A Carver of Dixi Wooden Masks: Hu Kewei
    2012-05-22 11:04:09     CRIENGLISH.com         Web Editor: Zhangjin

47-year-old Hu Kewei, the manager of Daming Arts Company, talks about the history of mask carving while holding a Dixi drama mask that he made himself on Friday, May 11, 2012. He is the inheritor of mask-carving in Tunpu, southwest China's Guizhou province. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/Qin Mei]

by Qin Mei

Dixi is a folk drama which originated from Anshun city in southwest China's Guizhou Province. It is one of the oldest dramas in the world and its history dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). What makes the drama unique is that the performers do not paint their faces, but instead wear colorful masks carved of wood. Let's follow CRI reporters to find a renowned creator of these wooden masks who devotes himself to passing on the art, which is six centuries-old, in Tunpu, the hometown of Dixi drama.

Hu Kewei, born in 1965, is the manager of Daming Arts Company, located in the small village of Tunpu, where Dixi drama is an integral part of people's life. His ability in the art of Dixi wooden mask carving makes him an inheritor of the ancient art.กก

But when Hu was a child, he received little guidance from his father, a skillful mask carver who learned the art from his ancestors.

"In the very beginning, I didn't know how to do it so I practiced with something soft like sweet potatoe and gradually improved. Then I asked my father to teach me, but it wasn't until a long time after when I tried to figure out how to carve using spare materials that he was finally willing to teach me. Only after this did he realize that I truly wanted to learn. Later, when he thought I was good enough, he started to teach me some of the more important tricks; for example, at certain times you should carve deeply and quickly so that the forms appear more vivid."

Through years of hard practice, Hu gradually became a skilled craftsman. In the first years after the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, there weren't many opportunities for amusement in the countryside; therefore, people particularly enjoyed Dixi drama.

There are five basic types of character in Dixi dramas, but the variety of masks used for each type is almost endless. Each opera usually uses 40 to 100 different masks, and it takes a long time to make each of them.

"First, you need to select good wood and then dry it without exposing it to sunlight. After that, you make a rough preliminary model with the wood and then carve it into the final piece, and then you can paint it."

With the country's rapid development in early 90s, all kinds of entertainment cropped up in rural areas. Young people in Anshun City were not loyal followers of the traditional dramas and instead turned to other forms of modern amusement. Fortunately, people from further afield were still attracted by the wonderful masks of Dixi drama.

"In the early 1990s, Huangguoshu Waterfall became a tourist attraction. Since local tourism is a very good resource for business, we made some masks and sold them there. It turned out that many tourists from China as well as other countries were very interested. We saw a huge potential market. Gradually, more and more people started to carve the masks."

From that moment onwards, the number of people who knew about Dixi drama and its colorful decorative style increased thanks to the souvenirs being sold at many tourist spots across Guizhou province. This increased knowledge also brought with it limitless business opportunities for the local craftsmen.

Hu is one of them. He opened his own company here ten years ago. Now there are nearly 50 craftsmen working in his factory during the slack season for farming, but they are still unable to meet the large demand.

"This year, we received orders for masks from both within and outside Guizhou Province, since the art form is regarded as one of the "Three Treasures in Guizhou". But to date, we are still short of being able to supply the orders because every single mask is hand-made and the speed of individual craftsmen is no match for that of machines. So, lately we organized a craft training session for some graduates and local farmers. Many of them enjoy it."

What's more, Hu says, in recent years the government has held many events such as craftsman contests, which have inspired many young people to set their sights on getting involved in an art form that was previously on the verge of extinction.กก

Hu's son Hu Kuan, 22, is following in his father's footsteps; he is among the apprentices in the factory.

"I started to learn mask-carving from my father in 2003. I like it partly because of my family's influence and partly because of the beautiful colors used. In the future, I hope more people will know about this art form, like it, learn about it, and pass it on. "

Hu Kuan shares his father's hope. The elder Hu says he will spare no effort in leading the entire village in its journey to become the centre of Dixi mask-carving.

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