It's the season of drizzling spring rain again. Zheng Guomin, the inheritor of the provincial intangible cultural heritage of Jingxian County oilcloth umbrella making, has been busy making oilcloth umbrellas all winter. Now it's time to put them on the market. Taking advantage of the sunny weather, he hung the umbrellas out to dry just like orange flowers blossoming in the courtyard, which is very beautiful.
Oilcloth umbrella-making in Jingxian County dated back to the Song and Yuan dynasties and flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties. "During the Qing Dynasty, there were over a thousand people in our Gufeng Village engaged in making umbrellas," said Zheng Guomin. In the 1940s, about 50 or 60 umbrella shops in Jingxian County were selling umbrellas to commercial ports and market towns along the Qingyi River. With the popularity of modern umbrellas, oilcloth umbrellas gradually faded out of the market. Today, in Jingxian County, only one oilcloth umbrella factory is left in Gufeng Village, Changqiao Township, and the Zheng family is still clinging to the tradition. Zheng Guomin is the sixth generation and has been making oilcloth umbrellas for almost 40 years.
Gufeng oilcloth umbrellas have always been famous, and there is a reason for that. The Village is in a mountainous area 15 kilometers north of Jingxian County. The surrounding hills are rich in bamboo, a good material for making umbrella frames. Handmade umbrellas require 12 major and 88 minor steps, totaling about a week. First, the craftsmen must choose three to five-year-old bamboo for the umbrella frames. The more frames there are, the more delicate they need to be. The length, width, height and curvature of the frames, as well as the diameter and spacing of the spreaders, are all processed with great precision. Only then can the umbrella frames be seamlessly inserted into the spreader, and the umbrellas can be opened and closed freely.
Splitting bamboo, grinding frames, engraving spreaders, and threading colored threads, Zheng Guomin is familiar with every step of the process.
Applying oil to the oilcloth is a crucial step. Natural tung oil must be boiled for two hours; only experienced umbrella makers know the right temperature. It must be simmered over low heat until it reaches the correct temperature (about 260℃). It is then evenly brushed onto the stretched cotton cloth umbrella surface, thoroughly soaking it without leaving any missed spots. This kind of umbrella is mold and water-resistant and durable.
Nowadays, the oilcloth umbrellas made by Zheng Guomin have gradually lost their functionality and become props or gifts, with tens of thousands sold yearly. Although the oilcloth umbrella-making technique has been listed as a provincial intangible cultural heritage, Zheng Guomin has hidden concerns that few young people are willing to inherit this traditional craft. Gufeng oilcloth umbrellas are a bit lonely, and perhaps many years later, people can only see them in the photos taken by visitors.
Reported by Wen Qin
Edited and translated by Zheng Chen