A Dying Craft
|When we first met Gul, we told her that we
were not so interested in visiting “important” site like tombs
and mosques (lest we bore the kids - and truth to tell, us grown-ups too!),
but wanted instead to meet traditional craftspeople and learn about their
skills. We definitely had the right guide. Gul is one of the few people
her age in Khotan to speak excellent Chinese and English besides her native
Uighur, and she seemed to know practically everyone around the city. She
knew just where to go to help us learn about arts and crafts that are dying
out as the practitioners age, as young people find more lucrative and less
strenuous employment, and as markets for traditional products dry up. Case
in point: the paper-maker.
Tom has always appreciated and enjoyed buying hand-made paper, so he was especially excited as we wound down a dusty lane, following Gul to the home of an elderly farmer. He is the fourth generation of his family to make paper, one sheet at a time, out of pounded, boiled mulberry bark.
He faces a number of problems. On the supply side, the provincial government has ordered mulberry trees to be cut down and replaced with walnut trees. Walnuts are a high-value cash crop that can be stored indefinitely and released for sale when prices are high. So his bark supply has been drastically cut.
On the demand side, the only real market for his paper is foreigners, and they are thin on the ground in Khotan. And you may have noticed that here’s no tab on Amazon.com for “artisanal paper.” His sons, whom we met, are full-time farmers, and have never learned the craft. As we watched him make a single sheet of paper - Gul had called him the day before, so he had prepared just enough of his precious mulberry bark to give us a demonstration – we realized he would not be making many more in his lifetime.
Settling the bark slurry onto a screen to dry took him less than a minute, and then he pulled out a stack of the thick, gray, highly-textured paper to show us the finished product.
When we bid the paper-maker goodbye and closed the wooden gate behind us, we felt like we were stepping from one century headlong into another.
Next up: a musical encounter!