Jiwu Wuqie was born to a family of lacquerware craftsmen in Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province. The Yi lacquerware craft, which Jiwu learned as an apprentice to his father, has been handed down for 16 generations of his clan. He has since created 30 variations of its original forms. Jiwu bears the title of craft master of Sichuan province. His works are sought after in the United States, Japan, Europe and Southeast Asian countries. Jiwu’s name was added to the list of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Inheritors in 2009.
Yi lacquerware embodies an ancient Chinese folk art that has been passed down over centuries. Its raw materials are wood, bamboo and leather, and the colors red, from cinnabar; yellow, from orpiment; and black. The tri-color culture of Yi lacquerware is apparent in modeling styles, patterns and a distinct aesthetic. Yi lacquer is imbued with rich regional characteristics as well as a strong ethos of humanism and totemism.
Apuruha is a small tranquil village north of Daliang Mountain in Xide county, Sichuan province. Villagers live a simple life, starting work at sunrise and going home at sunset. The Jiwu clan that accounts for most of the village population has practiced the sideline craft of tableware for 16 generations, and is known for its artistry.
Father to Son
Jiwu Wuqie, now 60 years old, is still strong and sinewy.
At the age of six, Jiwu’s elder sister registered him at the local school. He thus became one of the first generation in his community to learn Mandarin Chinese. His school life, however, was short-lived. He left after the first semester because his grandmother needed his help raising pigs at home. Several years later, he began to learn the lacquerware craft and the Xiu decoration technique. The bond he formed with this craft grew stronger over the decades.
Black is the most honored color in the Yi people’s aesthetic consciousness, red the noblest, yellow the most beautiful. Yi lacquerware has a black background ornamented with red and yellow. The three colors are harmoniously arranged in a pattern that symbolizes the sun, the moon and stars, or other natural phenomena like rivers, forests and animals, ranging from poultry to wild beasts. Some reflect the daily lives of the Yi people, others regional characteristics, religious celebrations and totemism. All have strong visual impact.
Being apprenticed to his father meant hard work for Jiwu, as he was a hard taskmaster and perfectionist. The crafting of lacquerware demands hard work as well as skill. A good lacquerware artisan is intelligent and sensitive, ingenious and artistic. The lacquerware making process also involves backbreaking labor. As an apprentice, Jiwu would cut wood and reap the sap from lacquer trees in the mountains.
Jiwu proved to be both talented and diligent. He would work for more than 10 hours a day. After a decade as an apprentice his lacquerware crafting skill outstripped that of his father. He was soon acknowledged as one of the best lacquer craftsmen in the village. In the meantime, he learned woodworking and bamboo weaving. The ability to make a fan for a bimo (high priest of the Yi people) was regarded as the accolade for a bamboo weaver. Wuqie mastered the skill in his teens.