Words by: Rick Charette
Photos by: Yi-choon Tang
The annual Baosheng Cultural Festival (保生文化祭) is one of Taipei’s major traditional festivals. It is centered on the large and magisterially ornate Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮), one of Taiwan’s great places of religious worship, the only temple in Taiwan to have received a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
With this year’s event scheduled from April 15, various traditional ceremonies are highly anticipated. One of the visually spectacular events during the two-month celebration is the hour-long fang huoshi (放火獅), or in English the Fire Lion Fireworks Display, held at night in the temple-front plaza before wide- eyed crowds.
This is an impressive display of beehive fireworks power and the beauty of traditional papier-mâché. Tens of thousands of beehive mini-rockets are set off, blasting forward and setting the night sky alight in an explosion of colors. The big, ebulliently colorful, intricately sculpted and decorated papier-mâché fire lion, huge as a hippo, is set alight. The fire and explosions are believed to frighten away nasty beings from the netherworld, thus warding off disease and other evildoings, protecting the community.
Our focus is not the fireworks spectacle, however, but the aesthetics and craftsmanship of the fire lion artwork and traditional Chinese papier-mâché art in general. The brilliant master papier-mâché craftsman behind the Baoan Temple event is Lee Ching-rong (李清榮). Among his many laurels is the bestowal of a Taipei Master of Traditional Arts Award (台北市傳統藝術藝師獎) from the city government last year. TAIPEI recently visited Master Lee at his studio off Wenchang Street (文昌街) to learn more about Chinese papier- mâché in general, his own background, his paper lion work, and the practicalities of creating papier-mâché art works.
THE STORY OF CHINESE PAPIER- MÂCHÉ – HUZHI AND ZHIZA
Both huzhi (糊紙) and zhiza (紙紮) are Chinese terms to describe papier-mâché. The first is literally “paste paper,” and refers to papier-mâché arts in general. “Zhiza is more specific,” says Lee, “meaning ‘paper offerings.’ In truth, however, most Chinese people associate huzhi with zhiza.” — meaning the paper artworks burnt as offerings to the gods or ancestors.
“My understanding is that zhiza dates back to the Ming Dynasty (明朝, 1368 A.D. – 1644 A.D.),” he states. “History books I have read show the art form is depicted for the first time in woodblock prints from that period.” It seems that papier-mâché in the general sense goes back much further, however, to the Han Dynasty (漢朝), around 200 A.D., about a century after the Chinese invented paper, making such papier-mâché items as mirror cases, snuff boxes, ceremonial masks, and even warrior helmets.
OLD AND MODERN PERCEPTIONS ABOUT THE ART
“Through the centuries, zhiza have most commonly been used as offerings to ancestors or to the gods, usually at temples. In the former case, whatever is burnt, such as, today, a miniature mansion or expensive car, is ‘sent’ to the next world for their comfort or enjoyment. Artworks sent to the gods are generally to honor them,” Lee explains.
Their use in funerary rites and ancestor worship long meant the association of traditional papier-mâché arts with taboos and fear. “I was born in rural Baihe Township (白河鎮) in today’s Tainan City (台南市), from the third generation of a family of zhiza masters. In school, I didn’t dare tell my classmates what we did at home, just saying we had a ‘small business.’ Thankfully, attitudes have started to change since the 1990s, with the rise of the ‘native soil’ (鄉土) movement, when Taiwan’s people began to embrace and celebrate our own unique cultural heritage. Today most people appreciate zhiza for the artistry, craftsmanship, and role it has played in Taiwan’s history.”
TODAY’S CHANGING ZHIZA — LEE’S ROLE IN CREATING “NEW TRADITIONS”
“You could say that, when studying as a disciple under my father and many masters, I was not the best student,” Lee says. “Emphasis had always been on duplicating exactly what masters of the past had done, but I’ve always thought that since society constantly changes, why can’t an art form see innovation and ‘modernize’ as well, while still respecting tradition? I hope that through my many years of innovative works, people can better understand and appreciate the depth and beauty behind both traditional folk culture and this proud craft.”
Lee also hopes that the ever-increasing sophistication of his works will attract people of different religious beliefs to appreciate the aesthetics of traditional papier-mâché craftsmanship. He is known for the dynamic three-dimensionality of his works. “Traditionally, works were highly two-dimensional.
I studied fine arts in my formal post-secondary schooling, and have sought to develop a style emphasizing three-dimensionality, dynamic movement, and modern aesthetics. I’ve spent a great deal of time studying the work of the best local masters around Taiwan, studied Western sculpting techniques, and closely studied video game art.” His studies have also brought him to expand the range of his subjects outside the strictly religious realm — he’s even done cartoon characters.
“By innovating and modernizing, my hope is that new blood is attracted. Today, young people are stepping forward, but they will not commit to the full traditional apprenticeship, which takes about three years and four months. This is the time needed to acquire the technique skills, but just as important, to acquire a deep understanding of related cultural and religious connotations,” Lee says.
Nowadays, new talent generally comes from formal art studies programs, and individuals study (Chinese papier-mâché) on their own, but won’t become formal apprentices. “I will help them with any questions they have. Nonetheless, what happens is that even if they acquire the mechanical skills, they suffer in terms of cultural/religious understanding, which shows in their artworks,” he adds.
WHERE TO SEE ZHIZA AND MASTER LEE’S WORKS
Taiwan is a place that loves the modern cutting-edge, says Lee, but his business and those of many fellow masters continue to thrive. Zhiza works are still in great demand in local society. The three key markets are temple events, funerary and ancestor-worship rites, and offerings by businesses beseeching blessings from the gods for commercial prosperity, such as for new business launches or on key religious dates, are commonly held in public outside a firm’s premises. “In recent decades, orders from businesses have faded, however, because of tightening eco- protection restrictions on publicly burning materials,” says Lee.
Moreover, Lee has been providing fire lions to Baoan Temple for over ten years now, starting after its original fire lion master passed away. “In the beginning they provided much input, but they trust me completely now, so each design is fully my own. Their only stipulation is that its primary color is gold, which represents wealth and prosperity.”
Lee also works annually with Bangka Qingshan Temple (艋舺青山宮) for the Qingshan King Rituals(青山王祭典), which together with the Baoan Temple celebrations are two of Taipei’s “Big Three” annual folk festivals. In addition, he says, the Taipei City Government will soon be putting his work on long- term public display at the Bopiliao Historic Block, a popular heritage-site attraction in Wanhua District.
A LOOK AT MASTER LEE’S PAPIER-MÂCHÉ CREATIVE PROCESS
During TAIPEI’s visit, Master Lee uses a fire lion work- in-progress and an almost human-sized effigy of the earth god Tudi Gong (土地公) to demonstrate papier- mâché technique. Fire lions generally involve the most work, and take about 15 days to complete. First, a bamboo framework is created, and in northern Taiwan Makino Bamboo is often used. Rigid bamboo sections are used for such things as straight-line support pillars; more elastic sections are for curving items such as roof ridges and arms. Lee uses steel wire for arms, etc. instead, considering its greater pliability. “It helps me better capture fluidity and posture dynamism,” he explains.
The next stage of shaping involves the forming of newspapers over the framework, glued in place. After this, papier-mâché paste is applied in final forming in places to be left exposed, such as the head, paws, and other body parts for the fire lion. In some instances, intricate works like heads are sculpted separately and then fitted to the framework, which Lee demonstrates for Tudi Gong effigy.
Finally, the many different final touches. Traditional paper-cut art is used for such things as Tudi Gong’s intricate headdress, built in layers. In the past, papier- mâché paste was even used for such elements as deities’ robes, then painted, but the innovative Lee uses materials such as canvas, again to better capture fluidity and a sense of movement. He also freely uses different materials, for example wood, metal, and plastic, both in the shaping and in final exterior adornment, if he finds they produce a better aesthetic effect.
A MASTER’S GREATEST DIFFICULTY
Lee says that “deities and animals — dragons, lions, horses, etc., which all have auspicious symbolism — are the most difficult to do, because you must exactly capture and convey their inner character (the aforementioned cultural/religious connotations) through the visage, posture, and movement. For the gods, the flowing nobility of the pleated robes and delicacy of such things as hems and cuffs is something only the finest masters can master.” By no coincidence, deities and animals are the two types of artwork he is best known for.
“My goal is to create works of such exquisite detail and beauty that the buyers cannot bear to burn them,” says Lee. This has in fact happened more than once, with temples deciding to enshrine his papier- mâché deities on their altar tables. “However, I shouldn’t hope for too much success this way,” he laughs, “because if people don’t come back every year with new business — I’m out of business!”