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Traditional Heqing copperware industry

Copper utensils are ubiquitous in Tibetan-inhabited areas, especially Tibet, but where are these copperwares from and who make them? The answer lies in Heqing, a county in the north of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province.

Xiuyi, a Bai ethnic village surrounded by farmlands in Heqing, is where many family copper-craft workshops have worked for generations. People normally make it a match to Xinhua Village or “the Town of Silver, the Town of River” which is home to many prestigious silversmiths like Cun Fabiao--the designer of Jiulonghu (Nine-dragon Pot) silvery wine set.

[The silvery Jiulonghu wine sets are among various
premium products in Xinhua Village, Photo by pidayin.com]

Stepping into the village, one will be greeted by a string of tings from many houses. In spare time, locals including women are engaged in copperwares making. A wide range of household copper utensils are produced in the village’s family workshops; there are small items such as spoons and ladles, as well as large items such vats, basins and hot pots. Many visitors from both Yunnan and other places of China prefer to purchase copper hot pots mainly because hot pot is a trendy and viral dietary habit in winter in most parts of the country--and they are pretty economical to be garnered as souvenirs.

(Copper hot pots)

The widely traded exquisite wares
The copper-craft industry of Xiuyi has enjoyed a history of multi-hundreds years. In the 1980s, the industry began to be upsized, and now most local families have set up at least a workshop each.

To most Xiuyi villagers who have survived on copperwares making for a long time, the hereditary craft is their bonanza, and many have become very rich through years of family trade.

Each item of copperware hammered here is bestrewed with orderly spots both inside and outside so locals in Heqing call Xiuyi copperwares "ban dian tong" (spotted copperwares). At the first glance, people can tell these wares are authentically hand-made.

Residents in the northwestern Yunnan including Dali, Lijiang, Diqing and Nujiang use a variety of copperwares in the daily life and production of ethnic groups such as Bai, Naxi, and Tibetan etc.

In particular, Yunnan's geographic location has helped bring prosperity to the copper-craft industry of Xiuyi; for example, every year lots of copperwares are traded from Xiuyi to Tibet-inhabited areas which include Tibet and parts of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. And, in recent years the final products are also exported to overseas markets such as Nepal and India.

Chen Zeguang--a coppersmith master
Mr Chen Zeguang is the most celebrated coppersmith in Xiuyi Village. His family is the number one in regard of copperwares making. At the age of eight, Mr Chen began to learn the craft from his father who is also a famous coppersmith in Heqing County.

(The spotted technique is a daunting matter)

In 1979, he went to Tibet to learn Tibetan copper craft and seek market space. Through great efforts in Tibetan areas, his products were gradually liked by Tibetans; he then returned home with Tibetan copperware skills and models and kickstarted a family-scale workshop--and of course, began to sell products to Tibetan areas.

In 1980, he figured out a bold idea--applying for an individual business license and opening a small factory to amplify production. He bettered the processing techniques to prevent products fading and oxidising; but in order to keep copperwares practical and traditional, he made no change to the spotted technique.

In 1984 when Mr Chen had already become well-known, the filming crew of the TV series Pilgrimage to the West (known as “xi you ji” in Chinese) placed an order with him, asking him to tailor some copper stage props.

Today, Mr Chen has gotten a patent for his products. His two brothers also have their own factories, and with his help his son opens a business specialising in copperwares. To date, the big Chen’s family has owned 15 factories, earning 300,000 yuan ($48,200) yearly.

Meanwhile, about 30 villagers once learned from Mr Chen, and 70% copperwares owe much to him.

Li Songxiu--“women uphold half the sky”
At 20, Mrs Li Songxiu was married to her husband Li Xianglong and began to learn copper craft from Mr Li (Xianglong). Though the spotted technique was too difficult to master, she never gave up. Through a dozen years of efforts, she became one of the four most skillful women coppersmiths of Xiuyi Village.

When we visited Mrs Li's house, the couple were busy finishing the order of 300 copper vats from Changdu Region of Tibet which is adjacent to Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the northwest of Yunnan Province. Mr Li said they had no problem fulfilling the order despite the tight agenda.

Excluding the farming season, Mrs Li Songxiu said they have about eight months each year for the family trade, and they can make an annual output of more than 2,000 pieces of copperwares, earning enough to lead a well-off living in the countryside.

A model village
With the traditional copperwares industry, Xiuyi becomes a model village to better off in Yunnan Province. The annual sales of copperwares of the village amount to about 100,000 pieces, worth over six million yuan ($0.97mn).

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