Manufacturing Art: China's Cloisonné Factory

Just a few of Beijing's  several million bikes.

Using an eyedropper, the intricate compartments are filled with beautifully colored enamel paste.


It had been a long day of sightseeing just outside Beijing. We'd climbed the Great Wall, fed the bears at the Badalin Bear Park and visited one of the Ming Tombs. Now we were coming back to our hotel in rush hour traffic, the streets clogged not only with automobiles, antiquated trucks and pedestrians, but horse-drawn wagons, tractors, and what seemed like every bicycle on the face of the earth. The estimated number of bicycles in Beijing ranges from three to seven million. Pedal power hauls everything from vegetables to furniture. Our taxi driver practiced Beijing's universal rule of driving: honk--at everything, moving or otherwise. Now our private guide insisted we stop at the Art Factory.

The prospect of "manufactured art" didn't sound appealing to the four of us, but it seemed easier to take a quick look around than to fight the problem in our limited Mandarin. From our perspective of 20th century technology, we had all forgotten that the word manufacture comes from the Latin words manu meaning hand, and factura meaning to make, thus to make by hand. What awaited us was as fascinating in its beauty and craftsmanship, as it was eye-opening to the working conditions of those in a developing nation. This art factory was a workshop for producing cloisonné, the brightly colored enameled vases, jewelry and other pieces.

The first thing to hit us as we entered was the caustic smell.  The fumes, I think from the enamel paste,  almost overwhelmed us but seemed to go unnoticed by the workers. Each worker sat on a small, hard stool with no back support. Hunched over,  concentration etched on their faces, they crafted the meticulous details of the piece with tweeters, eye droppers, picks and other tools.

Every artisan in this workshop was working on large vases. Ranging up to about four and a half or five feet, some of the vases were almost as tall as the petit women who manipulated them, pivoting them on their bases as them moved them through the workshop.

Cloisonné was first known in Mycenae, a city in ancient Greece in the 13th century BC. It was further developed by the Byzantines in the 10th through the 12th centuries AD. Cloisonné finally reached China

during the Yüan dynasty in the beginning of the 14th century, probably by Arab merchants or perhaps from the Mongolian court in Karakorum, where a French silversmith was employed during the 14th century. Cloisonné was widely produced in China in the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties.

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