To avid collectors, a well-crafted traditional Chinese fan could be as valuable, if not more so, than a Tesla sports car. Some simply won’t let go of their “treasure” no matter how much the market is willing to pay.
So what is so fascinating about these handmade folding fans?
“They have thousands of years of history. Not only are they meticulously crafted, the paintings on the fans also has great artistic value. It’s part of our culture,” fan artist Zheng Gao told Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
Zheng fell head over heels in love with Chinese fans about three decades ago, when he was still a high school student. He decided to become an apprentice of two top fan makers and merge the two schools of ancient fan-making approaches.
To this date, his is still striving to perfect his fan-making art and introducing new designs to this traditional handicraft.
The history of the Chinese fan dates back over 3,000 years ago. In the ancient times, they were considered fashion accessories and often sold in sets of eight or more.
Just like neckties, gentlemen match fans to their clothes as well as changing moods.
“It was a symbol of status,” Zheng points out.
Making a fan involves several dozen steps. At one point, it became a dying craft.
Zheng is among those who have been trying to breathe new life into the art. But there are only a few good fan makers.
Even a master like Zheng can only produce less than 100 collection-grade fans a year.
The use of rare and expensive materials is another reason why top quality fans are scarce.
The ribs of high-end fans are usually made of mottled bamboo called Xiang Fei. Such bamboos, which come with natural reddish brown marks, often need to be seasoned for seven to eight years before they reach the right maturity to be used for fan-making, Zheng explains.
Valuable materials like hawksbill and ivory are also used to decorate the head of the fan, which can be carved into different shapes.
This summer Zheng held an exhibition of over 300 pieces of his work in Hong Kong.
“It took me 20 years to get hold of all the materials needed for this set,” Zheng says while caressing a HK$1 million fan set named as the “jade” series.
Landscapes and Chinese calligraphy are typical painting themes. It is said that fan painting became an individual art form in the Song Dynasty. So if the fan is painted by a famous artist, its value is much higher.
Zheng would have become much richer had he kept all the fans he made as the price kept surging over the years.
But money was never his goal. What he really wants is to preserve the art, and enrich it.
He wants people to truly appreciate the folding fans and he is also working hard to pass on his fan-making skills and knowledge to the next generation.
Zheng cannot really tell which fan he likes most, but one thing is certain, he is always carrying one with him, in his hands or in his heart.
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