Today let’s talk about Diancui. I know I haven’t updated this blog for a very long time. Personally, I had been dealing with stuff that caused by Covid-19, just like all of you guys in the world. This pandemic somehow gives us a little space and time to think about life, and I took it to rethink about my blog. As a Chinese who was born and raised in Mainland China (now I live in Hong Kong), there are many things about my country I am proud of. The ancient Chinese art and craft is definitely the first one on my list. So, I wondered if I could use this blog to be a channel where connect Chinese traditional art with the rest of the world.
Speaking of ancient Chinese art and craft, there is quite a long history behind it, and there are many of those we called “the lost aesthetic,” which means very few people have the skills, even in China. What a pity.
To introduce those “Chinese lost aesthetic,” I will start with one of the most popular Chinese jewelry craft, Diancui (點翠/点翠).
What is Diancui?
Diancui is a traditional Chinese gold-and-silver jewelry making craft formerly from the Han Dynasty (2000 years ago). It is an auxiliary type of work in jewelry making and plays a role in embellishing and beautifying gold and silver jewelry.
Diancui is a perfect combination of traditional Chinese metal craftsmanship and feather craftsmanship. First, gold or gilt metal is used to inlay different patterns on the base, and then the blue feathers from kingfishers are carefully placed on the seat to make it.
The development of Diancui craftsmanship reached its peak during the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong periods of the Qing Dynasty.
A Brief History of Diancui
As mentioned above, the craft of Diancui was initially from the Han Dynasty, and it has more than 2000 years of history. However, it was not common to see until the Qing Dynasty. It was found that the royal family was using Diancui quite a lot for their jewelry, such as Dian(钿), phoenix hairpin （凤簪）, head flower （头花）, cap flower （帽花）, phoenix crown （凤冠）, stepping （步摇）, tin flower （钿花）, earrings, butterfly hairpin（蝴蝶钗） and so on.
One thing that needs to be aware of is that Diancui jewelry is very deliciated. Because of being made by feathers, the completed and perfect old Diancui jewelry is very rare to find. Also, they need to be very carefully treated. Remember to be gentle when you touch them and put them back to the jewelry box to keep them from damage.
However, even Diancui looks gorgeous, it is cruel to the poor little birds, kingfishers. Nowadays, kingfishers are endangered animals, plus this craft skill is losing, it is tough to find right Diancui jewelry anymore, even inside of China.
Due to the popularity of Chinese Costume TV shows recently, such as Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, Story of Yanxi Palace, more and more modern Chinese people are starting to learn and fascinated by this most beautiful art. Diancui is backing to the contemporary world.
The Modern Diancui Artist, Maybe Now the Only One, Shuqiao Zuo
In ancient China, many bits of knowledge are passed down by family heritage, like medicals, astrology, and craftsmanship. Shuqiao Zuo, a young Chinese guy, who is the only person who can make a whole phoenix crown by using traditional Diancui craft.
His journey was not an accident. Shujiao has been a big fan of Chinese operas since he was a kid. Then his passion for operas led him to other traditional Chinese art and crafts. He took a few years until he finally got fascinated and crazy about Diancui.
In 2014, a miniature landscape of the Summer Palace, which made by flower-inlay craft by Changyi Li, was auctioned for 37.4 million dollars. This news caught Shujiao’s eyes. He immediately decided to learn from Master Li. During years of learning and practicing, Zuo is always dedicated and self-commitment to this lost art. In at least ten years, Zuo has failed millions of times just for testing and making the perfect glue that can be used on Diancui jewelry. Because many crafts and skills involved in the process had been lost for years, Zuo and Li reappeared from some of Li’s memories and trial and error.
Even with the skill, another problem also holds Diancui artisans from moving forward – the feathers. Kingfishers are endangered animals, and many people have realized how cruel it is to make jewelry by hurting this beautiful species. Zuo found it is difficult to get their feathers nowadays. The only way is to buy from those old craftsmen who used to make Diancui in Beijing, but the amount is minimal. Plus, all the feathers cannot be reused, so, Zuo has to use new ones to start over once he made a simple mistake during the crafting process, which also limited productivity.
It is sad to see Diancui, this beautiful art, to disappear in human history., but there is something we could think deeply. The most important thing is both of the rare craftsmen who have the knowledge and skills, and also the materials itself – kingfisher’s feather. If we could solve one problem, would we be able to solve another? Like, if it is possible to find the alternatives of those rare feathers? (Well, people had tried to use feathers from peacocks, but the durability of the jewelry is much lower.) If we could find alternatives that are durable, humanize, and recyclable, Diancui can be massively promoted, which generates customer demands. Then, the markets stimulate productivity, which also lures more people to learn and make Diancui.
Last month I found a jewelry shop selling some pieces of Diancui earrings. The prices were between 2,000-4,000 HKD ($250-500). It was the only place where I could found Diancui in my real life. I will share some links where you can buy them online, but nothing so far.