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Trip to the People’s Republic of China

Shopping and the Handicraft Factories

To maintain their licenses, tour operators must include government-sponsored handicraft factories (and tourism-administration-designated stores) as part of their itineraries. Even if the schedule runs late because of traffic or other problems, the factory stopover is fitted in. My China trip included tours of the following factories:

The factories use traditional methods in order to keep the craft alive. And these methods entail non-ergonomic working conditions, with plenty of opportunities for repetitive-motion injuries. A sign posted on the wall next to the entry indicates that this is a government-authorized place of business, and the items for sale are genuine examples of Chinese workmanship. The guide assured us that while we could buy presents for our friends from the street vendors, we should buy quality souvenirs for ourselves from the government shops.

Each factory had its own guide to first lecture us with an overview of the process, then lead us through the work areas. Last, we were directed into the expansive gift shops, which often had a variety of products, not just what was manufactured at that facility. For instance, we saw cashmere sweaters, batiks from ethnic minorities in southeast China, and globes with different colors of semiprecious stones representing the countries of the world.

The guides liked to use fire to prove that the products were authentic:

  • Jade – Wrap a piece of hair tightly around a piece of jade, then set the loose end of the hair on fire. Real jade should put out the fire.

  • Silk – Pull out a thread and set it on fire. If the smoke smells like hair, the cloth is silk. If it smells like plastic, the cloth is synthetic.

  • Pearl – Rub a pearl against a pane of glass until it produces a powder. Set the powder on fire. Again, the smoke should smell like burnt hair.

I was sorry that I didn't buy more. The opportunities were certainly there. However, the sales people were so aggressive that I couldn't show interest in anything without being pressured as to what I would be willing to pay. My sales resistance was up so high that I foiled myself. Perhaps the couple Pat and I dubbed "The Shoppers" had the right idea. They never came away empty-handed. The woman of the couple wore her jewelry purchases right away and soon had both arms weighted down with cloisonné and jade bangles. Her husband, with his wide ruddy face and thick gray beard, was the perfect model for his many headwear purchases, including a Russian Ushanka (beaver hat with flaps) and a conical bamboo hat. They told me that they planned to do a show-and-tell about China for a grade-school class. They had visited the school after their last foreign trip and the children were eagerly expecting a return engagement. Throughout the trip, the couple kept buying larger and larger suitcases. I wouldn’t have wanted to do their customs declaration.

The storage aboard the tour bus hadn’t been planned for our constant spending expeditions. The buses lacked a baggage bay below and had very narrow shelves overhead. Purchases ended up sharing passenger seats or stacked next to the rear window.

A cumbersome process had to be used for purchases in the shops:

  1. Choose an item.
  2. Negotiate its price.
  3. Wait for the sales clerk to write a sales slip.
  4. Pay at a cashier’s cage.
  5. Return to retrieve the item.

By the time we returned with the claim slip, the item was handsomely wrapped, often in a decorative box that was an artwork in itself. We trusted that our original item was inside the wrapping material. The sales slip was necessary because no prices were set. The price depended on a contest of wills with the sales clerk.

My mother’s friends prided themselves on their bargaining skills and were very competitive, both with the vendors and each other. They generally regarded the government shops as too expensive and did most of their shopping at the restaurant gift shops, stalls near the attractions, or from the ubiquitous street vendors. They were merciless in teasing each other about overpaying, but made up by making presents of some of what they had just purchased.

The men turned out to be the big spenders. At the jade factory, a man purchased a pair of massive, granite lions to guard his front door. (Pat swore that she could not even budge one of them.) At the pearl factory, another man bought two long strands of black pearls, one for each of his daughters. At the ceramics factory, yet another man purchased a reproduction terra cotta soldier (a general) for his garden. The tour bus was delayed as he completed his negotiations, which included long-distance verification of his credit card. His final cost was $600, with insurance and shipping included. The shop even threw in a miniature clay soldier for his traveling buddy. The buyer, who was from San Diego, told me that he had planned his purchase before ever coming on the trip. He claimed to have saved a bundle compared to the asking price on the Internet. He also referred me to the full-size soldier on display at Kemo Sabe Restaurant in San Diego’s Hillcrest area.

Cloisonné

We were able to get a close-up look at the cloisonné process as we peeked over the workers’ shoulders. Girls used tweezers to apply thin, copper wire to the surface of metal objects. They followed a paper sketch, rather than a design transferred onto the object itself. At another table, women dabbed colors within the wire patterns. The grainy paint in the small porcelain dishes was actually ground minerals or semiprecious stone (such as jade or turquoise). Most dramatic was the firing step. We crowded in the doorway of a small room as a worker picked up a vase on the end of a long steel pole. He wore a heavy leather glove on the hand holding the pole and used a copper tube in his other hand to balance the vase as he placed it in the kiln. The kiln was an open fire in a low stone hearth. He turned the vase in the flames, then set it aside to cool. Watching it cool was like seeing a sunset, where the sky gradually fades from a fireball of bright orange to a sapphire blue.

The products on display varied from small, affordable items to extravagant sculptures with lots of zeros in the price tag.

Cloisonne

Cloisonné Factory: Adding Copper Wire

Painting the Pot

Painting Minerals Between Wires

Firing the Pot

Firing the Pots

Jade

A young woman with a strange, high-pitched voice greeted us at the door, "Please excuse my Chinese English." She led us to several examples of jade, including a fat-bellied Buddha and a frilly-leafed cabbage. Each sample represented a traditional theme with mystical connotations. "Can you tell which is the most valuable?" She held a piece up to the light. We could see through it. She explained that the value of jade is defined by its translucence. While green jade (from jadeite) is the best-known form, jade ranges in color from white to dark emerald. She rolled a jade roller over Pat’s cheek. It acted as a cooling aid, like a fan. The stone was mounted in the crook of a sling-shot-shaped handle (in place of a rubber band).

On the other side of large, dirty windows, workers bent closely over grinding wheels, slowly shaping small sculptures. They operated their equipment with a foot pedal, like old-fashioned sewing machines. The glass shielded the tour group from the dust being generated, but none of the workers wore facemasks.

The display rooms were laid out like a jewelry store, with long rows of glass cases. Each shelf contained a Styrofoam cup of water. We were told that the water adds humidity to the air to prevent the jade from drying out and cracking. I imagined buying an expensive piece of jade—and some pieces were quite costly—only to have it shatter. Pat and I puzzled over a pillowcase of strung jade beads. The sales clerk told us that it was supposed to keep the user cool in summer. Pat thought that it was very decorative. However, I kept thinking about how uncomfortable it would be to sleep on, and that it would mark the skin like ritual scarring.

Silk

The Chinese kept the secret of silk production for centuries. The "magic" fabric was highly valued by the Roman Empire, leading to the establishment of the famous Silk Road. The City of Xi’an is at the start of the Silk Road. Mulberry trees, the favored food and abode of the silk worms, line the streets. These trees are kept low to allow workers to gather the worms more easily.

We saw two silk factories: 1) quilt production and 2) carpet weaving.

The quilt factory had a formal lecture hall. Sitting prominently on the dais were several small jars of liquid containing silk worms in various stages of development, from egg to worm to pulpa (the worm in the cocoon). Workers gather the cocoons and kill and extract the pulpa. Being plunged into boiling water softens the cocoon. The thread has the same consistency as a spider web.

Workers faced a large and noisy unwinding machine. They quickly plucked cocoons from a trough of water and pulled starter strands onto the machine.

Silk Factory

Silk Factory: Worker Pulling Pulpa Out and Starting Silk Onto Spools

If two or more worms shared the same cocoon, the strands are too interwoven to be unwound. These double bundles are used to stuff quilts (as an alternative to goose down). A woman first stretched the double bundle slightly to form a small bag. This bag was given to four workers who pulled the corners away from each other, then tucked the result over a large square. When the pile is thick enough, it is put it into a silk case to form a quilt.

The factory sold a variety of covers to protect the quilt, which is never washed.

At the carpet factory, we saw several young women working at looms. Because of their small hands and dexterity, young females are the favored workers for weaving silk carpets. They tie the thread into knots and shave off the loose ends. The number of knots per square inch determines the value of the carpet. The more knots, the higher the quality and greater the cost of the carpet. High-grade carpets go on the wall. Lower-grade carpets are used on the floor, and medium-grade carpets are used either way. Generations of a family may have worked their entire lives on a single large carpet.

Pearls

Greeting us at the entrance to the gift shop was a poster of an attractive blond woman, sticking out her tongue to show off a pearl stud. We were served tea and asked to sit in rows of chairs as the host cut open a huge clamshell. We were asked to guess how many pearls were inside. Multiple pearls may be in the same clam. The people with the closest guess were given small prizes of pearl products. This included a face cream, which is believed to make the complexion pearly. The smaller, imperfect pearls are ground into the paste.

The freshwater pearls in the shop were perfectly round, unlike examples I’ve seen in this country, which are irregular oblongs. Pearls range in color from white to black (actually a purple). The pearls take on color because of different minerals in the water.

After making the rounds and experiencing the resultant sticker shock, many of us grouped together in the tea serving area, sheltered from the voracious sales clerks, waiting for the shoppers to finish. When we found out that the doting father had bought two pearl necklaces, another man loudly announced that "the honor of our bus has been defended."

Lacquer Furniture

The furniture factory was a very large, three-story warehouse. Craftsmen were at work throughout the building, rather than concentrated in one area. I saw a girl sitting on the floor meticulously painting small dots on a low tabletop. The guide took us to a drafting table and held up designs drawn on thin tracing paper. They used traditional patterns for their symbolic meanings. He said that lacquer is extracted from "turpentine trees," a variety of sumac. One layer of lacquer is painted over another. A pattern is cut into the dried lacquer, then the item painted. We saw many ornately carved furniture pieces and huge tri-fold screens inset with a variety of stones from throughout the world. The turquoise was from Brazil.

Terra Cotta Soldier Reproductions

The original terra cotta soldiers are larger than life size, meaning that they must have required a huge kiln. Each figure in the army was given individual features, and many have different body height and shape. Archeologists theorize that a general mold was used, then the features tailored. At the factory, we were shown clay being pressed into small molds and items being fed into the ovens. I’m afraid that my major memory of the factory was the paper Christmas decorations hung in a workshop window. I wondered if the person who put them there knew that they were for a Christian holiday or merely liked the green-and-red shapes.


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