutting and gunpowder-activated puppetry etc.
Papermaking technology is one of the four great inventions of the ancient China. Though more than 2000 years have passed, a dozen of villages on the Zeya mountains in the western Wenzhou continue to use the ancient paper making skills. The paper making site dating back to the Ming Dynasty, Siliandui (water-powered mortars) still exists in the villages. In order to make the best use of water resource along the river, people in the Ming Dynasty built mortars to crash bamboo into bamboo floss and then made it into paper.
Rice flour molding is a unique folk craftsmanship in Wenzhou, which is similar to the north China’s wheat flour molding. Craftsmen use cooked rice flour as raw material and make different vivid shapes of humans, birds, dragons, phoenixes, flowers and animals after processes of kneading, pinching, nipping, carving and painting. In Wenzhou, people like to use these molded figures as great decorations for the traditional festive banquets in Wenzhou.
Wenzhou Guci or Wenzhou Drumbeat Lyrics is a distinctive folk singing art popular in Wenzhou and neighboring areas. In the past, Wenzhou Guci was mostly performed by blind people who made a living on singing Guci. With thousands of years of history, Wenzhou Guci is generally sung in the dialect of Rui’an, which is a bit different from the dialect spoken by the people in the downtown Wenzhou, with the help of several simple musical instruments, like flat drum, rhythm clapper and a zither-like instrument made of ox tendon. Often, Wenzhou Guci is performed by a single performer or two performers by mainly singing tunes and sometimes talking while playing music.
Wenzhou is the birthplace of the Southern Opera in China, which is named in comparison with the Northern Opera. The Southern Opera is the earliest opera of China, taking shape in the Northern Song Dynasty in Wenzhou. In its formative years, the Southern Opera was very much a combination of other contemporary entertainments and the variety opera. Its music was borrowed from southern folk songs, which were soft and sentimental. Its stories were mostly love-themed. A typical early Southern play is Top Graduate Zhang Xie. At the end of the Yuan Dynasty, many gifted playwrights started writing Southern operas, creating a revival of this dramatic form. Among them, Story of a Thorn Hairpin, Story of a White Rabbit and Story of Killing a Dog are the most famous ones. The Story of the Lute, a play by Gao Ming, a Wenzhou-born playwright in the Ming Dynasty, is well-known abroad as one of the most outstanding works of Chinese opera.
Yongjia Kunqu Opera, one of China’s ancient operas and a local dramatic form in Wenzhou, evolves from the Southern Opera originating from Wenzhou, and absorbs the essence of Kunqu Opera, a prevalent type of opera in China’s 16th century to 18th century. Yongjia Kun Opera, combining the Southern Opera with Wenzhou’s local music, is recognized now as a verbal and non-material human heritage. Yongjia Kunqu Opera dates back to the late 16th century when Kunqu Opera spread to the area of Wenzhou. By combining with Wenzhou’s folk music and tune, it gradually formed its own charm different from the original Kunqu operas and became an important branch of the Kunqu opera. The local features of Yongjia Kunqu Opera were quite conspicuous, simple and straightforward in style, close to daily life, Xiaosheng (young male roles)'s use of natural voice and uniqueness in the art of performance.
Jiaxie, an ancient Chinese fabric printing and dyeing process using woodblocks, was widely applied in the Tang and Song dynasties. An upper and a lower block are made with carved out compartments opening to the back and fitted with plugs. The cloth, usually folded a number of times, is inserted and clamped between the two blocks. By unplugging the different compartments and filling them with dyes of different colours, a multi-coloured pattern can be printed over quite a large area of folded cloth. After the Song Dynasty, the traditional art technique Jiaxie threatened to disappear over the centuries for different reasons. Though it fell out of popularity, the Jiaxie technique is still passed down in some areas of China. In some places of Wenzhou, especially Cangnan County and Yueqing City, people preserve the whole process of this technique, including woodblocks, indigo making and dyeing. In some rural regions of Wenzhou, Jiaxie quilts, usually made of cotton or flax, were an essential part of wedding celebrations in the 1950s and 60s. Intricate designs incorporating phoenixes eating peonies, dragons and other mythical animals, and intertwining flowers traditionally were used to encourage fertility or good fortune. In 2011, Wenzhou’s Jiaxie technique was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage so as to better preserve this ancient art.
As an intangible cultural heritage in China, Ou Embroidery comes from the region along the reaches of the Oujiang River, a major river in Wenzhou. Wenzhou’s Ou embroidery dates back to the more than 1,000 years ago in the Tang Dynasty. It prospered in the Ming and Qing Dynasties when Ou embroidery products were widely used in people’s daily life and in temples. In the period of the Republic of China (1912-1949), Ou embroidery was an important export of Wenzhou where a lot of embroidery workshops were set up in the city to employ workers to produce for overseas markets. One of the features of Ou embroidery is its use of different stitches and fine workmanship. For example, Painting of Pine and Eagle adopts about 10 kinds of stitches such as sector stitch, cut stitch, flat stitch, and uses various kinds of silk of different sizes and colors.
The wooden movable type printing in Wenzhou has a history of more than 800 years to be the only wooden movable printing technique remaining and still being used in China. It is said to be a living printing fossil in the world. The wooden movable printing in Wenzhou completely inherits the ancient traditional printing technique in China and fully repeats the working scene of movable type printing, one of four great inventions of ancient China to be the best evidence that the movable type printing originates from China.
The technique of boxwood carving originated from Yueqing City in Wenzhou. The history of this carving technique dates back to about 900 years. Boxwood, the material used for carving, has a creamy and yellowish color, and it darkens over time, which gives an elegant and classic sense of aesthetic feeling. In addition, it is a very precious and rare type of wood, which usually grows slowly in virgin forests, high mountains, or precipices. Generally a boxwood plant between the ages of 40 and 50 has a diameter of only 15 centimeters. The main artistic feature of boxwood carving is that all the carvings are made based on their original shapes, maximizing the use of the wood. Though many methods of carving are applied, the most prominent and popular way is still circular carving in making boxwood carvings.
Fine paper cutting, a unique craftsmanship in Yueqing City of Wenzhou, develops on the basis of ordinary paper cutting. The special paper cutting in Wenzhou, dating back to over 700 years ago, is different from that in the northern China in its fine cutting and its tools. It employs cutting knives of different blades instead of scissors, making it possible to cut fine patterns and lines. The blade of a cutting knife can be as thin as 0.35 mm. The technique originated from decorative paper cuttings for dragon boats in folk festivals, when a boat model had to be decorated with different paper cuttings of folk figures, animals, birds and flowers. In 2006, the fine paper cutting technique in Wenzhou was listed a national intangible cultural heritage.
Puppetry, also known as Chinese shadow show in China, has a history dating back 2000 years. Gunpowder-activated puppetry, starting from the Song Dynasty, is a special folk performance using puppets activated by gunpowder. The technique was once considered to be lost in China, but it has been proved that a unique entertainment found in Taishun County in Wenzhou is a type of gunpowder-activated puppetry. The technique came from the neighboring Fujiang Province in the middle Qing Dynasty, and the whole process of puppet making and performing is still well preserved in this area in Wenzhou. On a bamboo pole as high as 15 meters, different puppets and fireworks are fixed and connected at different levels of the pole with firework-controlling wheels. When the lead of the lowest-level firework is ignited, fireworks will be set off level by level, activating the performance of the puppets on the pole. The performance generally takes place on some important festive occasions.