A Family Affair : Part One

My trip to Tangshan was preceded by much anticipation.  I had been connected to Tianxiang, the son of a Hebei province cutting master, through Simon in Hong Kong.  I sent him an email in my first couple of weeks on the mainland and since then we’ve been talking regularly over the phone, email and even in person to plan the trip.  Tianxiang’s enthusiasm at my interest was both encouraging and disarming.  This trip could go very well or go very wrong.

The bus trip to Tangshan was adventure enough; complete with a bus station that’s actually two men under umbrellas in a back alley near the Beijing train station, to being dropped at another random Beijing parking lot to wait an hour for the ‘real’ bus to come.   If I hadn’t been traveling in China for a while now, I’d take this as a bad omen.  Instead, I took it as a reminder to just let it happen.

When I arrived in Tangshan, Tianxiang was waiting for me.  Within an hour we had ridden the city bus to ‘check in’ at a boarding room in the city and then onto a long bus ride back out of the city to his house.   We chatted as we had before, with broken Chinese and English and with the ease of old friends.

The bus dumped us in the middle of nowhere.  China nowhere.  We stood in the middle of a quarter mile stretch of mini shops diverse enough to fulfill the needs of single town.  As he led me towards his house, the shops became scattered and the street became noticeably quieter.  A left turn onto a dirt road and din faded completely.  In a few minutes we were out in it.  One level brick houses, small kitchen gardens in every possible planting surface, self made garbage dumps, mangy dogs, squatting clusters of friends taking a break, and that sound the breeze makes as it makes its way through nature.

As we stepped through the front door of the simple brick wall of their courtyard, I was greeted first by his mother and then by his father.

Once the warm handshakes and awkward laughter was exchanged, I had a chance to look around.  Tools for any kind of project, material odds and ends, small garden patches, a water pump, sharpening stones, etc lay waiting in every corner of the courtyard.  It was going to be a busy week.

My first night was spent simply getting my first look at Tangshan cutting style.  Tianxiang’s earnestness manifested itself into thorough teaching, meticulous planning and a full learning experience from beginning to end.

Day One

I returned to the countryside early the next morning.  Already, Papa Lu was busy at work, creating the frame for my new wax board out of old scraps of wood.  Left; waxboard, middle; scraping tool, right; mixing wax with ash for color and texture.

Mama Xu was busy painting the cut pieces of cowhide inside.

The day proceeded slowly and with purpose.  We would work, patiently, and then stop for a slice of watermelon in the intense summer heat or to talk with the neighbors who rotated in and out throughout the day.

By midday, we had finished the wax board, set up a soaked cowhide on frame, and sharpened the scraping tools.  After a hearty lunch we set ourselves back upon the hide.  Scraping, turning, wetting, scraping some more, wetting and scraping even more.  My novice hands were blistered by the second turn.

Soaking the hide

Stringing the hide (this one still had hair on it)

Scraping the hide

Learning to scrape, pre-blisters

By 6 pm, we broke for dinner preparation.  Always a spread of simple vegetables, small portions of meat and a large helping of rice, noodles or corn soup.

It was lovely to sit with a family for dinner.  Looking around at their similar faces and hearing their familiar patterns of communication, I realized that I hadn’t been in a real family setting for over 4 months.  My family is back in Minnesota, and while we stay connected through skype, google voice, postcards and email, there’s nothing quite like sitting down to a family meal.

I breathed a secret sigh of relief and another one of gratitude.  Doing field work, you’re never sure where you’re going to end up.  You prepare, research and hope and then you let it happen.  Some experiences are more fruitful then others, some not at all and then there are these.  Everything you needed to learn and much more.

Thanks for reading~

Click here for Part 2 of this story

2 responses to “A Family Affair : Part One

  1. Steve Budas

    Just out of curiosity, is there a particular substance or liquid that the hides are soaked in, prior to the scraping off of the hair? I can’t wait to see/hear all you have to share on your return.

  2. yes ,just used water to soaked in . Annie done very well.

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