After teaching himself how to craft traditional lion, dragon and Qilin props, Wan Gongxue has spent 20 years creating beautiful masterpieces celebrated and used globally. Speaking to him at his Dalang shop revealed more.
Wan Gongxue is a craftsman in Dongguan, skilled in making props for lion, dragon and Qilin (Chinese unicorn) dance. On Jinlang Road, Dalang Town, there is a small shop named “Changhua Lion Drum Craftwork Shop,” covering around ten square meters. Inside of it lies plenty of lion’s heads, doll masks, gongs and drums, lantern flags and many other handicrafts. Although the shop is small, it produces and sells thousands of props every year. It is renowned in Dongguan.
Wan Gongxue is originally from Henan Province, and has well-rounded skills. His craftwork, Hakka Qilin, has even been nominated into the Shanhua Prize, the award for craftwork of China which has been running yearly since 2016, issued by the China Folk Literature and Art Association. Just 70 craftworks from across China have been nominated for the 3rd Shanhua Prize. Impressively, Wan’s craftwork is even exported to Singapore, U.S., Malaysia and England, known as the famous “Changhua lion drum craft line.”
Since 1997, 38-year-old Wan was first an apprentice in a factory for making lion props in Foshan city. He essentially taught himself how to make props as he had no specific teacher. Later he discovered Dongguan’s long history of lion and dragon dance. So, he moved to Dalang in 2001 and settled in the city. For the first three years, without a reputation, he endured a hard life. In 2006, word-of-mouth began to spread about his skills.
Business is stable, but our challenge is that less and less young people are willing to learn this skill; it’s a slow progress but hard living, that’s what they say about this profession.
Out of interest in the dragon and lion dance culture, Wan developed a passion for making props for this culture. He has dedicated his time and efforts in this field for over twenty years and despite the fact that this job only gives him a simple and common life, he feels satisfied by what he does. Crafting one lion head can take one week on average and is sold for around several thousand RMB. This skill is no moneymaking gimmick.
Endearingly, Wan commented, “Since 17, I have got into this business and have never changed my mind about it.”
Talking more about the process of creating, Wan revealed, “The first step for making the lion and dragon is to make a frame. The frame of those are normally made from bamboo. It is very important to make the frame stable and tight. The second step is wrapping with paper and the paper must be hard and resistant to outside forces. The third step is painting. This part can be very creative, but there are also some traditional patterns. Besides this we can cater to the client’s taste.”
In 2016, Wan Gongxue was awarded the Shanhua Prize, issued by China Folk Literature and Art Association, for his work “Hakka Qilin.” According to Wan, this unicorn head combined modern and ancient cultures. On the exterior of the award-winning props, you can see stunning design elements such as the Phoenix, ancient coins, lotus flowers, auspicious clouds, Taiji Eight Trigrams and other traditional patterns, symbolizing the beautiful meaning of happiness, health and wealth. With a vivid look, they are ingeniously inlaid on the head of the unicorn.
“At the start, my craftwork had limited orders. After having stayed in this field for over twenty years, we have solid relations with our clients. Business is stable, but our challenge is that less and less young people are willing to learn this skill; it’s a slow progress but hard living, that’s what they say about this profession.”
During President Xi Jinping’s tour in England in 2015, he was visiting a traditional Chinese gift shop in London. He came across plenty of lion head props accompanied by some Chinese expatriates. Admirably, those lion head props happened to be made by Wan himself. Similarly, in Malaysia, during the first world Hakka Qilin dance competition in 2017, 80% of the Qilin props were also made by Wan.
When asked what advice he would give to anybody aspiring to craft or create in a similar way to himself, Wan responded, “First, persistence must come as this career requires you to stay in front of the props for the whole day. You can do some simple painting with your own creativity. You can discover the beautiful culture of lion and dragon dance. A talent for painting is necessary but not crucial.”