Basketmaking in China: artistic, decorative, practical, NANCY KUHL
Outside of Shanghai, in the Xue Hang Grass Basketry Factory, 15 women labor in a small, poorly lit room with a cold cement floor. They are designing basket prototypes, and they work long hours to produce the beautifully designed grass containers.
Chinese baskets are produced in stages. First a group of more experienced workers, such as the 15 women at Xue Hang, design prototypes or samples for new baskets. These are then reproduced over and over again in the factories, sold to basketmaking families in the local geographical area to reproduce for export, or displayed for order-taking purposes.
The finished baskets are then assembled and exported.
To be a designer at Sheng Xian Bamboo Weaving Factory, one of the most famous factories in China, an individual must apprentice for three years, then practice in the prototype workshop area for four years. From there the worker is trained in basket design for three to six months at the Central Art School in Peking.
The designers of baskets at this factory hold a higher status than the other factory workers, mostly because of their age - the Chinese respect longevity and these men are older than the rest of the workers. These particular designers are called ''masters'' because they have been making baskets since before liberation in 1950 and know the total basketmaking process.
Three principles of Chinese basketmaking are regarded as important: (1) artistic, meaning that good design qualities should be exhibited; (2) decorative , meaning that beauty should be a concern; and (3) practical, meaning that purpose and function must also be considered.
There are also three basic basket techniques used all over the world: twining , coiling, and plaiting or weaving.
Most of the present-day Chinese basketmakers use twining and a variety of plaiting techniques. Animals are often featured as subject matter. Carved wooden shapes serve as molds so the form can be maintained and technicians can weave around these forms, adding carved legs, beaks, or traditional handles. Animal baskets display an uncanny resemblance to the particular animal's character by capturing the natural expression of its movements with a whimsical flair.
Everyone works together to design and to develop an idea. No one individual produces a basket from start to finish in the factories, but rather various individuals work in an assembly-line manner to jointly make a basket.
Women generally do the weaving process, while men do the preparation work of the raw bamboo or grass materials, and other individuals prepare the baskets for finishing and shipping.
In many countries the artist is prized as a unique person who develops new concepts and ideas to display individual style. In China, the ''artist'' represents the state. The quality of his or her work reflects on the country, not on the individual - and so it is with Chinese basketry.