TAIPEI (The China Post) – Taiwan has 268 high mountains exceeding 3,000 meters in height with nine different types of forests, and it is in these mountain forests, starting at 2,000 meters above sea level, where the Taiwan Cypress grows. There is a saying that goes “you rely on the mountain by eating it,” and Taiwan’s natural high mountain resources have also deeply attracted the Japanese.
China Industrial Innovation Competitiveness Association Chairman, Wang Yongning says that, rather than just an island nation, it would be correct to say that Taiwan is also a nation of mountains. Although Taiwan is known as an island nation, it would not be incorrect to say it is also a mountain nation.
In 2016, National Taipei University of Technology Professor Chen Tien-li worked with Zhan Yi-nong, a national treasure-level master craftsman, to combine sculpting, Chinese painting and woodworking in the creation of a tailor-made “Desk of Roots” for President Tsai Ying-wen, produced from Taiwan Zelkova and Taiwan Cypress trees. For this project, Zhan crafted a special set of woodworking planes, with improved practical functions as a symbolic gesture.
In a surprise to observers, the President’s desk was not a luxury item from abroad but crafted from the humble and almost obsolete wood plane. Each cut, and chisel was not blessed by the aura of a global brand but possessed the soul of a master craftsman.
At the age of 16, Zhan became a woodworker in an era where years of learning were required to ascend from an apprentice to a master. He stated that it was a difficult line of work which included unavoidable occupational injuries from constantly pushing blades with the palms.
In the eyes of old craftsmen, today’s youth are smart, but the advancements of society also represent increased temptations; apprentices, taken in the past, ran off after learning one or two techniques, they lack the patience to put in the time to fully learn a craft. At 75, Zhan’s hands have experienced a lifetime and are covered with calluses; today’s apprentices no longer have these types of hands.
A special expo, entitled “Fu Bao”, showing off woodworking planes was held this year at Twin Oaks Estate in Washington DC in October. Curator Chen Tien-li remarks that the wood plane is a shared language between passionate woodworkers across the globe; in the past, planes were commonly found in daily life and used in the crafting of items such as laundry boards and window lattice. Today, as the technique gradually becomes obsolete, Chen views planing culture as an unsung hero in everyday life.
Industrialized societies quickly produce products from production lines that emphasize efficiency, specifications and uniformity. People in the past believed that slower work produced exquisite detail, but “slow work” in modern society is often viewed as inefficient, slow and at a disadvantage. People today use machines to produce food items and buy instant products in convenient stores; slowly producing a laundry board or wood barrel using a wood plane just does not translate into the language of economic benefits.
If you were to ask the meaning of using a wood plane in this era, Chen believes that the use of wood planes summons the memories of our citizens: “This is a skill, but it is also a memory.”
Aside from cultural heritage, memories also played a part in the development of mechanical equipment after industrialization as they were all derived from hand tools and instruments. “Innovation must preserve traditional culture and memories. Industrialization, in all the countries of the globe, is based on culture, especially using culture as a brand; it’s very difficult to establish brands without culture,” he says.
In recent years, the market has been hit by a wave of nostalgia for items and instruments from the past. “Cultural products” have emerged and the culture of handcrafted items is slowly catching on; retro items are at the forefront of fashion and reflect not just taste and life experiences, but also industrialization. People admire the artistry and advantage of handcrafted products, each produced item having slight differences. Handcrafted items are rare and unique and can display the master’s spirit and pride in their craft.
It is possible that a handcrafted Presidential desk is not odd when comparing the muted elegance of a desk crafted from the hands of an experienced master and professional craftsman, to an over-marketed product. The thinking is that if consumers acknowledge the cultural content of a product, they will naturally pay a higher purchasing price. That is how Japanese master craftsmen Akiyama Mokkou is able to serve clients such as the Imperial Household Agency and the National Diet Building while achieving revenue of up to a billion dollars with only a 34-person company.
First establishing the culture, then creating international brands, Japan is an ideal model for the development of industry and culture in Taiwan; the concept of localized globalization allows for the preservation of one’s roots in an industrialized society under globalization. Simon Wang explains that the Japanese understood the importance of crafts much earlier than the Taiwanese; the root of brands is culture, and culture can be observed in simple labor. “Instead of resisting craftsmanship, the Japanese use it to soothe the soul in today’s capitalistic society.”
In the past, post-war Taiwan gradually climbed out of poverty through manufacturing, then processing, then technology industries. The Taiwanese sparked economic miracles with nothing but the shirts on their backs but once they acquired wealth, problems unrelated to the economy began to appear. “For a long while, the Taiwanese championed the economy and only looked at results. When the national income exceeded US$20,000, we discovered that we had enough in life, but our spirits had become very empty.”
In the words of Simon Wang, our spirits have “caught a cold.” “Competitive ability is an economic problem, but we have to discuss spirit, as our competitive spirit, is very fragile due to the inability to find a path for ourselves.” That is why some have involved themselves in seal carving, weaving, tea ceremonies. Through purchasing or hand-making items, people search for the medicine to treat their spiritual cold; using vocabulary common in recent years, these acts have a healing nature and these things heal us”.
Simon Wang explains that people today, are easily angered owing to excessive mental stress. The source of this stress is money because Taiwanese want to make money but also realize that money is not the end of it. When a school established a woodworking classroom, applicants were mostly middle class or company managers who used woodworking to offset pressure from work. In addition to creating value, traditional crafts and techniques are also gradually becoming therapeutic labor.
People today, are returning to their roots, but experienced masters probably do not know whether to laugh or to cry, with the knowledge that the reemergence of traditional crafts is due to work pressure in society.
However, Simon Wang believes that healing may only be the first step and that, if crafting can be integrated into our lives, this may open up the possibility of continuation and heritage. “Integration is becoming a part of life, just as in Japan where tea ceremonies elevate the techniques and crafts into life, then further into art.” Only when a change occurs internally, making it not just an independent skill, but a part of everyday life, can it truly transform lives.