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Tradition Mission

Alive with color

Updated: 2013-02-16
By (chinadaily.com.cn)
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The rich detail on China's ancient architecture is becoming a lost art.

It's easy to find colorful painting on the beams, pillars, lintels and ceilings of ancient Chinese architecture, especially in imperial palaces. The life of Wang Zhongjie, a 79-year-old Beijing native, is intertwined with these rich strokes of gold, blue and red.

He is the master craftsman among his sketching pencils and vivid paints.

Sitting in his small bedroom with a century-old bed, a bookcase full of materials on painting and a shabby desk, the gray-haired senior spends his days repeatedly drawing various patterns for his art. It's been his life for years, even now when he struggles with an atrophic kidney. Unlike young people, who have grown accustomed to doing artwork on the computer, Wang continues to create every pattern by hand on paper.

Wang calls himself a surgeon of color painting. In his friends' words, he takes the work so seriously that he makes it into a science - painting with detailed statistics based on his fieldwork.

From craftsman to designer to appraiser, Wang has devoted more than 60 years to repairing color painting on Chinese ancient architecture.

After primary school, poverty forced Wang to give up his studies. He became a craftsman, drawing and repairing color paintings at the age of 13, using skills that had been passed down from his grandfather to his father and then to him.

In 1956, the Institute of China Antique and Culture Heritage recruited Wang to take up research work on color painting across China.

To copy the color paintings of Yongle Palace in Shanxi province, a Taoist temple, Wang spent seven summers there. Later he stayed for four summers in Suzhou and nearby cities well-known for their ancient gardens in Jiangsu province.

Wang joined the Palace Museum staff in the 1970s and began to study the designs and patterns on the imperial palaces.

Ancient Chinese artists used color paintings to decorate and protect the timber framework. It also represented the social status of royal families: Only the emperors were allowed to use dragon images and the empresses to use phoenix images. Ordinary people, including merchants and the wealthy, couldn't have such paintings on their buildings.

Though an expert, Wang’s passion for fieldwork and research remains.

When Wanshou Temple in Beijing was under renovation in the 1990s, a craftsman called him for his help one night to determine the accurate pattern on a beam. Wang told him to prepare a torch and a ladder, and he immediately proceeded to the site.

It took him about ten minutes to determine the pattern and guide the craftsman. But by the time he got back home, it was early morning, as the temple was located in a distant suburb.

Last year, Wang went to an academic conference at Wudang Mountain in Hubei province. To observe the artwork on a mountaintop temple, the then 79-year-old Wang climbed to the hillcrest, about 300 meters beyond where the cable cars stopped.

Every year, Wang goes to different cities across the country to help repair decorations on ancient buildings and temples. He loves it and is willing to share his knowledge, but he worries about how he will pass his skills to future generations.

Video: Yu Chenkang

Voiceover: Chris Clark

Producer: Flora Yue

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