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Traditional Trades Live On In The New China (For Now)

There are two modes of production that exist in China virtually side by side which stand in polar opposition to each other. There is the world of mass-manufactured goods, which consist of synthetic things with switches and buttons and lights that are shot out the end of factory assembly lines, and then there is that [...]

There are two modes of production that exist in China virtually side by side which stand in polar opposition to each other. There is the world of mass-manufactured goods, which consist of synthetic things with switches and buttons and lights that are shot out the end of factory assembly lines, and then there is that of hand-honed goods and services that are created start to finish by skilled tradesmen — old school style. The former has become ubiquitous throughout China over the past thirty years and has come to define the country in this era, but the latter can still be found in the traditional communities which are scattered through the urban areas and dominate the countryside.

hand-made-wooden-basin-chinese

I walked through one of these communities in Zhenjiang, a 2,500 year old port on the banks of the Yangzi river. An alleyway shot off to my left and wound up a hill. It wove through a maze of old, brick houses that were built on the side of a hill, and I headed up it. I soon stopped short when I saw a small, one room workshop that produced wooden tubs, basins, and buckets by hand.

There was a stack of foot wash basins stacked on one side of the door and a collection of bathing tubs on the other side. In between was a pile of wood shavings. Two men wearing saw dust covered workman clothes stood inside the doorway of the shop. One was in the process of applying a steel band around the circumference of a wash basin. He stopped working when he saw me approach, and stood froze stiff when it became clear that I was intentionally approaching him.

small-carpenty-workshop

I greeted the workers and began looking over their wares. I inspected their wooden buckets and tubs, and began asking questions about them. They didn’t understand a word. It took me at least five minutes before I realized that the reason I wasn’t being understood was not due to faulty pronunciation, but because I was trying to speak in standard Mandarin to people who only spoke their dialect.

These craftsmen were not producing their products for tourists, and the “entertain a visitor and make a sale” tactic was not a part of their business model. They were making items that people here have been using for centuries. Though we could not speak to each other, the men knew right off that I had no interest in purchasing a foot washing basin. They eventually got back to work. One continued sawing planks of wood, and the other continued affixing the steel band around a tub.

Outside of a carpentry shop

Outside of a carpentry shop

There were four or five similar small carpentry shops in this neighborhood which produced pretty much the same wooden basins and tubs. The workers went about their work in a way that seemed overtly leisurely. They kept their workshop doors open, their work spewing out over the street. They shaved the planks of wood into the proper shape and attaching them together using a mix of hand and electric tools.

A husband and wife operation welcomed me inside and showed me around their workshop. It was just a room with concrete plaster walls and piles of two by fours and assorted pieces of wood piled up in the corners. There was an electric table saw sitting on the porch. I didn’t find it necessary to ask the husband how he lost half a finger. When I asked to see what they were making they laughed in unison and told me that they currently had nothing completed. There were some half made basins strewn about the room, but it was clear that there was no rush to finish them.

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Barber shop

Barber shop

I saw a line of men standing outside of a barber shop in an old community of Zhenjiang. It was in the front room of an old brick house that seemed to be held up by the houses on both sides of it like a card house. For all appearances, time stopped here thirty years ago — but nobody seemed to mind.

I had just walked from an area of the city that was full of the hyper-modern side of China that’s easy to assume represents the country as a whole and into a small shop where a man in a dirty white smock was shaving another man’s face with an old straight razor. I was in a barber shop, and a line of men waiting to be groomed extended out the door. A bench lined the back wall and the front wall was covered by a large mirror that had a long bar below it that held a small array of combs, towels, scissors, and straight razors. There were two old barber shop chairs, one had a customer in it. Everything had a layer of grim over it, everything seemed overused and in a state of functional disrepair.

The barber himself looked as old and worn as the shop he worked in, and he turned to me and gruffly inquired as to what I was doing in his shop. I asked for a shave. He grunted. I stood and watched him work. One of the men in the shop cracked a joke about me. Fair enough, a sliver of dignity was worth watching a practice and observe a social context that has dried up in much of the world. That little shop was a community. The line of customers extended out the door, but they seemed to be hanging out more than they were waiting.

The client was tilted back in the old, body stained chair. He had a wet compress on his forehead, his eyes were closed. He was relaxed. He knew what was coming. The men in the shop chatted about me in their dialect, as the barber lathered up the face positioned near his stomach. He then picked up a collapsible straight razor and flipped the blade out from its handle, rotating it slowly along its hinge until it snapped into position. The tool looked archaic, like a relic found protruding from the soil of a farmer’s field after being forgotten about for decades, but many of these yesteryear tools are still in common usage throughout China.

The customer’s nose twitched as the barber began scrapping his face. Lather and stubble gathered in a clump on the top side of the razor, as smooth, reddened skin was left in its wake. The barber worked the blade with the speed of a chef, and in a matter of 30 seconds the face was bare. It was then roughly toweled off and slapped with some aftershave concoction.

The shave was completed, but the job was just beginning. The barber then flipped out something that looked like a straight razor, but the blade did not seem to be made of of steel. Rather, it seemed to be some kind of resin or plastic or hard rubber. It was not to remove hair, but exfoliate dead skin cells. The barber ran this dull blade over the customer’s cheeks, nose, and forehead, as a pile of white gunk piled up upon it. The barber then picked up a pair of scissors and thrust them up the customer’s nose. A few clips in the left nostril, a few in the right. It was then time for a hair cut, and in the matter of a moment, the guy was again sporting a nice, neat block head. The flat top reigns supreme in China. The barber then beat the client over the head a dozen or so times, something they know here as a massage.

Then the customer stood up, and the guy waiting behind him took his place in the chair, as the process began over again.

This all happened in a matter of two or three minutes. The barber was processing men with factory precision: one after the other the sat in the chair, got completely groomed, and then shipped out.

I saw around a half dozen barber shops like this all through the old districts of Zhenjiang. Many of the barbers were women, as professions tend to be relatively gender neutral in China. But the barber shop tradition seems to be fading fast from this country. There are many places, even in the old parts of cities, where you don’t really see it any more. With the proliferation of disposable razors, self-grooming products, hair salons, in-home bathrooms, and the social distance created by high-rise living, the Chinese barbershop is disappearing.

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Quilt making

Quilt making

I continued walking through the old district of Zhenjiang and talked with tin knockers, quilt makers, and carpenters who make traditional style beds. There is an entire other world of production in China that functions beneath the skyscrapers, behind the shopping malls, and outside of the factories. It’s a world where skilled trades flourish, and people buy what they need from the craftsman making it around the corner or across town.

The inertia of tradition in China rolls on: old modes of production are still here. Not even 30 years of mass industrialization has yet been powerful enough to completely sever these chains of tradition in many parts of this country. But I knew that what I was looking at were essentially last generation trades — professions that will not be past down to the next generation. The people plying these traditional trades will more than likely be the last to do so. In 2011, the China Daily reported that there are 3,000 traditional trades in China doomed to extinction, and it’s my opinion that this is correct.

Like I’ve found while researching dying traditions over the world, the younger generations of many cultures are generally not enthusiastic about putting in the time and effort to learn an old trade that will only secure for them a life of borderline poverty in a market that has an ever dimmer demand for such products and services. They go to school and then take jobs in offices, retail stores, factories, firms, go into business, and look for professions that will get them the car, the apartment, and the trendy smart phone. The men and woman working the old, manual trades in Zhenjiang were all advanced in years. I did not see a single person working in any shop who appeared under the age of 40. They did manual, skilled, time consuming, start-to-finish types of trades that produced wares that could only be sold for a pittance. This is not the Chinese dream.

Filling for quilts

Filling for quilts

Hand made quilts

Hand made quilts

Small workshop making quilts

Small workshop making quilts

Tin knockers

Tin knockers

Craftsman making a traditional bed

Craftsman making a traditional bed

Frame for a traditional style bed

Frame for a traditional style bed

Hand made irrigator

Hand made irrigator

Tin knocker shop

Tin knocker shop

carpenter
Carpentry shop

Carpentry shop

Wooden tubs

Wooden tubs

Filed under: Changing China, China, Craftsmanship

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3576 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • john March 11, 2013, 4:09 am

    I visited Zhenjiang and saw the tubs you mention in the article. I found it truly exciting. Zhenjiang’s tubs are really nice. They also make quite good vinegar!

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    • Vagabond Journey March 24, 2013, 10:00 pm

      @john For sure, that place is pretty cool.

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  • DavidLane March 24, 2013, 9:17 pm

    It seems to me that those tubs would be worth a lot more here in the UK than they are in China. Perhaps someone will start something similar to the FairTrade initiative, and try to popularise product that are Hand-Made in China.

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    • Vagabond Journey March 24, 2013, 9:59 pm

      DavidLane Yes, “Hand-made in China” would be such a stark oxymoron in the West that it would probably have excellent marketing value 🙂

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